Aaron Blanchard groaned as he watched a flurry of feel-good media reports on a Boise North End alleyway being covered in asphalt, evolving into what neighbors dubbed the "SNOW block" because it is "slightly north of Washington School."
"But it's the SNOW block pave-pocalypse," Blanchard said. "The project is the antithesis of the North End's 'earth friendly' reputation."
Blanchard said he's less concerned about how residents paved the former dirt alley between 15th and 16th streets with asphalt and more worried about the trend it might set.
"Lo and behold, everyone seems to be raving about how great this is and how more neighbors now want to cover their alleys with asphalt," said Blanchard. "I wonder: are they even thinking about the 'urban heat island' impact?"
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says urban heat islands trigger greenhouse gases, air pollution and greater energy demands.
"Heat islands in urban areas are three to seven degrees warmer during the day and as much as 22 degrees warmer in the evenings," said Blanchard. "Asphalt holds that heat it in during the day and releases it at night."
Blanchard pushes back against urban heat islands for a living by caring for the City of Trees' namesake: He's an arborist. He and business partner / girlfriend DJ Kessler have a unique view of Boise's North End—quite literally—from high above the neighborhood's rooftops, where they doctor some of city's tallest trees.
"Covering up a dirt alley with asphalt was clearly the cheap alternative for those neighbors. Quite frankly, that's an abomination to the ecosystem," said Blanchard. "But the urban heat island is only the beginning. How about the fact that the alley is now domed by asphalt, creating a dense runoff of polluted water? We're talking about oil, de-icing and obviously garbage trucks rolling through there."
Kessler said she and Blanchard aren't interested in confrontation. They just want to get people talking.
"We want to get more people engaged," said Kessler. "We've been disappointed to hear from a number of other neighbors saying that they too want to cover their alley with asphalt. They should consider the alternatives."
They need look no further than downtown Boise for alternatives, where the Ada County Highway District has turned traditional alleyways into what it calls "green alleys." Instead of concrete or asphalt, ACHD has installed permeable pavers—made primarily with brick—between Third and Fourth streets, Fifth and Sixth streets and 13th and 14th streets. The paver design allows stormwater to run through the bricks before making its way into groundwater and the Boise River.
"Below the brick surface, the stormwater is filtered through multiple layers that, in effect, scrub the water, sending fewer pollutants to the river," said ACHD spokeswoman Nicole DuBois. "If these permeable pavers do what we're told, that will save us quite a bit in the long run. For now, the three downtown alleys are pilot projects; we'll be keeping a close eye on them."
ACHD has a partnership program where neighbors can share the cost of the repaving of an alley. Simply put, ACHD pays for the materials if the neighbors foot the bill for manpower. The project, before it's approved by ACHD, must have 100 percent cost participation from every property owner impacted by the paving.
"And that's what we did. It started with a small idea to make our alley a lot more presentable and the process took us the better part of a year," said Linda Whittig, the North End resident who spearheaded the SNOW block concept. "Believe me, I begged to use permeable pavers instead of asphalt for our alley, but it was entirely cost prohibitive."
Ultimately, the neighbors paid about $5,300 for the labor while ACHD footed the bill for materials, including the asphalt.
Blanchard and Kessler said they're still hoping other neighborhoods think twice before wanting to cover their alleyways with asphalt.
"But that won't be happening anytime soon," said DuBois. "It's October, and our asphalt plants are getting ready to close for the winter. Even if there was a great amount of interest, there will be a lull"
DuBois added that while ACHD was anxious to gauge the effectiveness of its own green alleys in downtown Boise, district officials weren't yet in a position to fully endorse permeable pavers for all future neighborhood alleyway paving requests.
"It's an interesting dilemma, because we definitely know what asphalt does," she said. "Ideally down the road, we'd like to see a lot more green alleys."