To Make Cities More Livable, Get Rid of Pavement

Paved surfaces take up close to a third of space in U.S. cities, polluting waterways and contributing to the urban heat island effect.

July 14, 2021, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Asphalt

halfrain / Flickr

As planners reevaluate the impacts of urban freeways and work to undo the damage done to urban neighborhoods, writes Mary Pat McGuire, they should also consider "another harmful infrastructure" that has, in many cases, taken over much urban space: "the extraordinary amount of pavement in U.S. cities that has come to characterize urban life." 

Taking up 30% of city surfaces, pavement "pollutes waterways through rapid run-off, generates flooding in neighborhoods, and activates temperature rise through the urban heat island effect." As such, planners should look for ways to remove pavement in favor of healthier alternatives.

Approximately 93% of roads are paved with asphalt. Asphalt is a 19th-century technology which is impervious to stormwater, includes a crude oil binder, and releases harmful air pollutants and carcinogens. The human impact is felt through urban flooding, heat waves, and respiratory health problems. Notably, the distribution of that pavement is disproportionately felt by the absence of shade trees in low-income areas.

"Given that we have more streets and parking than truly needed, removal of this harmful infrastructure is a necessary part of urban adaptation and climate justice." But removing pavement requires a different approach than freeway removal, McGuire writes. "Somewhat different from a single highway coming out, depaving city streets and parking lots entails a more distributed, systemic approach." Successful examples include "initiatives like Depave in Portland and Space to Grow in Chicago," which "have worked with numerous schools in each respective city to transform asphalt playgrounds into gardens and stormwater surfaces, reconnecting people with land and with each other."

In spite of historic resistance to the removal of infrastructure, "the severe impact of highways and pavements on the health of land, water, and people are giving us a reason to adopt a new way of thinking, as did the height of the pandemic in the U.S. when streets were appropriated for cafes and neighborhood events. In depaving our cities, we can imagine how to make those social spaces permanent — and environmentally sustainable."

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