Alley, Alley, in Come Free

A photo essay on urban lanes.
Nord Alley party from above, Mira Poling, International Sustainability Instiutte

by Mira Poling, International Sustainability Institute

Once a stinking strip of menace that was friendlier to rats and crime than to hummus and dancing, Seattle’s Nord Alley is an urban place transformed. Cleared of dumpsters and filth, it now hosts art exhibits, blooming flowers, and a mobbed monthly party (pictured above). Nord is the leading edge of a trend just catching on in Cascadia: the reclamation of downtown alleys as lively, even lovely, public realms.

Here’s Nord Alley before its transformation. . .

Overflowing dumpsters in Nord Alley, Seattle

by Karen Davis Smith, courtesy of International Sustainability Institute

 

. . . and after. The dumpsters are gone, and the waste collector now visits twice a day, picking up sorted and bagged trash, compost, and recycling. Instead, there’s a photography exhibit.

 

Zeitgeist art in Nord Alley, Seattle

by Erika Schultz, courtesy of International Sustainability Institute

 

Another before view . . .

 

Garbage truck and dumpsters in Nord Alley, Seattle.

by Karen Davis Smith, courtesy of International Sustainability Institute

 

. . . and after, at one of many parties to watch high-stakes soccer games on a big screen.

 

World Cup viewing in Nord Alley, Seattle

by Jordan Lewis, courtesy of International Sustainability Institute

 

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. Here is the Seattle Latin Fusion band Manigua at a recent event:

 

Salsa band Manigua playing in Nord Alley, Seattle

Manigua: Jose Gude (Guitar), Alberto Vega (Bass), Gabriel Martinez, Tor Dietrichson (congas), photo by Mira Poling, courtesy of International Sustainability Institute

 

To Vogel, alleys are a neglected opportunity in the urban landscape: “Alleys are a huge wasted asset, but it won’t require too much to reclaim them.” (More from Vogel and footage of the alley are here ). University of Washington students Mary Fialko and Jennifer Hampton agree. They studied downtown Seattle’s alleys and determined that laneways cover almost half as much space as all of the zone’s parks, squares, and existing pedestrian-oriented streets. In other words, reclaiming alleys could increase by almost half the pedestrian area of downtown Seattle.

Imagine a Seattle in which the half of downtown blocks with alleys have spaces more like Seattle’s one truly great alley: Post Alley, pictured below at its south end. . .

 

Post Alley, Seattle, south end, flickr_yo_tuco

flickr, yo_tuco

 

. . . and its main north section.

 

Post Alley, Seattle, north end, flickr, Katherine_lynn

flickr, Kathryn_lynn

 

But Post Alley is in the tourist-oriented Pike Place Market. That’s why the transformation of the unremarkable Nord Alley could be such an important glimpse of the future: such workaday alleys have huge potential. 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.

 

Hoola Hoop alley art in Vancouver, BC

by Travis Martin, courtesy of Livable Laneways Vancouver

 

In Vancouver, BC, a non-profit called Livable Laneways has revamped an alley in the city’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. (Pictured above is its Hula-Hoop sculpture. More photos here). Working with community members and an arts group called Vancouver Design Nerds, and supported by the city’s livability initiative VIVA Vancouver, Livable Laneways is transforming an underused alley into a pedestrian link. The group has added planter boxes, road barriers, and paint. It has also invited neighbors into the alley with markets, art installations, and other public events. Viva Vancouver, for its part, is watching closely, and hoping that success in Mount Pleasant will create a template it can replicate elsewhere, as called for in the city’s Greenest City Action Plan.

 

Balmy Alley, San Francisco, flickr, m_kasahara

flickr, m_kasahara

 

In California, San Francisco’s Mission District has stunning murals (excellent slideshow), some painted as early as the 1970s, that tell the social and political story of the Mission and its people. (Pictured above is one in Balmy Alley.) But it is San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood—arguably the most densely settled neighborhood in the United States outside of Manhattan—that  is home to the more-impressive re-do of its alleys. In 1998, San Francisco approved for Chinatown the only alley master plan then in force in the United States. The plan calls for renovating 31 alleys. The prime mover behind the plan was the non-profit Chinatown Development Commission, which saw reviving alleys as a way to reclaim community assets. Chinatown’s alleys are integral to the neighborhood’s pedestrian network (as illustrated by the photo below). So far, San Francisco has updated almost a dozen of Chinatown’s alleys, installing new paving, street furniture, stormwater features, and public art.

