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How Removing Asphalt Is Softening Our Cities

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Portland alley advocates estimate there are 76 miles of alleys in their city—all potential green public spaces. This northeast Portland neighborhood is one of many projects reclaiming forgotten concrete pathways for nature and people. Derek Dauphin

By Lynn Freehill-Maye

Rachel Schutz hated watching the kids play outside, and not because she was a curmudgeon. As director of an after-school program in a Latino neighborhood near ­Portland, Oregon, she likes the outdoors, the piney tang that hangs in the damp air.


But the kids' shoes would thump on the asphalt, the pounding echoing against metal dumpsters along the alley. That was their play space. When a neighbor's pine tree shed its needles, she watched the kids sweep them together and build them into a nest or fort. Otherwise, they were limited to games with chalk or a ball hoop.

The kids wanted something different for the Inukai Family Boys and Girls Club's 5,000 square feet of alleyside space. They talked about a soccer field or a traditional playground—but surprised Schutz by choosing a nature park. They imagined dirt, logs, and boulders to climb on, raised beds to grow flowers and veggies, and hundreds of trees and plants throughout.

Schutz just had to figure out how to remove the pavement.

Doing so introduced her to a soften-our-cities movement in which cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, Montreal and Detroit are rethinking all that cement. Alleys and alleysides in particular are being effectively reimagined as people-friendly pathways, parks and lushly planted urban habitat.

Schutz and the kids she serves understand why the idea has been spreading. The day before they strong-armed the asphalt up, one girl asked her, "Miss Rachel, does this mean we get real grass we can touch?"

Some Things About Alleys

Practically every city's got alleys, passageways behind or between buildings or homes. They can be wide or narrow, pedestrian-only or open to vehicles. They date back to medieval times in many world cities, where some still host commerce and neighborhood gatherings and others stay hushed.

U.S. city planners purposefully laid dirt alleys to accommodate horses and carriages. Garbage pickup was done there (and still is today). Alleys were improvised living areas, notably for immigrants and newly freed slaves—there's an especially strong history of that in Washington, DC, where 300,000 people took refuge after the Civil War, according to author Grady Clay in Alleys: A Hidden Resource.

But post-World War II, Americans wanted their large cars parked out front, visible tokens of affluence. By the 1960s, The Community Builder's Handbook pronounced alleys obsolete: "one of the advances which has been made in land planning during the motor age." Paving was considered progress, even as it made cities impermeable. And now, as climate change brings record rains, pavement is contributing to toxic stormwater runoff and dangerous flooding. Asphalt drew cars deeper into the city and reduced urban community gathering spots. Lack of dirt cut down on a neighborhood's trees, plants, and animal habitat.

Studies show access to nature is associated with good health—but it also correlates with wealth. The families with large front yards and backyards and lush neighborhood parks are wealthier. Less-expensive homes, multifamily structures, and dense housing often sit next to asphalt alleyways. These residents share their outdoor space with traffic and trash bins and can't easily grow food or relax in the shade of trees.

In a 2014 study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, a team of researchers found also that this is true for neighborhoods with greater concentrations of Black or Hispanic people, who "lack health-promoting and activity-inviting environmental resources."

That was certainly the case for the Inukai Family Boys and Girls Club, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood where residents had to trek a full mile to the nearest park.

Recently, cities have been rethinking their hard alleys. Montreal has an official Ruelle Verte ("Green Alley") program encompassing more than 250 back routes that have been turned into gardens, play spaces, and neighborhood gathering spots. And in Detroit, a green-business incubator and a brewery teamed up to do a demonstration Green Alley project with absorbent pavers and native plants. It went so well, the neighborhood treats the area like a minipark—people even take formal photos there.

Softening the Cities

Reclaiming paved spaces like alleys sometimes means just planting gardens along the edges of the concrete. Other times, it means ripping out asphalt entirely.

The official depave movement began with a single Portland lot in 2007. A man named Arif Khan moved into a house whose backyard was completely paved over, but Khan wanted a garden. He and some friends discussed how to go about it, then hit on the idea of just taking it out by hand themselves. Ted Labbe was one of those friends, and he still serves on the board of what is now Depave Portland.

