June 9, 2012

The Problem With Pavement - Part 1

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

One thing about my yard, and much of the San Diego area, that bothers me is the amount of concrete, asphalt, and other pavement that cover much of the land area - including the entirety of many yards.  For example, at right is a photo of my neighbor's backyard.

We live about a mile from San Diego Bay and less than 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean.  This is an area that gets frequent dew, has a very temperate climate, and relatively high humidity (around 75 percent) year-round.  Although San Diego doesn't get much rainfall each year, about 12 inches in our area, the climate is very well-suited to growing many types of plants with little to no watering required.  It's disheartening to me that paving over the land is the preferred option for many in the area.  This is in addition to the roads, freeways, sidewalks, driveways, commercial and residential buildings, and many other structures covering the ground.

The amount of paved surfaces and structures covering the ground leads to issues with urban runoff.  Urban runoff is the problem created when pollutants (oil, grease, trash, etc.) are directed to water sources like bays, rivers, and oceans.  Paved surfaces reduce the ability of the ground, plants, and other natural materials to filter and slow the progress of pollutants traveling to water sources.  Due to impervious surfaces like pavement, the runoff produced by a typical city block produces 9 times more runoff than a wooded area of the same size.

In San Diego, all public storm drains send water directly to the ocean, without any treatment or filtering.  This means that when there is rainfall all of the trash (cigarette butts, wrappers, animal wastes, roadkill, motor oil, gasoline, dirt, litter, etc.) are sent to the water we swim, surf, fish and play in.  As a result of urban runoff there are regular beach closures of the Pacific Ocean in the San Diego area.  The Pacific Ocean is the largest body of water on earth.  That is ridiculous.

There are a number of things that can be done to reduce urban runoff and I plan to write a number of posts on the topic, this is the first.  I wanted to start with one of the most simple and obvious ways to reduce urban runoff - by reducing the amount of pavement.

Along one side of my house there is a strip of land about 2 feet wide and 35 feet long.  It's not structural concrete or necessary for the support of our home.  I believe it was leftover material from pouring the driveway and put down to avoid weeds growing along the house.  Given that our property cost about $100 per square foot of the lot, that is $7,000 worth of lot that isn't doing anything for us.  From a monetary perspective as well as an environmental one it makes sense to use this space in a better way.

I decided to plant some climbing plants along the reed fencing to give us some additional privacy.  These plants will also reduce the noise level in our yard and home and help to improve the quality of air coming in our windows.  Additionally, I selected plants that have pleasant scents, and that are attractive to birds, butterflies, and other local wildlife.  My initial plant selections are:
  1. Wild desert grape (Southern California native)
  2. California blackberry (California native)
  3. Fuggle hops

Since the pavement in this area of the yard is pretty thin I only needed a sledgehammer and a masonry chisel to get the job done. I'm hoping to pull out our driveway in the coming months but need to find a jackhammer first.  If you're attempting to remove concrete from your yard I'd recommend using a jackhammer for an area of large size, or for strong / thick concrete.  Also, take care when using a sledgehammer to not hit your hands.  I made the mistake of smashing my right index finger (twice) and haven't been able to type properly for a few days.  Thankfully, no major damage and the finger should be back to normal in no time.

Ready to start.
Ready for planting. 
After clearing out a space for planting I found that the soil underneath was pretty good quality.  I added the plants (1 gallon container size, from City Farmers Nursery) and a bit of organic soil on top for additional nutrients.

The newly added Fuggle hops (fore) - looking forward to some beer brewing.
This area is pretty shaded so I selected plants that didn't need a lot of sun.  A bonus of the shaded area is that the water requirements are minimal - it's nice and cool all year-round in this space.

The wild desert grape I planted a few weeks ago - the  vine is climbing well.

Although Joni Mitchell wrote Big Yellow Taxi about a disappointing visit to Hawaii, the sentiment of the song is equally applicable to San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, and many other beautiful places in the U.S. and abroad.  Hopefully small efforts like removing a bit of pavement can help to make the parking lots we live in a little greener.

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