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Free the Soil with Depave

January 16, 2024

Convert a paved area into a thriving green space that provides habitat, reduces flooding, and improves water quality.

Pavement. It’s flat, it’s gray, it’s…. interesting? 

Hear us out! 

Pavement has much to do with urban and suburban water quality. Ground that has been covered with concrete, asphalt, or even buildings is categorized as an “impervious surface”.  This means when rain hits one of these surfaces, it is not absorbed into the ground.  The water accumulates as it travels to nearby creeks, streams, and rivers.

When water travels across impervious surfaces it picks up everything that has accumulated since the last rain. This includes oil and fluids from vehicles, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers from landscaping, grime, dirt, and litter. All of these will then end up in the waterways.  Impervious surfaces also contribute to flooding as the water volume increases and gains speed as it moves toward a waterway.

The Compact’s Depave program tackles the issue of polluted runoff by converting impervious surfaces into thriving, aesthetic green spaces that provide habitat, reduce flooding, and improve water quality.

Volunteers work together to remove pavement.

Paved Paradise

In America, the act of paving roads was popularized in the late 1800’s. Supply and distribution needs during the World Wars further propelled the proliferation of roads.  Currently, more than 43,000 square miles of U.S. land cover is devoted to pavement. 

Where there is an excess of pavement, there is frequently a need for more trees. Without shade, pavement can reach a temperature of 125 – 150 degrees Fahrenheit in the heat of the summer. Blistering pavement temperatures warm stormwater as it travels to urban creeks and streams.  When this warmed water enters the delicate ecosystems in waterways, it disturbs the fragile habitat that is home to sensitive aquatic species. 

Historically, marginalized communities have more paved spaces than higher-income neighborhoods. They are more likely to suffer from heat waves, air pollution, flooding, and health impacts as a result. The Compact prioritizes work in marginalized and low-income communities to help combat the effects of urban heat syndrome.

The Depave movement first originated in Portland, Oregon in 2008. Portland’s Depave project has had tremendous support from the city and volunteers and has removed over 200,000 square feet of impervious surface since its establishment. The initiative has been growing roots in other major cities such as Chicago and Cleveland. The Compact joined the movement in 2017 and has been working to grow the program in Nashville ever since. 

The concept is simple: Identify unused areas of paved ground and restore them with native plants that will absorb rainfall and filter contaminants. Trees, shrubs, and native perennials that are planted in a formerly paved area not only beautify the area but also have direct improvement on water quality. Native plants grow longer roots and break up the soil beneath, enabling more water to infiltrate. The more areas that are depaved and replaced with native vegetation, the healthier our waterways and aquatic habitats will be.

The root system of turf grass is tiny in comparison to the long roots of native prairie plants.

DePave: Free the Soil!

The first step in depaving an area is finding a site. Locations are recommended to us by community members and we work together to determine the removal plan as well as the landscaping that will fill the areas after the pavement is removed. Options include rain gardens, pocket prairies, or trees through the Root Nashville campaign.

The Compact’s first Depave project took place in 2017 at the Greater Nashville Unitarian Universalist Church with the support of The Frist Foundation. The Compact transformed a degrading, unused parking lot into a thriving playground for families to enjoy.

In 2020, we worked with the Friends of Shelby Park to depave and restore Cave Spring located on the west side of Shelby Bottoms Park. Concrete had diverted the spring for more than 100 years.  This depave project allowed the spring to return to a natural path which can now be seen flowing through the park.

Before: Concrete surrounded Cave Spring in Shelby Park which impeded the natural flow of the spring.
After: Once the concrete was removed, Cave Spring was able to return to it’s free-flowing state.

Most recently, the Compact depaved an abandoned lot adjacent to Browns Creek located near the Nashville Fairgrounds. This project removed an incredible 18,000 sq. ft. of unused parking lot with the help of 90 volunteers and the support of Nashville Metro Water Services. The non-porous material was replaced with native vegetation that directly reduced the runoff leading to Browns Creek.

Dedicated volunteers removed 147,000 lbs (almost 74 tons!) of asphalt and other impervious surfaces from a paved area adjacent to Browns Creek in South Nashville.

Can You Remove My Pavement?

Depaving an area of land is a rewarding way to have an impact on the water quality in your watershed.  Any site that is paved can be considered for a Depave project! Abandoned lots, parking lots, vacant lots, and more are all ideal candidates. The Compact offers free consultations for potential DePave sites. Once your pavement is removed, a variety of options are available for your site including tree plantings, rain gardens, or pocket prairies. 

Once a site qualifies we will start planning for the big Depave day. Each site is different and will require the careful planning of a trained Compact Staff member. Some projects can be tackled by a group of energetic volunteers, others need heavy equipment and contractors to complete.  The Compact will build a plan that is the best fit for your pavement removal and organize all logistics to make it happen. Once complete, a formerly paved and degraded area is now a healthy habitat that will help filter rainwater.

Start Your Depave Project

If you know a site that needs depaving and greening, please fill out a Depave proposal form from our website Depave – Cumberland River Compact.


Author Bio:

Natalie Stone is the Urban Waters Program Manager at the Cumberland River Compact. She is the lead of the Conservation Landscape Programs like Rain Gardens and Pocket Prairies and is working to grow the Compact’s Depave Program. Natalie graduated from Virginia Tech with a B.S in Water: Resources, Policy, and Management and has working experience testing water quality in the field. She can be found kayaking, hiking, and exploring all the outdoor activities beautiful Tennessee has to offer in her spare time.