How Communities Can Reimagine Their Landscape in the Climate Crisis

A conversation with Portland’s Depave.

Depave kicked some serious asphalt with some teens at the Siletz Tribal office as they re-indigenized a planting strip by making way for native medicinal and cultural plants.
Depave worked with teens at the Siletz Tribal office as they re-indigenized a planting strip by making way for native medicinal and cultural plants. .


Last month, when I wrote about the idea of an organized movement to depave our cities, Ted Labbe—a co-founder and board member of Portland-based Depave—reached out to me via email. It was, he said, “some of the best reporting” he had seen in recent years in terms of connecting localized, stormwater mitigation efforts to the broader climate crisis. 

Always a sucker for a compliment, I suggested we connect via Zoom. So last week, I had the pleasure of connecting with both Labbe and with Katya Reyna—the organization's program director and its only paid staff member. They started by talking about Depave’s efforts to create an informal network of affiliate groups in the U.S., Canada, and even the United Kingdom, which they have trained and coached on how to orchestrate a community Depave event. 

According to Labbe, the organization’s focus shifted significantly over time:  

“When we first started, it was all about ripping up asphalt to mitigate for stormwater —and we were looking at everything through ths narrow environmental lens. For every 1000 square feet, we’d mitigate 10,000 gallons of stormwater—that type of thing. The City of Portland was in a massive collective push to address stormwater overflows to the Willamette River. Portland is now building differently and sustainable stormwater management is just second nature.”

When Depave was first conceived, Portland was seeing 20 to 30 combined sewer overflow events a year. Now, with significant progress being made on the municipal level, it’s closer to one to two such events per year. Yet Labbe explained that as progress was made on stormwater management, it became increasingly clear there were other even more pressing issues to address and it was impossible to separate the environmental challenges from the social challenges. 

As an example, Labbe pointed out that when we discuss depaving, there is usually a strong focus on the problems of hardscaping and flooding. Yet, as shown by the recent deadly heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest, one of the deadliest problems we face is extreme heat. Just like flooding, this problem is also exacerbated by excessive paving and the urban heat island effect—especially in historically disenfranchised communities where access to cooling may be limited. 

“When we hired Katya, she really helped us to move beyond a purely environmental or science-based focus," says Labbe. "We’re now talking much more about race and redlining, the urban heat island effect, climate change, temperatures—and, most importantly, which communities are being disproportionately impacted. We’ve had to ask ourselves who we are serving and why, and we’ve had to dive deep into the history of Portland—which is actually quite dark. We’re not hiding away from why things are what they are, and how our work can mitigate that."

Given the group is liaising with many other organizations both nationally and internationally, and given that Depave is rethinking or expanding its conception of the significance of their work, I asked Reyna to weigh in on advice she might give to folks just starting out on a depaving journey: 

“First and foremost, you have to ask communities what they actually want. We don’t prescribe depaving to anyone—but we do think it’s something worth asking: This is what we do, will it serve and benefit your community? Sometimes it is not a priority for an organization or a community, and that is OK—we can only work with folks who are interested, willing and motivated to get involved, and to also maintain and manage a site once it has been depaved.” 

Reyna also noted it’s important to identify which organizations and projects deserve priority. When Depave first started, they often worked with Title 1 schools, but also made time for relatively wealthy private schools, or projects in privileged areas. But they have increasingly taken a critical eye to where their presence can make the biggest difference: 

“We’re very happy to advise private landowners, or schools, or churches that are interested in depaving," says Reyna. "But if those entities have the means to hire a landscape architect, they have a community of volunteers with disposable income and time, or they have a PTA with qualified individuals onboard, then we are really cognizant of the fact that the project will likely move forward whether or not we take a leading role.”

In order to facilitate that rethink, Reyna shares Depave has developed a specific set of objective criteria to help ensure it is achieving its goals: “We use a DEI site matrix that looks at average income level, the percentage of kids on free or reduced-cost lunch programs, proximity to open green space,  and whether it’s in a historically redlined neighborhood. There are some sites that really need us, and others that we can empower to depave themselves.”

I closed our conversation by suggesting grassroots efforts on depaving are unlikely to—by themselves—create the kind of large-scale landscape rethink that could ward off the future catastrophic heatwaves and floods that we know are coming down the pipeline. I asked both Labbe and Reyna what they’d like to see in terms of federal, state, or government support for the kind of work they do. 

Reyna was very direct in suggesting that the first place to start would be shifting resources away from policing and criminal justice, and instead, putting it toward community-level solutions. 

“So much of our environmental justice work focuses on mitigating problems that only exist because specific communities have been systemically disenfranchised and then denied the resources they need to address the problems themselves," says Reyna. "One-third to one-half of our community's discretionary spending goes to policing, and it doesn’t make sense. What if we redirected that money to the people who need it? What if we gave land back to indigenous communities so they could manage it sustainably? What if we stopped pouring so much money into white-owned, male-owned downtown businesses, and instead shifted our focus to grassroots, bottom-up initiatives in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods? We have a failed government that is failing to take care of its people. It’s time we recognized it and did something about it.” 

Labbe also weighed in on this front, arguing that one of the biggest potential impacts of their work is simply helping people to understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way things need to be: 

“We don’t have to accept this legacy of infrastructure as it is," says Labbe. "We don’t have to just sit around and complain to the government about it. We can take some ownership of it and spend time with our communities and figure out what we want to do with it.”