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The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Depave Builds Rain Garden, Solves Flooding Problem at Portland Church

October 3rd, 2017 · No Comments · Water

Written by members of Depave Portland
Originally produced October, 2016

Depave promotes the transformation of over-paved places to overcome the social and environmental impacts of pavement. They aim to engage communities and reconnect urban landscapes to nature through action-oriented projects, education, advocacy and stewardship. The Portland-based nonprofit has returned more than 50 sites to thriving landscapes, creating community green space and significantly improving storm water runoff problems. For example, Depave helped solve long-term flooding problems at Saint Mary Ethiopian Church in Portland by leveraging public funding to help transform a portion of their parking lot into a thriving rain garden.

Despite the weather, over 50 brave rain-warriors pitched in to pry it up at the Saint Mary Ethiopian Church on a balmy September Saturday. Depaving here makes way for a central rain garden to prevent flooding of the church and lots of nice native landscaping elsewhere around the parking lot. Special thanks to the church members for providing a delicious authentic Ethiopian meal. We had a blast!

Tadele Gelagay no longer worries about his church flooding every winter. Thanks to a parking lot depaving project coordinated by Depave and the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church now has a 2,500 square foot rain garden that soaks up the water and keeps the church dry.

Gelagay is executive director of the small, immigrant church on the east side of Portland, Oregon. The church is next to Johnson Creek in a floodplain, and sits on the lowest area of the property. Whenever even moderate rains hit, the parking lot would fill with storm water and the church would flood. A drywell system in the parking lot didn’t solve the problem and only added more headaches when it needed repairs. Church members would pile sandbags around the church and use pumps to try to remove the water, but none of these fixes worked.

The church didn’t have much money to spend on a solution. ”We had two choices. Either dig under the drywell or add a system to [connect to] 92nd Street,” said Gelagay. Both options were costly. So when Danny Kapsch, an employee with the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, suggested replacing a portion of the parking lot with a rain garden, Gelagay was quick to agree. This option was a perfect alternative for the church and for the community.

As a bonus, public funding was available for stormwater remediation projects. The Johnson Creek Watershed Council partnered with Depave to get a grant from Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services’ Community WatershedStewardship Program. The Council also helped the church raise additional funds and recruit volunteers to remove thepavement and replace it with the rain garden.

Depave, a nonprofit group that encourages removing pavement to reduce stormwater runoff and create urban green spaces, did a lot of the heavy lifting to implement the project — overseeing project elements from permitting, pavement cutting, excavation, and coordinating the volunteer depaving and planting events. “The uniqueness was primarily in the collaboration,” said Eric Rosewall, Depave’s executive director, of the four groups involved in making this project happen. Gelagay also said it was a great partnership.

The site was cut into small squares that volunteers could remove by hand. After more than 80 volunteers removed 2,500 square feet of asphalt, the site was excavated and soil added to get it ready for planting. Volunteers again showed up in force to get the site planted and landscaped, with help from the local nonprofit Green Lents who designed the new green space.

St Mary hasn’t flooded since and the community enjoys the new garden. The church’s sewer bill is 78 percent lower through the Clean River Rewards program due to the reduced runoff. “All the rain just comes and sinks into the rain garden. No problems since the garden was completed,” said Gelagay. The money saved was used to put a new roof on the church and to add additional landscaping to the site.

Depave promotes the transformation of over-paved places; engaging and inspiring communities to reconnect urban landscapes to nature. Depave is a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. To suggest a site for regreening in Portland, visit To learn about opportunities to develop a depaving program elsewhere, visit Find additional information on this and other depave projects online:  .org/saint-mary.


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