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The cities stripping out concrete for earth and plants

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Lifting up the paving slabs reveals the potential of the earth beneath (Credit: City of Leuven)

From Australia to Ontario, cities are taking up unnecessary stretches of concrete and asphalt, allowing nature to take hold in their place.

By Chris Baraniuk
23 February 2024


On a hot July day, Katherine Rose picked up a sturdy metal pole and jammed it under the tempting lip of a pre-cut concrete slab. Rose, communications and engagement director at Depave, a non-profit in Portland, Oregon, was sweating in the heat – but she was going to win this fight.

The grubby, rectangular section of urban crust in front of her was about to move. Pushing down on her metal bar, applying it like a lever, she eased the concrete covering up and away. Now sunlight could fall once again on the ground below. A mess of gravel and dirt that was, to Rose, just bursting with potential.

“It feels like you’re liberating soil,” she says, recalling the summer gathering where she and around 50 volunteers removed roughly 1,670 sq m (18,000 sq ft) of concrete from the grounds of a local church. “It’s envisioning and fully realising a dream that I think we all have,” says Rose. The dream, that is, of bringing nature back into our midst.

The idea of depaving, sometimes known as desealing, is a simple one – replace as much concrete, asphalt and other forms of hard landscaping as possible with plants and soil. It’s been around since at least 2008, when the Depave group in Portland was founded. Proponents say depaving allows water to soak into the ground, which reduces flooding in times of heavy rain – aiding the “sponginess” of cities. Native plants help wildlife cling on in urban spaces, and by planting trees you can increase shade, protecting residents from heatwaves. Injecting city streets with greenery may even improve people’s mental health, too.

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