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Low-Impact Paving

What is low-impact paving?
Low-impact paving is a strategy for reducing smog-forming emissions from paving roads, fire lanes, parking lots and other surfaces with asphalt. By using non-petroleum-based paving systems, specially formulated sealants and coatings, and special design features, communities can reduce smog-forming emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These options provide other environmental benefits, lower construction or maintenance costs, and can enhance the aesthetics of a project. For every one acre of low-impact paving, as much as 2 tons of VOC emissions are eliminated compared to emulsified paving.

Why use alternative paving methods?

Because crude oil is a key ingredient in asphalt, the manufacture, transport, processing and application of asphalt all contribute VOCs to regional smog. Many of the coatings, sealants, caulks and markings required in paving projects are also sources of VOCs. Each summer day in the Chicago area, more than 13 tons of VOCs are emitted from emulsified paving projects. Low-impact paving can reduce these emissions and offers many other benefits.

Improved aesthetics.

Special design options such as reflective surface areas, island planters and shade trees enhance a project’s aesthetic appeal. On Chicago’s Navy Pier, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater installed a rooftop garden area, paving 1,722 square feet with gray Gravelpave2. The designer filled the area with small gray gravel to give the impression of an English garden. The rectangular perimeter features raised planters filled with colorful flowers.

Enhanced traffic safety.
Reduced surface area, transit design features and pedestrian amenities have proven effective in reducing traffic speeds and accidents, thereby extending the life of roadways, reducing air pollution from traffic and saving pedestrian lives.

Reduced costs.
Some low-impact paving options may allow a project to qualify for zoning variances that reduce the amount of required parking. Others options include systems that are more durable and easily repaired than traditional asphalt, eliminating frequent, expensive and unsightly patching. Some design features can reduce or eliminate the need to construct stormwater management systems. In Maryland, the National Archives paved a fire lane and jogging trail with Grasspave2 to ensure emergency access yet preserve aesthetic harmony with the wooded forest setting. In communities that assess water and sewage charges based on impermeable surface area, low-impact paving can lead to lower annual fees.

How do we implement low-impact paving?
Options for implementing this strategy will vary based on your project’s location, economics, and type. In general, a project will incorporate one or more of the following key features:

Alternative paving materials.
Several companies have developed paving methods that utilize grass or gravel as alternatives to asphalt. This option is ideal for overflow and special use parking facilities. A company called Invisible Structures outlines several alternatives and provides case studies or impervious pavement alternatives.

Minimizing demand for parking.
Local zoning officials can tap the expertise of regional transportation officials to ensure that new developments incorporate pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented design elements and other strategies to minimize the need to drive. The Regional Transportation Agency’s (RTA’s) transportation demand management study is a good resources.

Traffic calming.
Traffic calming design options can reduce the amount of asphalt used, increase pedestrian travel and decrease vehicle emissions. Traffic calming is the combination of mainly physical measures that reduce the negative effects of motor vehicle use, alter driver behavior and improve conditions for non-motorized street users. municipal transportation

Heat island reduction.

Due to the lack of trees and use of dark surfaces like roofs and pavements, most cities have temperatures 2 to 10 degrees hotter than surrounding areas, hence the term “heat island.” Parking lot design can incorporate alternative paving materials, reflective surface coatings, island landscaping and shade trees to reduce the “heat island” effect. A model tree shading ordinance. Sacramento adopted a tree shading ordinance for parking lots and encourages the use of “cooler” paving materials. Another good reference on ways to reduce the heat island impact of paving are on the City of Chicago’s website.

Is low-impact paving a proven strategy?

Dominican University in River Forest recently installed a gravel-paved parking lot that utilizes an Invisible Structures system. Though the installation of the lot itself was a little more expensive than blacktop – $1.5 million as opposed to $1.25 million – there was no need to build a drainage system, which saved on overall project costs. And since the gravel could be laid around trees already in the lot, there was no need to remove or replant them.

In 1997, the Department of Defense (DOD) awarded a contract to repair and maintain its parking lots and access roads at four Washington, DC, area facilities. This 5-year, $1 million-per-year project required the contractor to use recycled content and low VOC products as well as meet DOD's traditional price and performance specifications. The contractor's products have increased recycled-content percentages, reduced VOC levels, and lowered overall toxicity. DOD did not sacrifice cost or performance to achieve its environmental goals. In fact, the cost was less than if DOD had used traditional paving products with equivalent performance.

How we measure and report clean air benefits?

Basic information about the type and size of your project and the low-impact paving options you choose is all you need to calculate your community’s clean-air benefits. Just call the Clean Air Counts campaign for help.


Basic information about the type and size of your project and the low-impact paving options you choose is all you need to calculate your community’s clean-air benefits.

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