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Depaving the World

by Richard Register 

Maybe you're itching to take a wide, full swing to drive the shiny steel of a nice heavy pick deep under the asphalt. You too can leverage up a satisfying big slab of that black, gooey hard stuff. I love destroying asphalt and maybe you'd like to join the party. Here's a "how to."

Alas it all begins with land ownership. It all ends with redesigning land uses and rebuilding most of what we've built to date, so destructive are today's cities and towns. It's useful to divide possible projects into three categories: small, medium and truly satisfying. The last one means BIG-which I haven't seen yet.

Just to give you a sense of proportion: since 1992 I've probably depaved one acre with my various friends. Meantime I guess between 100 and 200 acres of my town, Berkeley, Calif., have been paved for parking lots and freeway expansions, more cars and deeper gasoline addiction. This in a city whose master plan has said, since 1972, that it is already "built out." Well, always more room for more asphalt-and a few crazies like me who haven't learned to give up. Now on with the lesson.

Small Depaving Projects
You have to own some existing pavement, or find a sympathizer who does. Obviously there are millions of acres of it around, but surprisingly little is available for destruction. Or at least the owners don't often think it is.

They say the streets of heaven are paved with gold. Hell, with the sanctity people give to the streets of suburbia they might as well be paved with gold.

Some pavement, like the ubiquitous driveway, functions in a way that owners believe is essential to their life sustenance, security, image or sexual virility. But some can be convinced that two thin strips of concrete could work as well for off-street parking, or that a "turf block" that allows water to soak around the driveway car-supporting surface is okay. Often in residential areas the surface between the sidewalk and curb is paved, and usually there is no law requiring it to be. Here then are two places to begin. I have managed to talk six or seven owners into depaving in these small spaces and have depaved the sidewalk-to-curb space-the "planting strip"-of the house I once owned. In the case of the driveway, unless the owner is in a tightly controlled housing development or condominium association, the owner can just do it. In the case of the planter strip, in my town you should first call up USA-Underground Services Alert-or find a similar service in your area, to ascertain where the buried pipes and wires are located. The service is free here. They come out and spray colorful lines on your concrete telling you where gas, water and electricity lie beneath the surface. Do not dig there!

It used to be that you could then cut the concrete with a big, circular, rented mechanical saw and start to dig. But no, now you're supposed to go down to City Hall in Berkeley and get a permit for $50 and pay more for every foot you cut with a masonry saw.

This additional disincentive to depaving, which is added to the cost of renting a masonry saw, that may or may not be a law in your town, is imbecilic in a city like mine that claims to be environmentalist. I'd recommend ignoring it.

I've never been stopped and if I had been it would have been a good educational fight. If you are up to it, and willing to take the risk, it could be fun. Otherwise you can pay the money and waste the time so the bureaucrats can feel important.

Speaking of which, depaving isn't cheap. If you want a smooth edge, you can't just sledge hammer out the unwanted stuff up to a public street or sidewalk. Using a chisel to refine such an edge doesn't help much, unless you come up against an expansion joint or a crack that is actually an edge created originally by pouring a separate slab of concrete. Ragged edges are bad press and alienate people we need to communicate with about depaving. So rent a concrete saw from one of the thousands of construction-rental-equipment places around the world. The machine rental is modest-usually about $30 a day-but the circular blade encrusted with industrial diamonds gets worn down a few microns that they measure. A depaving project with about 80 feet of concrete cutting (a typical planter strip removal) costs about an additional $l20. If removing asphalt, a softer material than concrete, the blade wears out at about half that rate. Hence half that cost, plus of course the $30 per day and the idiot city permit fee, if you pay it.

Then, what to do with the old pavement? It adds up faster than you think. Three to four inches of concrete slab, in our town, figuring the above typical planter strip depaving, adds up to about $35 in dump fees.

An alternative is to turn the material, if concrete, into benches in your garden, by cutting the slabs into sections about eighteen inches by two to three feet.

Asphalt, by contrast, will fall apart over the ensuing months. Give up on it, just like you should give up on gasoline, as soon as possible.

This extra cutting so that you can use the concrete may actually be more expensive than taking it to a dump or transfer station, because of the added wear on the expensive diamond blade. Diamonds to cut those streets of gold! Are we living in suburban heaven or what? Old pavement taken to the transfer station is usually "recycled" as clean fill in some kind of larger construction site or highway building project. It's hard to be pure and do something good at the same time in this bizarrely mis-built world.

