Toronto Star column – published September 14, 2013
“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.” ~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732
As I travel around the city it is hard for me not to notice the growing number of urban yards that are being used to park cars. The emergence of the two income family has encouraged the two car family. No point in having two cars and nowhere to park them.
A recent article in the U.K.’s ‘The Garden’ magazine reported that 7 million – about one third – of all front gardens have been paved over for parking. The number has doubled in the last 15 years. I can only hope that this is not the case here in Canada.
I think it’s time for us to stop and take stock of our own home-grown green spaces relative to cars. What value does a lawn or a garden actually have? When are those values trumped by the need to park a car? The answers do not have to become complicated, though sometimes they are. Here in the City of Toronto there is a by-law that requires the creation of a new parking space to be of a permeable substance – like gravel.
A friend of mine, Joe, recently shared his frustration over the permit process for a new car parking space at the front of his Etobicoke home. He had to pay $400 for the permit, gather 37 signatures from consenting neighbours, and submit a plan for the new parking spot. Once this is all done the City staff is to solicit the neighbours once again for any outstanding objections. A task which they have yet to complete. So far he has waited 4 months for his permit and has been told by City staff that he may get it, notwithstanding objections, late next winter.
As a defender of green space and an advocate for urban trees I harbour some satisfaction in Joe’s frustration, despite how badly I feel for him. But the real problem is this: most people who park on their front yard on his street don’t bother getting a permit at all. This is according to Joe. Unless a neighbour objects, there is generally no problem. It is that old ‘it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission’ thing.
I will not get into the moral dilemma of permit applications vs. breaking the law. Rather, I am here to offer alternatives to paving and compacted gravel. With some planning you can have many of the benefits of a green front yard while being able to park your car. It is called ‘permeable paving’.
First, the value of your lawn or a garden is similar to that of a stormwater retaining pond, when viewed through the eyes of a pragmatist. Stripped of the attractive appearance and the cool shade afforded to the owner of a large tree, for example, the roots of all plants – lawns included – filter rain-borne toxins and slow the movement of excess stormwater as it moves through the soil. Every plant that is green inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen: essential to human life.
The impact of plant roots and healthy soil on our rain water cannot be overstated.
I would be the first to say that you can’t park a car on top of a flower garden. A poorly placed tree can easily get in the way of your car parking procedures. If you park on the roots of a mature tree you will most likely subject it to ‘contractor’s disease’ due to soil compaction. It is true that nature has programmed trees with a remarkable instinct to survive but there is a limit.
Permeable, open-weave paving provides a great compromise. There are many new interlocking, synthetic materials on the market that provide space for soil and green, living ground covers to fill in and mature even while you park on top of them. Some of my favourite ‘ground covers’ that can be used for this purpose include [for sunny locations] creeping thyme, Irish moss, Scottish moss, various forms of sedum [Stonecrop] and sempervivum [hens and chickens], white clover, and even [get this] grass.
In shady locations the following plant species can work: lamium, lily of the valley, sweet woodruff, and Baltic ivy.
Go to Beaver Valley Stone on Langstaff Rd [south east corner of 407 and Yonge St.] for the largest selection of permeable paving in the GTA. This is a massive 10-acre property dedicated to both the landscape and retail trade. The public is invited to walk the property but I recommend that you wear flat soled shoes – better still, wear steel-toed work boots. This is a ‘work zone’ complete with dust and gravel. For many of us who love the look of stone it is a veritable candy store. Be careful who you take there as you may not get out in a hurry.
To see a wonderful example of how permeable paving works at its best, visit the Toronto Botanical Gardens at the corner of Leslie St. and Lawrence Ave. The new parking lot that was recently installed there not only filters rain water, it also sequesters it in a holding tank and uses it to irrigate the gardens and grounds around the main building.
There are similar installations available to home owners. For a list of contractors go to www.landscapeontario.com.
The loss of green yards to car parking is a loss of a valuable urban asset that is so easy for us to take for granted. With severe weather events predicted to become more frequent in future years, public officials who are responsible for public transportation have one more reason to stop talking and start implementing the plan [whatever it is] to improve public transit in the GTA.
As gardens disappear in favour of cars and places to park them, no one can be happy about the current situation.
Question of the Week
Q/ My lawn looks terrible. Skunks are digging up the grass to find grubs. How do I stop this damage?
A/ Apply Green Earth Grub Busters now to control the next generation of grubs in the lawn. Reducing the grub population will reduce the skunk damage.