Most rain that hits the "ground" in Somerville has a long way to go before it finds some earth to seep into. As a result, precipitation here is more likely to find its way instead into an overtaxed sewer system—and sometimes basements. That's just one reason why about 45 people gathered in a Somerville backyard recently to dig up roughly 18,000 pounds of asphalt.
On Monday, Somerville Climate Action invited members to a "De-Pave the Way to a Safer Climate" event. It was part of a "Global Work Party" organized by the national environmental campaign 350.org to take direct action to slow climate change. More than 7,000 events were held over the weekend in 183 countries.
De-paving to reduce flooding, cool the air and take up carbon
"Climate change is happening and so there are a lot of impacts on the city that are addressed by de-paving. One of those things is flooding," said group member Vanessa Rule, while adding that "78 percent of Somerville is paved."
"As the planet heats up, we have more moisture in the air and storms get much bigger," continued Rule. "Massachusetts had the most expensive natural disaster in its history in April and May with the storms that just poured down an unbelievable amount of water and flooded people's basements and roads. When you de-pave, you allow the water to re-infiltrate into the ground instead of pooling in the streets."
Other motivations Rule summed up include reducing the impact of heat waves by removing asphalt, which stores and radiates heat causing higher urban temperatures. She also pointed out that when plants replace pavement, they pull more carbon out of the atmosphere.
Home owner Steven Nutter, had an additional motive. "I want to have a garden in the back and grow food," said Nutter, who purchased the home in August.
Only elbow grease required
Other than a diamond saw, no power tools were needed. "On Saturday, we rented a diamond-edged saw that looks kind of like a push mower and we used that to cut a grid of 3-foot squares through the asphalt," said member Eric Becker. "That was enough to score the asphalt so that when we got pry bars under there to push it up, it would just snap off into pieces."
A wide swath of residents rolled up their sleeves to help. Over six hours, they pried up the asphalt, sledge hammered it into more manageable pieces and hauled it into a dumpster that will take it away to be recycled.
"It's fun. I like it. Take a sledge hammer to a piece of asphalt? It's good," said participant Sarah Sunu. "I've been looking for a way to get involved with the community and this seemed like a good way to do it, and I'm also very interested in climate change and how we can work together to improve our local and the global community."
In addition to area children and adults, participants included members of the Somerville High School Green Club, Tufts students, and members of Students for a Just and Stable Future, Groundwork Somerville and the Mystic River Watershed Association.
Aldermen Rebekah Gewirtz and Maryann Heuston also stopped by to offer their support, and a representative of the Ocean River Institute of Cambridge, a nonprofit that helped sponsor the de-paving, was also on hand.
"The Ocean River Institute sponsors grassroots groups across the country and we were particularly interested in Somerville Climate Action because they are breaking up asphalt," said institute Executive Director Rob Moir. "They're going to de-pave this area and put in plants, and the plants will take some of the carbon out of the atmosphere and right now we have too much carbon in the atmosphere."
The cost: $400
Altogether the project cost $400: or $300 for dumpster rental and removal, and $100 for a diamond saw rental. Community members loaned hand tools. Add in a hearty buffet of potluck dishes made by participants, a tray of donated cornbread from Redbones and a case of Wachusett Octoberfest beer (for afterward), and you have the Somerville Climate Action recipe for a yard raising.
"We hope to create a guide on how to do a de-paving so that others can do this," said Rule. "Because this is just a start."
In the spring, Nutter plans to have 10 inches of topsoil trucked in to replace the lead-contaminated soil in his yard. Somerville Climate Action plans to return then to help him with a garden raising.
By the Numbers
"De-Pave the Way to a Safer Climate"
45 helpers and supporters
1 willing homeowner
1 diamond saw
12 pry bars and pick axes
1 bale of salt marsh hay
$400 dollars in expenses
18,000 pounds of asphalt
See the de-paving in a 90-second time-lapse by clicking the arrow on the image.