Symbolic of many historic European cities, alleys have long been a prominent element of the urban environment. As service corridors between the front, side or rear of buildings, alleys over time became synonymous with crime, vice, and bottle-toting street vagrants, and thus rendered unappealing for public use.

In a refreshing reversal of these perceptions, cities are increasingly recognizing the importance of alleys as key assets to their social landscape. Transcending their traditional role as corridors of commercial delivery and trash collection, many alleys are being repurposed into pedestrian friendly, economically viable public spaces that promote walkability and community. Moreover, projects supporting the “greening” of alleys are gaining traction amid the global push toward environmental sustainability.

In many cities, alley revitalization efforts are now front and center in the push to make more efficient use of urban space. As local governments seek ways to boost declining revenues, these thoroughfares are now viewed as potential nodes of economic activity. Their scale—often too narrow for substantive vehicular traffic—makes them the quintessential walkable thoroughfares. Also in the plus column is their value relative to bike storage, recycling and other functional possibilities.

While intentional in its purpose, much of what is taking place in alley revitalization has a grassroots, organic feel to it. In the über-hip Midtown District of downtown Sacramento, citizen-infused momentum is building around alley improvement efforts. The local Alley Improvement Alliance has identified 41 alleys in midtown that would benefit from redevelopment, improving aesthetics as well as facilitating creative uses for nearby businesses and homes. This initiative in California’s capital city highlights how urban design can be a tool for transforming gritty alleyways into attractive, functional spaces. The hope is to attract pedestrian activity into these spaces, thereby turning dark passages into catalysts for civic and economic vibrancy.

Models for successful alley regeneration can be found in myriad cities across North America. Ferndale, Michigan, a Detroit metro-area city with a population of 22,105, features a downtown alley that provides public space for local events, as well as outdoor restaurant seating for eateries that back up to the alleyway. Acquired by the City of Ferndale through a land swap with a local law firm, the reconstituted alley nestled in the core of its 1920 downtown has been landscaped with trees and flowers, giving it an attractive feel amenable to pedestrian traffic.

In the intellectually rich environs of Cambridge, Massachusetts lies “Brattle Walk,” a mid-block pedestrian alley featuring a tree-shaded streetscape stretching from Brattle Street to Mount Auburn Street in Harvard Square. A favorite trek of book-laden students and academics alike, this alley facilitates community and mobility for the campus.

Despite the obvious walkability advantages, efforts undertaken by municipalities and business improvement districts to pursue pedestrian-friendly alleys in US cities have met with varying levels of success. One of the biggest roadblocks is the logistics around converting what has been a vehicular access thoroughfare into a path amenable to pedestrians. Often, local drivers use alleys as a cut-through thoroughfare for avoiding traffic along main arteries. And in commercial districts alleys are an access node for trash haulers or trucks making deliveries to merchants whose stores back up to the alley.

To facilitate the pedestrian-friendliness of alleyways, commercial districts must either restrict delivery and trash-removal access to designated hours or close the passageway down completely. Pasadena, California, represents one model where delivery access is strictly controlled and enforced. Deliveries in the Mercantile Alley of the Old Pasadena Management District are restricted to the hours of 11:00 pm and 2:00 am. The delivery flow is managed through retractable bollards, which are wooden or iron posts that open and close during the designated hours. Trucks that exceed these time limits must call the municipality management to obtain special permission for the bollards to reopen.

In addition to the economic and community development benefits associated with alley revitalization, cities are striving to incorporate environmental practices into their framework. Chicago’s Green Alley program is perhaps the best example of this sort of initiative. Considered the alley capital of the US, Chicago boasts more than 13,000 of these passageways, encompassing more than 1900 total miles. The city’s ongoing repurposing effort has converted alleyways into green, permeable thoroughfares that absorb storm water and improve local water quality.

Fostering clean, environmentally sustainable alleys represents a fundamental shift from the trash encumbered, grimy repute that these spaces are often known for. In response, many downtown business districts are exploring trash management practices that incorporate new forms of collection and recycling. One of the most popular trends has been to exchange unsightly collection dumpsters for enclosures that accommodate commercial trash compactors and recycling containers. This offers a number of benefits over traditional trash collection methods: fewer hauler pickups, which means lower collection costs; better management of waste volumes, odors and rodent associated problems; and more efficient use of alley space.

Boulder, Colorado, has perhaps some of the most progressive efforts under way in support of the “greening” of its alleyways. The city currently offers a merchant program to incentivize environmentally sustainable waste reduction activities such as recycling and composting. City subsidization of composting provides merchants with a $2.50 per-cubic-yard reduction on their composting invoice when they elect this service through their designated waste hauler. The city has also moved toward the adoption of a “single stream” recycling system with haulers, enabling merchants to mix all recyclable items together, with the goal of reducing trash collections to once a week.

Despite their history as dark, abandoned corridors decorated by graffiti-laden dumpsters, unsavory characters and delivery trucks, alleys are now finding value as nodes of public vitality and economic activity. These long underused passageways now represent key avenues of community connectivity and civic pride.

Michael Scott is the editor of UrbanEngagement WebCity

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