Once the lines are cut in the pavement, the fun begins! Sledge hammers, picks, crow bars, digging bars and shovels are the tools of choice. First, with your sledge hammer, smash down on a portion of the material to be removed fairly close to one of the cut lines or an edge of the slab as defined by its original construction.

After the material is pulverized, with cracks leading out from the center of the slab, dig out the crushed material with pick and shovel. Now you have a point to enter the surface with a crowbar. Put the tip of the bar under the slab you want to remove, while using the edge of the saw cut that you want to save (or a wooden block) as a fulcrum. Then press down hard on the outward-bound end of the crow bar.

The longer the crow bar or digging bar, the better. And the greater the distance from the fulcrum to your hands relative to the distance from the fulcrum to the concrete or asphalt, the more upward force you are able to exert on the material you want to remove, and the easier it pops up and away. Danger! Do not immediately throw all your weight into pressing down on the crow bar. Get used to it a little at a time. It may suddenly snap upward at the business end and it can crash down catching your fingers between the old pavement surface and the metal of the crow bar. You can actually break fingers this way.

By cracking with sledge hammers and prying with bars and picks you can now happily work across the area to be removed, allowing the earth to again breathe free.

Next, move the pavement out of there-by hand, wheelbarrow, car, pick-up truck or big truck. If you're making garden furniture of it, carry it or use a wheelbarrow. Otherwise it's gotta be just a little fossil fuels and driving to balance our society's paving karma.

Next, prepare the soil. The surface under pavement is generally highly compacted and needs a lot of digging with pick and shovel. Don't try a rototiller unless you know something I don't know-like explosives. Someone brought a rototiller to a depaving project once, and he just drove it around on its blades, bouncing off the compacted substrate like a bronco. The rental place would've killed him if they'd known.

Then you need to condition the soil, adding humus, perhaps soil amendments and fertilizer-I'd recommend organic of course-appropriate to whatever you want to plant. Dig it all in, then water. Next it's time to plant. Find typical instructions copiously available elsewhere. I'm partial to food plants, especially fruit trees, which are not on my city's list of acceptable street trees. I plant them anyway in planter strips, just spoiling for a chance to talk about ecology and growing food in the public realm. Once again, you decide what level of risk you want to take.

Medium-Sized Depaving Projects
The medium-sized project-such as actually removing a parking lot, part of one or part of a street, or getting rid of a driveway entirely-requires considerably more preparation and work. First you have to find a likely place, where use of such a surface is low, or where pressure for non-automotive uses is great.

In Berkeley, University Avenue (UA) Homes had an under-utilized parking lot. Only three of its 75 residents had cars and one didn't even run.

But that was a rare low-use situation. The city has a requirement to provide off-street parking for every unit of housing in most parts of town so the nonprofit owners of UA Homes had real difficulty persuading City Hall to allow us to depave about six places for a garden. The regulations said every square inch of the entire lot besides the building had to be paved for parking-not an inch for a garden, chair or barbecue. Because of the extreme situation, the city relented and we depaved those few parking places.

Ultimately, we need to change those city zoning ordinances. Meantime we crawl around under the legal rocks and pop up once in a while to get away with anything to make the place healthier. Some people might be entertained by this sort of thing, and its often the only way to get any depaving done. But I think it's the very definition of pathetic.

The medium-sized depaving project itself requires a lot of muscle power and more gasoline than I'd like to admit. Thus more importance in the idea of a paving moratorium. We've built an edifice that's destructive to remove, but it's so destructive in the first place that we need to remove it. Again, rectitude and purity escape us.

Call up all your friends. Have them bring sledge hammers, picks, digging bars, shovels, lunch-don't forget the gloves. And line up the trucks. It's a bit horrifying how many truck loads come out of a modest number of parking places.

At UA Homes, for depaving five or six parking places we took about four pick-up loads and two (donated) dump-truck loads (holding as much as four pick-up loads each) to take the material to the closest land fill. That's twelve pick-up loads. It was so many loads partially because compacted gravel was used under the asphalt, and we dug out about two inches of asphalt-contaminated soil-it smelled oily. With medium-sized projects, and even small ones, organizing big group efforts makes the job much easier and, by passing the hat, makes a high total price low per person. If you do pay your city fees, by the way, and have some time to converse with them over the months, you can sometimes get permission to dump for free.

