October 19, 2011

Redeeming the Pavement

Filed under: Food and Farms, Land Reform, Relocalization — Russ @ 2:01 am


Where it comes to redeeming wasted land for food production, a major issue is all the formerly fertile land now entombed in pavement. In the long run at least some of this land will have to be reclaimed.
This will be because of the limited opportunities for food relocalization in the first place. Especially in urban areas people will have to work with the space available. This same effect will gradually extend to suburbia as the personal car becomes untenable and infrastructure deteriorates. In the long run, while some pavement will be abandoned to the caresses of nature, some will also have to be more vigorously massaged into productivity since so much of the land in the areas where we live has been placed in this unproductive state. It won’t be tenable, physically or spiritually, to surrender so much space so close to us to idle, ugly decrepitude. This would be the Broken Windows phenomenon writ large, not at all a healthy way to embark upon a new cooperative world.
If this is true, and we shall have to redeem the paved land, how do we go about it? We’re in luck, since the project has already been extensively studied, and in Cuba has already been partially deployed.
I’ve previously told the story of how Cuba had to embark upon a crash program of post-oil agriculture following the collapse of the USSR. Their success was the result of previous research, an existing cadre of experts, and the will and hard work of the people, with a little help from the US embargo which has protected Cuba from the worst assaults of globalization.
One key element of urban agriculture in Cuba has been the organoponicos. These are long, narrow (commonly 30X1 meter) raised soil beds within wooden frames. (The terms also applies to a concentration of such framed beds.) Often they’re constructed directly on pavement. Their productivity has been phenomenal. Looking at it from a long-range point of view, a buildout of this kind of agriculture upon paved surfaces could be an excellent transition in areas where pavement is ubiquitous. (In the meantime, unpaved suburban land and most existing farmland, both of which are likely to have bad quality soil, could be turned over to the model based on perennial grasses and pasturage.)
This kind of research, far advanced in Cuba, is finally being done in the US. A project at Ohio State University has been comparing different possibilities for turning an abandoned parking lot into ground productive of food. The three methods being compared a large pots, raised beds directly on the pavement, and cutting trenches in the pavement, then raising beds from the trench. (That link is from last winter, and I have to confess an inability to find information on how the project fared in 2011. Neither the OSU websites nor an Internet search helped.)
The question is whether it’s best to put in the initial work of simply tearing up the pavement completely (as this organization is dedicated to doing), or whether tearing out trenches is sufficient to set the process in motion, or whether the pavement can be left to naturally crumble while new soil is built right on top of it.
While all the projects including Cuban deployments are small-scale so far, in the long run we’ll be doing this on more ambitious scale. So all the knowledge and practice we can assemble at the outset is valuable. From there the evolution from learning, to opportunistic doing within the existing system, to supplanting the previous doing with a new affirmative doing, will be as slow or fast, gradual or non-linear, as circumstances and political will decide.


  1. Pavement contains a lot of petroleum product. I think that it will be valuable at some point when we are unable to afford to buy fossil fuels. We will need to choose the roads that we want to keep smooth for bicycle traffic and try to resurface them from time to time. Every community should be thinking about where to stockpile used asphalt pavement as they stop widening roads and abandon maintenance of excess roadways. I imagine this will be a big component of urban and rural planning in the future. Small rural towns in my state have been abandoning roads for years. Some of them were brought back to life during the last 30 year real estate bubble.

    The question is: what to do now and in the transition? I hope that all sorts of agricultural schools and facilities are experimenting. I would guess that it would be best to remove the pavement, store it somewhere if it is petroleum based, and try to put the raised beds on the underlying subsoil. At least there will be some hope of getting some drainage.
    In tropical climates it may be different.

    I would love to hear more about how the experiments are turning out. I did some work with urban gardeners in the 70’s and early 80’s but we trucked topsoil into lots where houses had been demolished. I have gone back and visited some of those places and they are doing fine, thank you!

    We were worried most about lead at that time. Of course, that is still a big concern. One thing we need is for our communities to establish simple soils and water testing facilities.

    Comment by Ellen Anderson — October 19, 2011 @ 7:54 am

    • That’s interesting about the storage. I looked around that Depave site linked above to see if they say what they do with the ripped up pavement, but I didn’t see anything about it.