 

Alley in Chinatown, San Francisco, flickr, bluewaikiki

flickr, bluewaikiki

 

Meanwhile, San Francisco architect David Winslow has been advancing the redevelopment of the Linden “living alley” (pictured below) in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Winslow wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Nearly 30 percent of urban space is given to streets, including alleys.” On Linden, change proceeded in steps: a property owner fixed up a decaying building, a coffee shop moved in, the community developed a plan for the length of the alley, landscaping created green space and provided a place for rainwater to percolate into the soil, and finally the city repaved the alley so it would all be on one level, with no distinction between street and sidewalk.

Remodeled Linden Alley in San Francisco, flickr, niallkennedy

flickr, niallkennedy

Concerted alley renovation efforts remain young in San Francisco, as they are in Cascadia, but they’re far advanced in Melbourne, Australia, a city that has been working for two decades to create a pedestrian-friendly downtown. Melbourne’s laneways are at the heart of the effort. The  central city is built on a grid of large blocks, and alleys cut the blocks up into pedestrian-scaled pieces. Melbourne’s initiative has advanced far beyond the plants-and-street-furniture phase of Seattle’s Nord Alley. It has not only permitted but encouraged the remodeling of its alleys into outdoor cafés, marketplaces, and other pedestrian Meccas. Melbourne also vigorously promotes street art projects in its alleys (good video). The results of these efforts, captured in this Streetfilms video, have been spectacular.

Rob Adams, Melbourne’s director of city design, says the change occurred as Melbourne began to require that every development in the city take a careful look at how buildings meet the street. The key to thriving pedestrian places, he says, is in the details of urban life (like the traffic-blocking bollards below in Melbourne’s Hosier Alley). It’s in the quality of the public art and paving, rather than in big architectural projects. Adams says, “We’ve got to rediscover the small.”

 

Hosier Laneway in Melbourne, flickr, Mimi_K

flickr, Mimi_K

 

In the alley renovation league, Melbourne has leaped into the global lead after commissioning a 1994 study by Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl of Gehl Architects. Instead of putting the study on the shelf as so many cities might have, Melbourne quickly set to work implementing its recommendations, with the kinds of happy results visible in the alley mural pictured below.

 

Hosier Laneway murals, Melbourne, flickr, ultrakml

flickr, ultrakml

 

It’s a good sign, therefore, that Seattle hired Gehl Architects to perform a similar downtown study. Released in 2009, it includes recommendations to view alleys as “Blue-Green Lungs” of downtown—places to grow plants, perform water filtration, and provide back routes for people on foot and bikes. Downtown Seattle has alleys in about half of its blocks, but most only function as service ways and do not have the paving, lighting, or building details that are important to attracting pedestrians.

As projects like Nord Alley and Vancouver’s Livable Laneways spread in Cascadia, alleys will evolve from minuses—stinking service roads—to pluses. Melbourne’s Rob Adams sums up the process: “To change cities will always be a slow process and cannot be achieved overnight through silver-bullet solutions of grand architecture. It is more about the slow incremental improvement of the most important piece of public space in the city—namely, our streets.”

That’s a lesson that Todd Vogel and the creators of Nord Alley have already mastered.

 

Livable Laneways has yet to schedule its next event, but the next Nord Alley party is on September 1, from 5:30 to 8:30 pm. Details here.

Guest blogger Alyse Nelson is a city planner for a small town in Kitsap County, Washington. She spends some of her spare time researching for Sightline on topics such as pedestrian carts and cargo bikes. She last wrote for Sightline about Denmark’s family-friendly courtyard housing. Alan Durning also contributed to this post.

