VOLUNTEERS STOOD in the middle of a doomed parking lot on N Williams in early July, joyfully smashing the pavement to bits with crowbars. It was the first of six asphalt slabs that upstart nonprofit Depave aims to remove this summer, after pioneering a low-budget solution to a big local environmental problem.

While Portland is renowned for its green space, almost nine percent of the city is purely parking lots. Rainwater running off those lots pollutes the Willamette River. So Depave is aiming its pick axes to destroy underused lots one by one upon request.

For their initial project last year, Depave founder Arif Khan looked to a gritty little parking lot on N Williams and Fargo. Lot owner Angela Goldsmith planned to build a triplex on the 3,000-square-foot space, but says she immediately agreed in June 2008 to allow 150 volunteers tear up the pavement—and with it, her plans for upward development.

"I know all the developers are rolling their eyes at me, but it wasn't a hard decision. All the other lots on this stretch are going to be high-density developments and this will provide the balance," says Goldsmith, who owns four properties in the swiftly changing neighborhood.

The city's Bureau of Environmental Services granted Depave $10,000 in 2008 to turn Goldsmith's paved lot into a garden. After a year of work and delays, Fargo Forest Garden opened this past Saturday, July 18. There's no written contract preventing Goldsmith from developing the lot in the future, but she has verbally promised not to.

The work of the small Portland group is surprisingly pioneering. Khan relates the story of when he emailed the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 to ask about asphalt's effect on soil. "They responded saying we don't have conclusive info but you can check with this group called Depave," he laughs.

The city is willing to invest $10,000 to build one small garden because, ironically, converting parking lots back to nature helps the city modernize. Heavy rains frequently cause sewers to overflow and spew raw sewage straight into the mighty Willamette. A 3,000-square-foot parking lot like Goldsmith's pours an average 67,500 gallons of stormwater into Portland's sewers annually, according to city environmental expert Amber Clayton. As a garden, it should absorb every single gallon.

The city embarked on the Big Eastside Pipe project to handle sewer overflows, but for its $464 million price tag, Portland could fund 46,400 gardens the size of the Fargo project. The city aims to build 1,300 new community gardens over the next three years.

"If the city is serious about creating green spaces, they're going to have to make it easier for an all-volunteer group like ours to make them," says Ted Labbe, one of Depave's founding volunteers. Organizers say the group spent $870 in permitting fees to depave the small Fargo lot.

Goldsmith suggests the city waive permit fees and property taxes for new community gardens. Tax breaks work to promote other development the city wants, Goldsmith points out, like the 72-unit Albert Apartments slated a few blocks away from the site.