Towering cranes, shiny new buildings, a bounty of restaurants and hip new hotels are daily reminders of Nashville’s “It City” status. Not as obvious, but equally impactful, are the miles of new asphalt and concrete needed for sidewalks, roads and parking to support this rapid growth.
“As we pave over more land, it stresses our rivers and streams,” says Mekayle Houghton, Executive Director of the Cumberland River Compact, the non-profit rolling out its newest project to turn older paved areas and parking lots into thriving gardens, playgrounds and green spaces.
The project is called Depave Nashville, and it works as a partnership with organizations that find they have too much asphalt or concrete and want to repurpose the land to more eco-friendly uses.
Traditional paving materials such as concrete and asphalt are impervious. They don’t allow water to be absorbed into the soil below. Instead, rainwater washes directly into storm drains, rivers and streams taking with it pesticides, motor oil, fertilizer, heavy metals, trash and more. New parking lots are subject to newer, more environmentally conscious regulations. Old lots remain in tact, with few and costly options available for repurposing. With Depave, the Cumberland River Compact offers Nashville a new approach to retro-fitting old lots.
The first Depave event took place in August at the Greater Nashville Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bellevue. Approximately 3,000 square feet of asphalt was cleared to make way for a green space and playground. The pilot project surfaced when the Congregation received an anonymous donation earmarked to pay for a recreation area. Unfortunately the donation did not include enough funds for both a playground and a safety surface.
Nathanael Reveal, project coordinator for Greater Nashville Unitarian Universalist Congregation, found a solution with Depave. “Removing the parking lot allows the water a chance to soak into the ground,” he says, and it provides the congregation with space for a new pervious surface playground.
Depave, which originated in Oregon, connected Nathanael with the Cumberland River Compact, and soon a community-led effort was born. “So much of what we do is bringing together partners,” says Mekayle. “This is a great partnership of somebody who has the space, volunteers from HCA and an organization that has technical expertise coming together for one common purpose.”
How it Works
Prior to volunteer arrival, the concrete or asphalt area to be removed is scored into squares by special equipment. Volunteers pry the squares loose, then haul them away. After the asphalt is removed, contaminants must be cleaned from the soil before the area can be planted.
For the Greater Nashville UU project, the area was pre-scored, and volunteers from the congregation, neighboring churches, HCA Healthcare and the Cumberland River Compact pried away the squares using bars and hauled them away in wheelbarrows.
“This work is very emblematic of what we saw in Nashville when we first moved here after the flood,” says Caren Spencer-Smith, a congregation member and HCA employee. “I was so very happy to find such a caring community.”
Volunteers are asked to bring themselves and a ready-to-work attitude. All ages are welcome, and no special training or gear is needed. The Cumberland River Compact provides music, food and activities for kids.
See how 3,000 square feet of asphalt was removed in a just a few hours:
The Benefits of Depaving
Urban green spaces, both large and small, are natural oases with a larger purpose. They reduce stormwater pollution, improve water quality, foster native habitats and help reduce heat for our city in the summer. As Nashville grows there is balance to be struck between development and maintaining a healthy watershed. Individuals and organizations working together to safeguard the Cumberland River and its tributaries, combined with effective planning, can “depave” the way towards a healthier environment, proving that a growing city and a flourishing aquatic ecosystem can coexist.
Ready to Depave?
“We’re looking for partners,” Mekayle says. “We’re open to volunteers, to partners of all sorts, whether they have the space that they want to depave, or they have the volunteers who they want to have come work with us on the project.”
Community groups interested in depaving a site should contact the Cumberland River Compact with their proposed vision. Volunteers can expect to get dirty and have fun. Learn more about Depave and the Cumberland River Compact at cumberlandrivercompact.org.
This article is sponsored by the Cumberland River Compact. Photography by Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography.