No More Pavement! The Problem of Impervious Surfaces

by |July 13, 2010

Recent research, according to the New York Times, indicates that urban areas are about to get hotter – much hotter. Not exactly what blistering New Yorkers want to hear after one of the more brutal, record-breaking heat waves in memory.

Of course climatologists (and most of the rest of us) have known for a long time that cities were hotter than the surrounding countryside. It’s called the urban heat island effect.

The Heat Island Effect. Source: Dustin Phillips on Flickr.

The Heat Island Effect. Source: Dustin Phillips on Flickr.

In short, unlike the rural countryside, cities are largely paved-over or built on, so there is no vegetation or moisture to absorb heat and cool the landscape; asphalt, concrete and rooftops simply absorb the sun’s energy during the day and re-release it at night. According to a 2009 American Meteorological Study, nighttime temperatures can be as much as 14 degrees hotter in New York City than in rural areas 60 miles away.

According to the New York Times article, new modeling from climate researchers in the U.K. indicates that the urban/rural heat disparity is about to get much worse—equivalent to the doubling of CO2 in some areas.

What to do? Other studies have suggested that something as simple as painting building roofs white could reduce the heat island effect by as much as 33 percent. Unfortunately, white roofs don’t do anything to combat the many other serious problems of impervious surfaces – most notably their effect on water.

Essentially, in built areas with extensive impervious surfaces, water can’t soak naturally into the earth—instead it rushes across the landscape, carrying pollutants and biological contaminants into our waterways, poisoning fish, wildlife, and us.

Downspout on Impervious Pavement. Source: Patrick Hoesly on Flickr.

Downspout on Impervious Pavement. Source: Patrick Hoesly on Flickr.

Studies that have looked at the connection between water quality and the percentage of land cover in a watershed have shown that high stream concentrations of inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus can be correlated with both urban and agricultural land use. (Nitrogen and phosphorus are two of the three main ingredients in artificial fertilizer spread on both lawns and crops).

Unfortunately, the pollution of water from this fertilizer is the major cause of dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico (recent oil spill notwithstanding).

It’s also a likely culprit in the increasing phenomena of “red tides” in which a certain species of algae blooms in the ocean, causing, according to the NRDC, “serious, and potentially life-threatening human illnesses . . . including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and chills, among many others.”

Red Tide. Source: Miriam Godfrey.

Red Tide. Source: Miriam Godfrey.

None of this should be a surprise, especially in places with combined sewer systems. As the EPA describes it,

Combined sewer systems are sewers that are designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe . . . during periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt . . . combined sewer systems are designed to overflow occasionally and discharge excess wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies.”

In other words, don’t swim in the ocean after it rains – you might not like what’s in the water. According to the EPA, combined sewer overflows are “a major water pollution concern for the approximately 772 cities in the U.S.

A 2003 study from the University of Connecticut indicated that the percent of impervious land in a watershed was significantly related to all water characteristics his team examined. Some studies suggest that paving over anything above 10 to 20 percent of the landscape is bad for the water; others put the concentration much lower for fish populations, for example.

Estimates of the percentage of impervious surface in urban areas range from 50 percent of moderately dense suburban dwellings to over 94 percent in Mid-Manhattan West.

So what is to be done? Fortunately, there are many potential solutions.

Green roofs. In dense urban areas with flat roofs, green roofs—planting the roof with either low-maintenance native plants or growing food–can be a key strategy.

Victoria BC Marriott Green Roof. Source: Pnwra on Flickr.

Victoria BC Marriott Green Roof. Source: Pnwra on Flickr.

Research by Eleftheria Alexandri and Phil Jones at the at the University of Cardiff in the UK modeled the effect of green roofs in nine cities around the world—including Montreal, London, Mumbai and Brazilia—and indicated that green roofs would cool the climate in all of the cities, with the greatest effects in the hottest cities. (According to the model, if the buildings in Riyad, Saudi Arabia had green roofs, the temperature during the hottest month would drop a shocking 9.1 Celsius or about 16 degrees Fahrenheit)

As for water, in one EPA study, green roofs retained over 50 percent of total precipitation over the course of a year, and over 95 percent in summer months. Comparing runoff between a typical asphalt roof and green roofs found that green roofs raised ph (a benefit to counteract acid rain) and appeared to remove atmospheric nitrate.

Green Roof Garage. Source: Rob Harrison on Flickr.

Green Roof Garage. Source: Rob Harrison on Flickr.

Rain gardens. Rain gardens are a portion of lawn or landscape planted to hold, filter and slowly release surface water runoff from roads, roofs, parking lots or other impervious structures into the landscape. According to the EPA, rain gardens reduce peak water flows that stress the system, and improve “the physical and biological integrity of receiving streams by reducing stream bank erosion and negative effects on aquatic communities.”

