Removing pavement can be a daunting task, but made easy when communities come together to transform asphalt into vibrant green space! Last month, Ecology Ottawa had the pleasure of collaborating with St. Anthony School on another successful Depave Paradise project within Canada’s green capital. Now that the soil has been liberated, we look forward to September for the green portion of the project. Students and volunteers will get their hands dirty and plant various native trees, herbs and flowers, for the community to enjoy.
St. Anthony has received great support from Evergreen Canada and Green Communities Canada for the project, with funding through the RBC Blue Water Project, although it took a lot of determination from the school to ensure their oasis becomes a reality. It’s been a long journey for the school from asphalt to paradise.
St. Anthony’s divine oasis by Paul Csagoly
Near the corner of Gladstone and Booth in inner-city old Ottawa sits a glaring bust of Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, widely considered the greatest literary work in the Italian language. The sculpture is the centrepiece of the Piazza Dante, a small park and memorial to the area´s formerly large Italian community.
From the corner of his slanted eye, Dante can see, across the street, the front of the brick school which was his first home. Opened in 1925, it was originally the Dante Academy. Trees, donated by horticulturalists, graced the yard. In the 1940s, the name changed to St. Anthony’s Catholic School, after the patron saint of the poor and oppressed, and Dante moved. Since then, he hasn’t been able to see the school grounds in the back, which, like his divine comedy, have experienced inferno and paradise.
By 1998, the grounds had degraded into a barren concrete enclosure where students regularly scraped their knees. Looking for help, the school won the Ugliest Schoolyard Contest which brought cash for depaving about one-third of the grounds – the first attempt to green a schoolyard through depaving in Canada. The contest also brought tree planting and an Earth Day launch of the new grounds with Canada’s federal Environment Minister.
By 2001, St. Anthony’s had risen from its inferno. You would guess, understandably, that in such an urban location, pavement tends to beat grass in competitions for space, compared to suburban or urban areas. But the truth is that St. Anthony’s came to have the best tree canopy and shade of any Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) school grounds. “Back then, there was a lot of help from the local Italian community,” says St. Anthony’s Principal, Paul Mcguire. “So it was inexpensive. But the project wasn’t finished.”
Today, many Italian families are gone, having departed for other areas of the city, while the school now caters mainly to Asian immigrant families. And given a lack of maintenance, the grounds again started to look like Dante’s inferno. Scraped knees and injuries went on the rise. A big dip in the concrete yard, known as Lake St. Anthony to students, filled up with water every spring because the drains clogged. Trees and shrubs sickened or died. In fact, kids became so used to living with concrete that the school soccer team, when visiting a less inner-city school, opted to practice on that school’s concrete tennis court rather than its sprawling grass fields.
Repeating history, the school decided to improve the yards. With assistance from the NGO Evergreen, they led a round of discussions with students focused on their favourite activities, biggest complaints, and best ideas. Some top hits were hide & seek, playing with sand, soccer, monkey bars, a wooded area, seating and tables, flowers and grass, bugs and birds, swings, and quiet places to rest. Problems included injuries and scrapes from falling on hard pavement, grit, potholes, and lack of space. Potential solutions, derived with Evergreen assistance, included depaving more of the grounds, adding fresh soil, planting new shrubs and trees, and removing weeds such as ragweed while ensuring that beneficial plants remain to support the ecosystem and learning. Other ideas included new games, such as chess, painted on repaved surfaces; nature learning murals that adorn the school’s plain brick walls; an outdoor classroom with log benches and flowers; and raised berms that prevent kids from running into each other in the small yard.
The current overall vision is to create an “inner city oasis”, blessing a community with little existing greenspace. Given the school’s hub role for the community, the improved grounds would be available to the entire community – including the school´s 140 students, its staff, the Dalhousie Daycare in the basement, after-school YMCA program, Saturday Chinese programs, and residents.
Of course, ambitious ideas require funding. “The school board tends to focus more on the school itself rather than the grounds,” says Mcguire. “And the community is poor so we decided to turn to donations again.” St. Anthony’s began sending out proposals to a number of charitable organizations. Successes followed. One was funds for mural development through Crime Prevention Ottawa’s Paint it up program. Another was Evergreen providing funds through its links with the Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds Program, which helps create outdoor classrooms across the country. Ottawa Organic Farmers planted some vegetables and free lessons for the students. Local MP Paul Dewar donated a maple tree in May. Students also help, for example, through St. Anthony’s Weeding Wednesdays program.
Another answer came from Green Communities Canada which provided funding through the RBC Blue Water Project for Ecology Ottawa to co-implement a new depaving project with St. Anthony’s. Appropriately named the Depave Paradise project, some 80 to 100 square metres of school grounds was removed on June 20 — after heavy equipment broke up the pavement, over 30 community volunteers “liberated the soil” by prying the asphalt up with hand tools.
Besides benefitting the school and community, Ecology Ottawa wants the project to benefit the environment. “Hard surfaces proliferate in modern urban environments,” says Clara Blakelock, Manager of Water Programs at Green Communities Canada. “We think that Depave Paradise will be an excellent model for others for achieving environmental benefits such as increasing shade, soaking up stormwater runoff and contamination, and increasing greenspace for people, bugs, birds, and plants.”
The June 2015 depaving day , received recognition from local media and even attracted local politicians MP Paul Dewar, MPP Yasir Naqvi and Councillor Catherine McKenney, as they kicked off the event. Come September, phase two of the asphalt-to-oasis plan will take place as more volunteers will help in the planting of new trees, shrubs and perennials. After that, the school grounds will become a permanent outdoor classroom for the students and the community. They will learn about how the city needs to do more to manage its water resources. People will become more aware that being inner city doesn´t have to mean being concrete. And Dante’s paradise will be a little closer.