Skip to content

Put Up a Paradise

Originally appears in the Winter 2016 issue

On a sunny Saturday in May 2014, teachers, students, and community volunteers were out in full force at Rideau Heights Public School in Kingston, Ontario. Donning safety boots and gloves, volunteers pried up square slabs of asphalt from the school courtyard. When they were done, 96 square meters (115 square yards) of soil had been exposed, creating a space for an outdoor learning centre featuring a butterfly garden, native trees, perennials and a sensory garden filled with scented herbs.

Schoolyard greening has many social, physical and environmental benefits. It is no surprise that more and more schools want to turn hard-surfaced playgrounds into green oases that stimulate senses and inspire the imagination of their students. A school’s ability to renovate its playground is often limited by money, but with a little ingenuity, your school will be able to tear up old surfaces and plant new ones.

There are lots of reasons why you might want to transform an asphalt schoolyard: to give students increased access to nature, create a safer play space, create an outdoor classroom, and lower your school’s carbon footprint. Here’s another reason you may not have considered: to better manage rainwater on your school’s property for the good of the community and the natural environment.

The problem with pavement

Cities are covered in impervious surfaces such as driveways, parking lots and buildings. Traditionally, the majority of urban school yards have also been paved or have fields with soil packed hard by years of pounding feet. These hard surfaces create a number of problems, including the fact that they do not absorb rain. Instead, water washes quickly across impermeable surfaces, picking up contaminants raining into storm sewers then flowing directly into local waterbodies.

Impervious urban cover vs. natural ground cover. Impervious cover results in increased runoff, reduced evapotranspiration and infiltration (source: US EPA)

Large rain events often cause storm sewers to malfunction and overflow into nearby water bodies, with significant health and environmental impacts. Ineffective management of rain can also be a detriment to school grounds. Pooled water can seep through the foundations of school buildings and compromise their structural integrity. Additionally, when pools of water create icy surfaces in winter, they become a safety hazard.

The influence of climate change

In recent years extreme fluctuations in the amount of precipitation received at locations throughout the world have dramatically increased. Many areas experience long periods of drought followed by heavy rain events. The increase in flood events and climate change more generally have created an increased interest by granting agencies and municipalities to fund more green spaces to absorb rain and mitigate the impacts of extreme weather. This creates an opportunity for schools to obtain the financial resources they need to create naturalized schoolyards.

Green infrastructure (GI), also known as low impact development (LID) or water sensitive urban design (WSUD), is a new method of managing rainfall. It helps to manage rainfall by allowing rain to infiltrate, evaporate, or be reused, instead of piping it away as quickly as possible through traditional methods.  The new methods include rain gardens, permeable paving, green roofs, bioswales, and infiltration galleries.

Green all around

Globally, cities have aging water infrastructure and are being told to prepare for extreme precipitation and drought. Increasingly, governments are realizing the inadequacy of the traditional grey infrastructure for managing stormwater and are looking to green solutions. As a result, there is an increasing interest in projects that help to create climate resiliency in our communities, and your school can play an important role in this.

Grass-roots movements in both Canada and the United States are building on this awareness and are promoting the greening of communities as a way of creating naturalized spaces that mitigate stormwater runoff.  Schoolyards need to act more like a sponge and less like a parking lot.

Cities such as Philadelphia provide funds to transform asphalt schoolyards with green infrastructure. Local schools apply to the Philadelphia Water Department, which can pay for the entire cost.  In cities that don’t have these targeted resources, grassroots organizers from schools and local community groups are finding other ways to implement amazing schoolyard transformations.

Two initiatives, aptly named Depave (USA) and Depave Paradise (Canada)[i], work with community partners in cities across their respective countries. They mobilize local volunteers to remove asphalt surfaces by hand. This “depaving” can be both fun and empowering — and the collaboration that it attracts reflects the true spirit of community.

Engaging students, teachers and the wider community in tearing up asphalt by hand and then replacing it with soil and vegetation takes schoolyard greening to a whole new level. Through depaving and planting, students experientially learn about the process of creating healthier schoolyards. This process also enables them to take an active role in creating a landscape that will benefit their school community and the environment.

Getting started

There are a few ways to get started on your own depave project. If you have an active and engaged school community you may be able to coordinate this event on your own. However, it may be advantageous to partner-up with others to coordinate the event. Lots of great resources can be found online to support groups wanting to conduct their own depave.[ii]

Environmental non-profits also make great depaving partners. They can use their non-profit status to obtain funding and may be able to dedicate a staff person to coordinate the project. These organizations have experience applying for and requesting financial support, for obtaining in-kind support and for organizing volunteers.

Create a vision

This is an opportunity to create an ecologically diverse and inspiring space – so be creative. There are lots of resources online that can help you consider opportunities for this space. Involve your students in the planning. Have them vote on different options or submit their own design ideas.

As you plan for how water will be managed on the new landscape, consider how water currently flows on and around the site,. Can downspouts be disconnected from the sewer system, and redirected to a rain garden or bioswale? Can rainwater be harvested to help maintain your gardens or to nourish new trees?  Officials with your school board and city planning department can determine what permits and permissions are required prior to a depave. A landscape architect can help to create a design that incorporates both your vision and any concerns the city or school board might have.

Get support

Early on in the process make a list of everything you will need to realize your vision. Recruit contractors to help cut the pavement, take away the asphalt, along with the debris found underneath. Make a list of the plants, soil, mulch, etc. required to create your green space.

If you create some excitement around the project and reach out to your school and community networks, you can usually get many of the items and professional services you need donated or supplied at cost. Contractors and landscape companies don’t often have opportunities to participate in community projects, and generally enjoy the positive media attention they gain through depave projects.

Once you have determined the dates for depaving and planting, start recruiting volunteers to do the work. Teachers, school staff, parents and students are probably the easiest to sign up. If you partner with a community organization, they usually have a large network of willing volunteers as well.

It is important to have well organized and well informed volunteers. Be clear in your communications about their schedule, tasks, clothing requirements, etc. Make sure volunteers take lots of breaks and that everyone has an opportunity to participate in the work.

Tips for involving children

Removing asphalt can be dangerous for children under 16, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t participate. Children equipped with gloves and small buckets can be put in charge of picking up the small pieces of asphalt that fall off the larger pieces. They can also help with sweeping up debris around the site. Have them create banners or garden decorations while they wait for their turn.

Climate change and the unpredictability of rain and droughts can be daunting. This concern about climatic extremes can be utilized to mobilize people towards actions that will help to create communities that are greener and more resilient. Thanks to depaving, classes at Rideau Heights Public School can now spend time outdoors identifying butterflies and insects, reading books under trees, calculating the amount of water captured in the rain barrel or just smelling fragrant herbs.


To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.

If you are not already a subscriber, please subscribe to read the full article


Alix Taylor is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator for RAIN Community Solutions, in Peterborough, Ontario. This is a project of Green Communities Canada. For over a decade, she has been involved in community environmental engagement. Her most recent focus has been on urban and rural water issues.


[i] Depave (USA) and Depave Paradise (Canada)

[ii] Depave in Portland, Oregon has many free, downloadable resources on their website