Solving Cities

Transforming urban alleys into great urban spaces

Transforming urban alleys into great urban spaces

Posting in Cities

Alleys don't have a reputation as amazing public spaces, but a trend in northwest cities is changing that.

Alleys: dirty, dangerous, mysterious.

But a trend in northwest cities is changing those negative perceptions of alleys by turning them into desirable urban spaces.

Alyse Nelson, a city planner in Washington state, posts an inspiring photo essay on the Sightline Daily blog about the overlooked potential of urban alleys as great places.

In places across the urban Northwest and beyond, neighbors are beginning to reclaim their lanes, turning them into pedestrian passages, marketplaces, and even gathering places—car-free, human-scaled, edgy and intimate. The possibilities of these neglected urban courtyards are ample, and city-makers are taking note.

Take Seattle's Nord Alley (right). Before it was a wasteland. Now, with very little work, the alley is cleaned up and offers public art and a welcoming gathering place. So inviting that crowds gathered here during the last World Cup to cheer on their favorite team. Here's Nelson:

Led by International Sustainability Institute’s Todd Vogel, Nord Alley’s change-over required limited physical improvement. Vogel and his neighbors removed the boards from the windows, and bought some yard furniture and plants from Craigslist. Seattle’s Alley Art Project assembled business owners, artists, and the City of Seattle to hang a glass and metal sculpture over the Nord Alley (video, at 5:50). Most important, Vogel  began hosting parties to coincide with the monthly art walk in Nord’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.

Alleys might seem like only a minor part of the urban landscape, but they are more numerous than you might think. A group of University of Washington students studied the alleys in Seattle and found that if downtown Seattle reclaimed its alleys it could increase its public space by 50 percent in downtown Seattle. That's huge. In fact it means that downtown alleys cover half as much space as all of the downtown parks, plazas, and pedestrian-oriented spaces. That's a large potential for making the city more walkable, safe, and connected.

Check out the photo essay for other amazing alleys.

Photo 1: katherine lynn/Flickr

Photo 2: xoque/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure