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The beauty of urban green spaces runs more than skin deep

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

April 24, 2014 - Urban landscapes are dotted with them. Native grasses growing in street medians, small traffic islands of plants and seasonal blooms planted near parking lots. Many of us don’t realize these green spaces are doing more than beautifying our communities. They’re intentionally designed to protect our water to ensure it’s swimmable, fishable and drinkable. 

Hard surfaces like streets, parking lots and sidewalks create real problems in cities, especially when it rains or the snow melts. Paved surfaces mean that water can’t soak naturally into the ground. Instead it rushes across the landscape, picking up such things as pollutants, sediment and cigarette butts, carrying these into the very waterways we rely on for our drinking water.

Enter the Green Communities Foundation, which used a $50,000 grant from the RBC Blue Water Project in 2013 to help local organizations “Depave Paradise”: a program to remove unnecessary asphalt in cities, replacing it with functional and beautiful gardens and green spaces.

This summer, depave events will take place in five communities: Peterborough, Mississauga, Kingston, Calgary and Ottawa.

“Depave projects are a great way to engage the community in water management,” said Liz Cooper from Hearthmakers Energy Cooperative, the partner organization for the Kingston depave project. “The direct act of ripping up asphalt and concrete is physically engaging. Volunteers aren’t just standing at a booth, or handing out flowers. When you participate in projects like this, you become emotionally tied to the project and feel a strong sense of community and accountability.”

“Planning a depave is a huge undertaking because of the number of factors involved: the type of pavement, soil conditions, parking, traffic, utility lines, and permits to name a few. We do lots of research beforehand and complete training sessions to ensure volunteer safety,” said Clara Blakelock, Green Communities Foundation. “The entire process can take several months. We need to find a high-profile host site and a landscaper to ensure we’re creating a sustainable design. Not to mention the logistics involved in removing hundreds of pounds of concrete or asphalt.”

But the day of the “depave” makes all the hard work worthwhile. Once the project is complete, the partner organization works with volunteers to ensure the garden or green space continues to thrive.

“Depaving is a really satisfying act. The hands-on element is what makes Depave Paradise so successful. Anyone can do it once you have the tools,” said Liz Cooper. “Actually removing pavement and replacing it with something that gives so much back to the community really makes a difference.”

Launched in 2007, the RBC Blue Water Project is a 10-year global charitable commitment of $50 million to help protect fresh water, now and for future generations. To date, we have pledged over $38 million to more than 650 charitable organizations worldwide that promote access to clean, swimmable, fishable, and drinkable water, with an additional $7.8 million pledged to universities for water programs. RBC has a long-standing partnership with the Green Communities Foundation, funding projects since 2008 to a total of $175,000.

We’ll be announcing the 2014 RBC Blue Water Project grant recipients on RBC Blue Water Day, June 12, 2014.  We’re also asking employees around the world to consider ‘depaving’ as their Blue Water makeover activity. They can also clean up a local watershed, or learn something about water in their own community.   Last year, 18,000 employees got involved in more than 300 of these ‘makeovers’ around the world.