      Soil and water testing is very important. In many cases the toxified soil may need some years of TLC from plants like sunflowers which are good at removing toxins.

      Comment by Russ — October 19, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    • I would be really surprised if the bitumen in asphalt was ever recovered for the purpose of generating synthetic oil product. This is effectively the process used in generating oil from the tar sands in Canada (actually bitumen sands). It’s enormously energy- and water-intensive and dirty to boot. There isn’t a good way, as far as I know, to use bitumen directly in fuel applications. Even if there were, you probably wouldn’t want to, as bitumen is mostly PAHs, and you’re likely to poison whoever’s near the burn site.

      I don’t have any super-excellent ideas for disposal, but if one intends to eventually truly reclaim the land, it needs to be removed and sequestered somewhere where it’s not going to leach into water supplies, etc. I think leaving the asphalt in place and building raised beds on top is fine as far as it goes, but the ideal thing would be for the agricultural practices to contribute to the remediation and building of the soil itself, which can’t be done with a layer of hydrophobic petroleum distillate between the bed and the soil. That said, the “soil” under roadbeds and parking lots, etc, probably isn’t much more than packed aggregate in many places, so maybe raised beds is the only way to make them productive even in the medium to long term. It’s a tough problem.

      Comment by paper mac — October 19, 2011 @ 11:46 am

      • “That said, the “soil” under roadbeds and parking lots, etc, probably isn’t much more than packed aggregate in many places, so maybe raised beds is the only way to make them productive even in the medium to long term. It’s a tough problem.”

        Big problem there. Most “soil” has been removed from urban areas, trucked away and sold. Soil (at a rate of 1″/year) needs to be rebuilt almost everywhere, or it has to be brought in from somewhere else. We are facing this issue with the urban farm right now. Our soil is good, but we don’t have enough and we need to grade the land. We are faced with trucking in an immense amount (possibly as much as 50 truck loads) of questionable quality soil.

        Comment by Ross — October 19, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

      • That sounds pretty brutal, Ross- but 1″/year is crazy fast if that’s the rate of humus deposition you’re getting. Have you looked at Masanobu Fukuoka’s stuff? He wasn’t growing on fill, but he managed to rehabilitate a fair amount of exhausted land by seeding with a lot of clover. If I recall correctly he said he got something like 4″ of good humus deposited over 20 years. Why do you need to grade the land? Is it so steep that it’s not workable? This probably isn’t an option for you due to our ridiculous health and safety laws, but the composting and application of human waste really needs to be undertaken on a large scale to start rebuilding some of these areas. Flushing away nutrients (and polluting drinking water) is insane.

        Comment by paper mac — October 19, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

      • Just realised you need to grade for drainage, cause it’s too flat.. that makes sense.

        Comment by paper mac — October 19, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

  2. Russ, graeber cites your 10/12 post in his post on NC today, 10/19.

    Comment by tawal — October 19, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    • Thanks tawal, I saw that. The piece is excellent, and I’m glad to be associated with it.

      Comment by Russ — October 20, 2011 @ 12:27 am

  3. Off topic.

    Excellent find by Jesse today: an excerpt from a book of speeches Woodrow Wilson gave back in the day:


    The book, The New Freedom is available free on Google Books. The second speech is entitled “What is Progress,” and a brief glance of it confirms that “progressivism” is nothing more nor less than appeasement of the 99% to ensure the continuation of the 1%.

    A fascinating find that, in many ways, foreshadows FDR’s New Deal, which suspiciously meets Wilson’s description of Teddy Roosevelt’s proposal.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — October 20, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    • Yes, the basic idea was kinder, gentler big business and capitalism. I’ve recently had a lot to say about the basic conservatism of “progressivism”. Even in its inception, it was at best a sincere attempt at “compassionate conservatism”.

      Whether or not this ever made sense during the ascent of fossil fuels, it’s definitely suicidal today.