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Comments

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    When walking in Seattle I often want to to take a shortcut through an alley, but it’s such a depressing space that I walk a further distance to avoid it. What really makes an alley work (after seeing them in many cities) is frequent foot traffic. Downtown Seattle certainly has enough of that for many of its alleys. The next step is businesses. That alley picture in Chinatown has something the others don’t – business signs. At first this could be just back-side walk-up windows for restaurants (no building modification necessary), but eventually I’d love to see little shops in alleys.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Exactly!

  2. Patrick Barber says:

    This is brilliant. Inspiring and thought-provoking. There are some interesting moves here in Portland toward limited car-free streets for which some of the same ideas apply. The refiguring of downtown’s SW Ankeny, a tiny, block-long alley-like street, into a pedestrian gallery and dining area, is much like some of the transformations described above. I’ve enjoyed both Post Alley and San Francisco’s Maiden Lane in the past, and I think that “taking back the alleyways” is a great idea to increase people-friendly urban spaces.

    Cheers!

    Patrick

  3. Eric de Place says:

    One logical alley for Seattle to work on downtown is the north-south one between 4th Avenue and Westlake Park. It’s only about 2/3 as along as a normal alley and one end of it already opens into Westlake’s pedestrian square, right alongside the hotdog stand. It’s got enough foot traffic and retail nearby, I’d wager, to make it an easy draw with just a few fixes.

    I’m also very interested in alleys outside of downtown. One of Seattle’s gems has always been the little stretch in the U-district north of NE 42nd Street that takes one from Magus Books to Cafe Allegro. Ballard’s got a couple of potentially interesting ones too, including the one that heads SE of Market Street between Shilshole Ave and Ballard Ave. There used to be a little gelato shop tucked partway in and I’ve always wanted that thing to be fully opened up.

    Great post, Alyse! I’d love to see a follow up where you identify some of the better candidate alleys from around the region.

    • Alyse Nelson says:

      Thanks, Eric! I love the idea of a follow up identifying potential alleys prime for renovation across Cascadia. The study by UW students Mary Fialko and Jennifer Hampton is a great resource because it provides examples of alleys for a variety of environments — from downtown areas to residential lanes.

  4. Jeffrey Linn says:

    Very cool post! Alleys can be amazing spaces, and can be a more human-scale alternative to many of the surrounding city streets.

    In addition to the Cafe Allegro–Magus Books space, another potential alley in the U-District is the one between University and Brooklyn south of 45th. The bones are there or will be in place–the new light rail station between 45th and 43rd, new student housing a couple of blocks to the south (which the alley would be the most direct connection to), as well as a few Ave businesses with backdoor access to the alley. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this in ten years or so.

  5. Alan Durning says:

    A Where’s Waldo game. I noticed that, purely by chance, I’m visible (barely) in one of the Nord Alley photos. I sometimes attend Nord parties. Can anyone spot me?

  6. Lynn Stevens says:

    Some neighbors and I are exploring a mini version of this with just the head of an alley adjacent to a subway station that serves as the connection with an also adjacent parking lot.

    However, I think one of our strengths in livability in Chicago vs. New York, for example, is that we do have alleys for garbage. How are other areas handling garbage disposal when an alley is converted? How were businesses enticed to get on board with the plan?

    • Alyse Nelson says:

      In many situations, the potential for alleys can be realized without taking away the service functions like garbage collection. For example, Nord Alley in Seattle doesn’t have dumpsters any more – instead trash collection occurs several times daily. As far as business interests go, in Melbourne, revitalizing the alley has created a second “street” for business activities on what is normally the unused side of buildings. Their thriving cafe culture provides an important case study to promote to politicians and business owners when making the case for alley modifications.

      • Steve says:

        I was just wondering if anyone knows what the costs of collecting garbage more often is in these cases and if they need to use another contractor to do this and what other hurdles they may have encountered with permitting and police/fire. I love the idea and am sure that the economic benefits outweigh the additional cost, but I would like to know more about the initial costs and political actions that come with these conversions. If anyone has any information on this I would be very interested in trying to do this in the economically depressed, but beuatiful city I live in.

