How did your interest in alleys come about?

Atlantic Wire article on laneways

Excerpt.

They provide great opportunities to walk through something a little more intimately scaled. They provide a refuge from the city. They inspired me to apply for the travel scholarship.

How do you define what makes an alley?
I think an alleyway in the American context is something specifically set aside as infrastructure. It’s never meant for pedestrians, it never receives any facade remodeling. But with that infrastructure designation comes a true story about the city. It’s all about function so you get to see the street at the ground plane and on the wall plane. There’s a lot of rich history there, from the brick paving peeking through, to the layers of graffiti and dirt, to all kinds of electrical and gas conduits. It’s really messy— there are loading docks, all the stuff you don’t see on a main street.

Are alleys something different outside the U.S.? London’s famous for its mews, Paris has its arcaded passages.
Yes, in Europe and elsewhere, they are just traditional forms of urbanism, meant to carry people. In Japan, they’re called roji, which basically means little street. In Melbourne, they call them laneways, which to me suggests pedestrian passage. They came about organically, with people developing parcels and setting aside space for short cuts because the blocks were so deep. The laneways became capillaries while the streets and boulevards served as the arteries.

Why is it important that alleys in America be better used?
It depends on the city and the time. I don’t think our population densities can afford doing that to every alley in America, but in cities that do have a strong alley collection, we should start addressing all of that space. Chicago has a program that’s turning some of them into greenways. And even in Detroit, there’s a beautiful alley that has transformed an entire block. It’s become so successful that people are getting married there, there are parties, people are taking it back.

Is there ever a case for keeping alleys as places relegated to garbage collecting and other behind-the-scenes infrastructure?
As waste collection becomes more effective like they’ve done in some places with a whole underground tube system, maybe not. Maybe we’ll see a proliferation of all this space becoming available. That doesn’t mean it has to be turned over to pedestrians and parties, but maybe it could be used as a new kind of green infrastructure, for handling storm water, for growing things. These alleys can be turned into assets for the city. As it stands now, they present a ridiculous amount of space to be used simply for waste conveyance.

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1 Comment

Toronto could use more laneway housing to refashion some of the city's laneways, making them cleaner and less likely to attract criminal activity. It can be a good source of revenue for existing homeowners and new source of housing–an alternative to condos. Thanks for posting a part of that interview with Seattle architect Daniel Toole. Our laneways deserve more attention.

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