Alleys have a bad rep. In the movies, alleys are for smoking in secret, dumping bodies and running from the law. Even in more mundane real life, urban laneways are usually just for garbage and garage doors and graffiti.
But as cities grow up, not out, public space is at a premium. Several North American cities have recognized the untapped potential in their secondary street network and are turning lanes into parks, public spaces and even front yards.
In Detroit, alleys are for music. The rustbelt city is the only North American stop on Australia’s St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival. The inaugural Detroit stop for the international music festival in 2013 had major acts like Sigur Ros and The National playing the city’s backstreets.
Laneway performances have a long history in Detroit. In 1977, a non profit hosted the first North Cass Street Fair to raise money to prevent the removal of historic buildings in the neighborhood. Thirty-seven years later, the annual event now known as Dally In The Alley is going strong. Attendees can eat, dance and admire their way through back streets in the North Cass neighborhood each fall.
Seattle’s downtown alleys are programmed all year by the Alley Network Project. The Project hosts outdoor music and dining events, events for dogs, events for bikes, and this year, events for soccer fans. The Project has published a free Alley Event Guide to help Seattleites activate alleys in other parts of town.
In San Francisco’s Financial District, you can eat in the street and feel like you’re in Paris. Belden Place is a narrow alley at the heart of the city’s small French Quarter, occupied by several restaurants. The alley is closed to cars and fills with tables, umbrellas and outdoor heaters for outdoor eating all year.
San Francisco is exploring the idea of redesigning residential alleys as park-like public spaces. The city has implemented pilot lane designs with seats and plantings that still permit vehicle traffic, but are designed for cyclists and pedestrians first.
Chicago is also repurposing lanes for a new infrastructure purpose: Sustainable storm water management. The City’s Green Alley Program is resurfacing some of the city’s 1,900 miles of public alleys with permeable paving and rain gardens to reduce localized flooding and recharge groundwater.
In Canada and Europe, laneways as front yards for secondary structures is really taking off. The City relaxed zoning regulations to allow laneway houses to be constructed on many single family neighborhoods. Interest in the new development type is high, and specialist architectural studios are doing creative things with these small spaces. Great examples of laneway housing can also be found in many European cities like Paris and Amsterdam, where small urban living is the norm.