Over the past decade, the nonprofit has inspired other Depave organizations around the U.S., plus in Canada and the United Kingdom.

The original chapter has now done more than 125 depavings, according to Labbe, most recently the Inukai Family Boys and Girls Club in October. Following what has become its playbook, Depave helped raise $38,000 for the project and secured the proper permits. The asphalt was scored into square "brownies" the day before. Around 100 people fueled up with donated coffee, juice, and bananas, and as speakers blared Latin pop, pried up the asphalt with huge crowbars. They flipped the squares over, broke them up and wheeled the chunks to dumpsters.

The Portland chapter of Depave has done more than 125 depavings, most recently the Inukai Family Boys and Girls Club in October 2018. The asphalt was scored and broken up, then volunteers took the chunks away. The play area is now being planted. Depave Portland

The Boys and Girls Club sought out a local artist, Arturo Villaseñor, to paint a mural on the building wall along the area. Villaseñor was surprised when people started walking along the alley and snapping pictures as he worked. The lot is still dirt and waiting for plantings, but he believes the green space will serve as a combination community plaza and garden.

"There is a tradition, especially in Latin American cities, of a plaza with maybe a gazebo. It's important for the community," he said.

Reducing Flooding

The idea of returning alleys to nature has taken hold in Nashville. Record flooding in 2010 made the city reevaluate its use of alleys and adjacent paved spaces. The Cumberland River Compact launched a Green Alley program to plant rain gardens along 150 alleys to help absorb increasing stormwater.

Along an alley on a humid Tennessee summer day, Compact's program manager, Will Caplenor, gave a tour, showing off coneflower and echinacea as carpenter bees circled for a landing. Nearby, a resident walked a dog.

"Here locally there's a big endeavor to make our streets more complete, to make our streets more walkable, bikeable, livable," he said. "There's no reason alleys can't be part of that, can't be part of your walkable thoroughfares in your neighborhoods."

The nonprofit has undertaken some depaving. Caplenor traveled to Portland to learn from the Depave team there before launching Depave Nashville. Both Nashville's green alleys and adjacent depaved spaces "are accomplishing the same goals," Caplenor said. "Beyond stormwater capturing, I see wildlife habitat and aesthetic sense of place [for people] as the real benefits."

The Cumberland River Compact completed its first depaving with the Greater Nashville Unitarian Universalist Congregation, which had a parking lot on top of a hill that caused flooding problems. Nathanael Reveal, the church's board president, also wanted churchgoers and neighborhood residents to feel more connected to the natural world. And so, on a hot Saturday, 40 volunteers ripped out 150,000 pounds of asphalt.

The paved alleyside before work crews arrived. Depave Portland

At the end of the sweaty day, Reveal was walking across the freshly exposed dirt with an 8-year-old student when they saw a butterfly touch down. "We'd both been through that space hundreds of times and never seen anything like that. That was a profound moment," Reveal said.

"We thought, It's already starting. Nature is already showing up and getting back to work."

Country Lanes in the City

Researchers agree that green alleys are good for both nature and community.

Michael Martin, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University, began studying "soft" alleys nearly three decades ago. Observing the unpaved back routes of the cities where he had lived—Eugene, Oregon and Ames, Iowa—gave him rich research material. He found he could ramble along them like country lanes. A soft alley might be 11 feet wide but usually had a soil edge of several more feet along the pavement. That strip of earth could host both wild and cultivated plants, from buckthorn to blackberry bushes.

There are downsides to raw back alleys, to be sure.

Susan Jasper, Martin's neighbor in Ames, plants hostas on the fence along hers, but they're often run over by neighbors. Dust and potholes annoy her, too. Still, "When I go for walks, I choose to go down alleys," she said. "They are fun and offer behind-the-scenes looks at life."

Martin agreed, calling them "an important cultural landscape resource." Kids tend to play and adults socialize and plant gardens along them. "It provides a connection with people of your block … a really interesting mix of culture and nature."

Back in Portland, Schutz said she can't wait to watch the Boys and Girls Club kids play outside in their new alleyside space, even digging in the dirt. "It's healing, and they'll go on in their lives to want to engage with nature."

The project, she said, is "the most incredible thing I've ever been a part of."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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