      • Andreas says:

        @Steve: The City of Seattle’s Clear Alleys Program FAQ page answers several of your questions. CleanScapes or the City’s Commercial Compost and Recycling Manager (contact info on this page) might be able to offer some tips on how to get something similar started in your city.

        In the case of Seattle, many businesses in Pioneer Square (where Nord Alley is located) were voluntarily participating in a dumpster-free program for several years before the City mandated businesses Downtown start using bags that are collected several times a day instead of dumpsters that get emptied once a week. The neighborhoods where dumpsters are banned are somewhat notorious for drug use and other crime, and dumpsters were seen as providing cover for undesirable behavior. While some business owners might be unhappy about losing their dumpsters, many are probably glad to have the dumpsters (and the hiding places they provide) gone.

  7. James says:

    A very cool and timely post! Alleys can be amazing spaces, and can be transformed to add more livable spaces for areas that are once forgotten and dirty bark alleys.

    In Vancouver, BC “Livable Laneways” (a non-profit organization) has revamped an alley in the city’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Vancouver’s Laneway Housing Policy should be applauded for it’s vision to allow more dwellings within the city. Vancouver will be transformed its alleyways slowly through it’s laneway housing initiative making the Vancouver more sustainable, and hopefully more affordable.

  8. Frank Hanson says:

    As one who has lived as a transplanted Canadian in Melbourne since 1989 I can vouch for the success of Melbourne’s laneway renaissance. It has been remarkable how much lanes have been transformed and the changes embraced by everyone. Even new block sized developments try to emulate the success of the – some succeed if they get the principles right namely human scale and quirky character and the opportunity for spontaneous activity, art you name it!

  9. Austin Nolan says:

    One of the (in my mind) the earliest transformations of a rundown area is Mathew Street of Beetles fame, and the surrounding alleys in Liverpool, take a tour on google street scene, they now hold a free music festival every August Bank Holiday (the Matthew Street Music Festival) to celebrate the music and culture of Liverpool

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for the tip!

  10. Pam in Seattle says:

    That was a very poor representation of Post Alley in Seattle. There was only a snippet of this and that piece of Post Alley. The bare pice of ‘the south end of the alley’ should not have been taken at that angle and the viewer should have been told that the Market Theater and the famous Gum Wall were both to the left. The alley used to continue south and the neighborhood was told when the Four Seasons went in they would let the alley continue south but they did not, they blocked it. On the other side of the hotel Post Alley continues further south.

    • yo_tuco says:

      Why not take the shot at that angle? The picture was not taken for this article. And note the technical challenges of the shot. Inside the tunnel was dark with very bright sunlight outside of it (12+ stops of light) yet detail was captured in both extremes due to the developer used and the dynamic range of B&W film. The low angle provided reflected light off the cobble stones what would have been mostly lost standing up and helped fill in the foreground.

  11. Janis says:

    Very interesting article on how to take advantage of small alley spaces! I’ll be in Seattle soon and can’t wait to check out Post Alley.

  12. Chuck Wolfe says:

    Hi all–you may recall our KUOW discussion on the topic last year, based on the last generation of alley articles and the early stages of the UW work: http://www.kuow.org/program.php?id=19734

    Also, Daniel Tools’s work and blog are very important–not sure you linked to it: http://alleysofseattle.com/

    Chuck

  13. Chuck Wolfe says:

    Actually I see you did link to Daniel Toole’s DJC article, so consider his blog link in my comment extra elaboration…

  14. Stephen Rowley says:

    Are you aware this article has been reproduced here?

    http://www.theplanningboardroom.net/reconsidering-the-urban-alley/

    Just checking as I know some of their articles have been reproduced without permission.

    • Eric Hess says:

      Thanks, Stephen. Hadn’t seen it. But we have a free-use policy, so anyone is free to republish our work (with credit).

  15. Erin Goodman says:

    Alyse,

    I work with the U District Livability Partnership and we are in the process of starting an alley activation project in the U District. I would love to be in contact with you to request permission to use some of the photos in your essay at a one time display for our kick off party.

    I can be reached at

    Erin Goodman
    U District Chamber of COmmerce
    [email protected]
    206-547-4417

    Thanks,

    Erin

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