As for soil contamination, I don't know much about it. Maybe an expert should be brought in if you are suspicious. At UA Homes, the soil didn't seem quite clean of oils but we were at the end of our rope-time, energy and money wise-while piles of manure and yummy soil amendments, seeds, plants and volunteers were waiting around for the gardening part of the project. So we plunged on into that. I suspect that a small residual of toxics is slowly disintegrating chemically while doing minor damage to some of the plants. Almost all of them look great, however. and I and others have eaten a lot from the garden and seem healthy enough. Here too, with limited resources, results are very good but perfection eludes us.

Depaving for the Ambitious
We've had one depaving project somewhere between medium and big in Berkeley recently. About 80 feet of 9th Street at the Berkeley-Albany border and a section of a parking lot-enough space for about ten cars-was removed.

Urban Creeks Council secured permission to restore one block of Codornices Creek from the land owners, a private company on the south side of the land in question, and from the University of California on the north. California State Department of Water Resources gave $25,000 to hire a landscape architect and bulldozer operator. (You might smell a rat; it takes a pretty well established and respected institution like Urban Creeks Council to line up such a project. Maybe you have such an environmental organization in your town...?)

The landscape architect designed a new small canyon for the creek to replace a stretch where it was underground at the time in a concrete pipe-the creek had been buried for about fifty years-and the heavy equipment operator, my friend Pete VanValkenburgh, cut a rough trench for the new canyon. Over the next two years on Saturdays, through my organization Ecocity Builders, over 320 volunteers took part in digging and wheeling dirt about so that the trench shaped up into a canyon that looks quite natural. To do that, the telephone was the most important tool, and letting prospective volunteers know by putting information into our newsletter.

Crews were seldom larger than a dozen, but it went on weekend after weekend. The old curbs and sidewalks were laid into the steeper slopes of the canyon and covered by grasses and wildflowers. Now they help prevent erosion when the creek rises in the rainy season. We are planting native trees and bushes, and a small orchard of 20 fruit trees is growing away on one of the new hills we created. All sorts of birds and insects are coming now, small fish and crawdads and frogs. For better or worse, egrets and herons are eating them now. The project will be completed soon.

The Big Picture
So now you know a little about hands-on depaving. But here's the big one: getting rid of suburbia and replacing it with pedestrian towns and villages and cities of much more modest "footprint" than today's sprawling behemoths.

As we have noticed in depaving projects to date, land ownership and consensus about land use, usually enshrined in laws and codes, are crucial. So is some notion of what we are doing and why it is important.

For "why," we have all the arguments seen quarterly in this magazine. But for "what" we must do, we need a little more clarity.

Richard Register IllustrationIn reorganizing the city, from its land use foundations on up, we have the solution for turning asphalt and concrete into gardens, creeks, playgrounds, nature corridors, restored forests, etc. In creating the more compact neighborhood, town and city centers, and real ecovillages, we also create the densities of human population to reestablish vital civic community and economy, practical and economical transit, the potential for a bicycle revolution, energy conservation that is otherwise inconceivable and many other things. Let's do it!

Start small, think big. Think it through, then swing that pick.

Richard Register wrote Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance, and is president of Ecocity Builders, 1678 Shattuck Ave, #66, CA 94709. For more information call Richard at 510-649-1817 or e-mail him at


Articles of interest:
Measuring and controlling the actions of governments 

Anti-globalization protest grows, with tangible results. 
WTO protests page

Tax fossil-fuel energy easily
by Peter Salonius 

UK leader calls War on Terror "bogus"

Argentina bleeds toward healing by Raul Riutor

The oil industry has plans for you: blow-back by Jan Lundberg

It's not a war for oil? by Adam Khan

How to create a pedestrian mall by Michelle Wallar

The Cuban bike revolution

How GM destroyed the U.S. rail system excerpts from the film "Taken for a Ride".

"Iraqi oil not enough for US: Last days of America?"

Depaving the world by Richard Register

Roadkill: Driving animals to their graves by Mark Matthew Braunstein

The Hydrogen fuel cell technofix: Spencer Abraham's hydrogen dream.


Ancient Forest Protection in Northern California. Forest defenders climb trees to save them.

Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

A case study in unsustainable development is the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.

Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)

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