      Comment by Russ — October 20, 2011 @ 12:30 am

      • off-topic but on-theme

        discovered this (now-deceased) author over at the Automatic Earth today, and found this interesting piece:


        Quote-worthy excerpt:

        Immediately they conclude that it is the American people’s fault through their backwardness, incomprehension and misdirected anger, and that maybe it serves them right for not rallying behind the flying progressive standard. (I’ve been plenty guilty of this myself over the years, and am now a recovering American liberal, well on my way not to conservatism, but toward a strumpetocracy, government by strumpets. It’s a real word, Google it.) Not that the progressive flag was actually flying; American liberals threw down their standard 40 years ago in the rush for comfortable technical, teaching and administrative jobs in government, universities and non-profits. “Ah yes,” they wailed, the people have let us down. They are absolutely disgusting!” liberals agreed. And they still agree. Read the comments on Huffington Post or Daily Kos.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — October 21, 2011 @ 12:15 am

      • Bageant was one of the good ones, all right. Too bad you didn’t make his acquaintance when he was still around, Tao.

        As for the establishment liberal type, it’s the most loathsome of all. They’re every bit as criminal and hypocritical as conservatives and in exactly the same ways. But they add far worse hypocrisies, since they claim in principle to care far more about citizens and especially workers, but in practice hate them and want to destroy them every bit as viciously as conservatives do.

        As for the rank and file, we’ve seen since 2009 that they’re every bit as morbidly stupid as the What’s-the Matter-with-Kansas types. I’ve recently had the displeasure of speaking with some Obama cultists (just regular people, not political professionals in any way) face to face, and it really is like talking to a fundamentalist creationist. They spew “right wing” talking points and don’t even know it.

        Finally, the establishment liberals claim Leadership, and act as authoritarian Leaders whenever possible and convenient. But, like Bageant’s quote mentions, wherever their Leadership would not be convenient, they add the noxious affect of saying the people are supposed to “make them do it”, and claiming that their treasonous Leadership was actually the result of the people letting them down. That’s exactly what Hitler said at the end, in justification of his total scorched earth policy: The German people let me down, and therefore abdicated their right to a future.

        I mentioned this in my post on “voting”:


        Then there’s the pro-elite technocrats, mostly pro-Democratic, who like to sneer at discouraged voters the same way they sneer at the unemployed as ”discouraged workers” and strike them from the unemployment statistics. They use terms like “apathetic” and ”enthusiasm gap”. This demonstrates how liberal elitists hate what they consider the peasant scum, hate the idea of elections even as they try to convince the peasants to vote, and see the voters as another commodity, another metric.

        Many liberal elitists claim to agree in principle that a high voter turnout is needed to confer legitimacy on the system. But they mean by this the same thing that’s meant where it comes to fraudulent plebiscites in totalitarian countries. That’s the essence of tyranny, and that’s the dream of the hack robo-vote advocates. Some even want forcibly enforced turnout, like in Australia where non-voters are fined. To the best of my knowledge, even Hitler and Mussolini didn’t carry their ”innovations” that far. So that’s one for the pseudo-democratic liberals.

        It’s typical that the turnout = legitimacy argument only goes one way. If enough voters turn out, the hacks and flacks will claim that legitimates the system. But if not enough turn out, they’ll implicitly (or in some cases explicitly) say in effect the voters aren’t worthy of the system.

        That’s a basic distinction between a liberal and a true democrat. There’s no level of voter turnout which could be so low that the liberal would admit that prima facie the government is illegitimate. Where it comes to such things, a liberal will always side with the government. But nevertheless they still prefer the robo-voting facade, and this is the basis of the pro-voting ideology and propaganda. It’s the source of the whole “if you don’t vote you’re a bad citizen” fraud. What they really want is the complete liquidation of the people as citizens. That’s the basis of liberal elitism.

        Comment by Russ — October 21, 2011 @ 7:06 am

  4. Joe was a true American hero; he was Hunter’s coke dealer; and a celebrated author in the Outback. He’s raising Cain on another plain now.

    Comment by tawal — October 21, 2011 @ 3:00 am

    • Must say we have a few ’round here. My favorite haunt nowadays. Good cheer to all. Peace, love & understanding, tawal

      Comment by tawal — October 21, 2011 @ 3:04 am

      • Thanks, tawal.

        Comment by Russ — October 21, 2011 @ 7:05 am

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