Permiable paving. New technologies allow for porous pavement surfaces that let water to percolate below the surface. Examples include pervious concrete, porous asphalt, and porous turf.

Permeable Paving. Source: USDA.

Permeable Paving. Source: USDA.

Better Urban Design. Conventional sprawl zoning requires a minimum amount of parking for businesses and residences. Not only does this requirement increase auto dependence and sprawl, it creates vast acres of (often unused) asphalt parking lots. The New Urbanism movement is one widely known planning approach that attempt to design for more compact land use, better access to pubic transit, and less space devoted to parking.

Depave! The Depave project, run by the community activist group City Repair in Portland, Oregon, provides information and technical assistance to citizens who have places they wish to depave.

Depave. Source:

Depave. Source:

If we want to protect our watersheds, we could do worse than starting with the ground under our feet.


From the Environmental Protection Agency:

Green Infrastructure.”

Green Infrastructure Research Program: Providing Solutions to Manage Wet Weather Flow.”

Green Streets.”

Green Roofs for Stormwater Runoff Control.”

How Urbanization Affects the Water Cycle.” California Water & Land Use Partnership.

Long-Term Stormwater Quantity and Quality Performance of Permeable Pavement Systems.” Center for Water and Watershed Studies Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington.

Impervious Surfaces,” NEMO (Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials), University of Connecticut .

Follow Columbia Water Center on Twitter

Get our newsletter

I'd like to get more stories like this.
Email address
Secure and Spam free...

9 thoughts on “No More Pavement! The Problem of Impervious Surfaces

  1. Mike says:

    Great article – thanks for pointing out the damages caused by impervious surfaces.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with recycled glass porous pavement over the last year. 100% post-consume material combined with a safe two-part epoxy.

    The result is a beautiful surface, durable as traditional asphalt/concrete, that is completely permeable.

    The epoxy also forms covalent bonds with hydrocarbons – if you pour an oily gallon of water through the pavement, only the water comes out on the other side.

  2. Dave says:

    so I have a question
    why do you americans build these cities with just concrete blocks everywhere and no visible grass

    WTF WHY?
    In America you can’t even get away from all these discusting buildings. If you try to drive out of the city you’ll still find about a thousand huge McDonalds signs and then thousands of McDonalds,Wendies and what not discusting places all in their own f***ing building


  3. Mike K says:

    Most of it is good, but the only thing is that cyclists really hate depaved roads and cobblestone-type pavement like in the second to last picture. It’s quite uncomfortable to ride on!

  4. Ben says:

    God forbid you be uncomfortable on your bike for the sake of the planet and animal health, Mike K.
    Besides, bike paths are a mere 3 feet or so wide. Bike paths wouldn’t be an issue if they were surrounded by a permeable surface.

  5. Nathan says:

    Good article, but I think one could make the case for truly dense and walkable urban development as the panacea. The enemy is not cities but the suburbs. A stronger distinction needs to be made when you talk about ‘urban’. No properly functioning city would have vast parking lots. Properly functioning cities make it more convenient to bike, walk or take public transportation.To cite an extreme example, Manhattan, has 1.6 million people on 23 square miles. Now no one would argue that Manhattan is pretty much a dead zone biologically, but the net impact of 1.6 million people spread apart by 4 lane highways and endless parking lots, moving about in their personal oil spewing pods is infinitely worse for the planet.

  6. Dewita says:

    Great article! Info is easy to understand and inspiring. Hopefully once people understand the problem we have in cities, they’ll take action. At a minimum within their household, community.

  7. Sally Smith says:

    I would like to comment on pervious concrete. I have yet to see what I would consider a “good pour” for walking playing, or bike riding. The material, by virtue of the fact it is all large aggregate, is unstable, wears away quickly, and poses a hazard to children playing on it. We have a 3 year-old grandson who fell on the surface bringing to light how dangerous it is compared to other surfaces. I don’t like anything about it other than the fact that it is pervious. I think the product should be perfected before we use it on our road/sidewalk surfaces. It isn’t easy or inexpensive to remove. I challenge the concrete association to come up with a more workable product.

  8. Charlie says:

    Traditional parking lots are obsolete. From what I understand all the land taking up by parking is close to 6,500 square miles. Multilevel helps out a bit. I know Americans are in love with their vehicles but I still believe public transportation is the answer. Underground multilevel parking on the outskirts of the city with an efficient well designed public transport within. Also I wonder if a modest type of passive filtration system for sewers and drains could help.

  9. Justice Atiim says:

    Great Article there. I am currently examining the contributions of paved surfaces to incidence of floods in Ghana. The fact of the matter is, in our quest for “cleaner and nicer” environments, we do not often factor the possible problems of our actions into decision making.
    In as much as we yearn for aesthetic beauty we need to beware of the impacts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *