New Back Alleys
"Alleys are an essential part of new urbanism," says architect Lee Iverson, whose firm, Iverson Associates, designed Orenco Station in conjunction with Fletcher Farr Ayotte architects. "They are part of a traditional neighborhood design that helps create pedestrian-friendly environments and increase connectivity."
With urban space at a premium, existing alleys are also emerging as prime opportunities for downtown redevelopment. The Seattle Department of Planning and Development's street category analysis, for example, highlights the "pragmatic and aesthetic" value of the city's intricate network of alleys. The city also underscores the potential of revitalized alleys — such as the Pike Place Market's Post Alley — to anchor thriving pedestrian centers.
But if urban and suburban alleys are coming back in vogue, they also present challenges for planners and architects seeking to influence behavior through community-oriented design practices. At issue are the ways in which 21st-century alleyways are actually being put to use.
Historically, alleys provided rear access for garbage trucks and other service vehicles, as well as residential parking to keep the front of the house clear of cars. The alleys also gave children a place to play beyond the constant surveillance of adults, and backyards fronting the alleys offered parents a break from the formal lawn care often associated with the front garden. These alleys were places where the barely contained chaos of domestic life was not just revealed, but celebrated.
New-urbanist alley environments incorporate some of these functions. At Orenco Station, low back fences encourage interaction between the semi-public alley and private yards. Carriage units — or mother-in-law apartments — also provide more eyes on the street, Iverson says. Meanwhile, the front sidewalks are uninterrupted by driveway curb cuts, enhancing the pedestrian environment and making the houses look placed in a garden.
And yet, new-urbanist alleys lack important qualities associated with their classic predecessors. At Orenco Station, for example, utility and aesthetics trump spontaneity and diversity. Thus, the trim alleyway landscaping — maintained by the home owners association — is indistinguishable in its uniform plantings from the well maintained front gardens.
Recycling and garbage trucks visit the Orenco Station alleyways, but kids don't go there to play. Fewer than 10 of the 479 households have children, and these parents are concerned about the dangers posed by cars backing out of garages.
Loss of Innocence
The transformation of the back alley from a bustling multipurpose space to a sanitized miniature replica of the street may be less an indictment of new urbanism than a recognition of changing behavioral norms that can thwart urban design intentions.
Portland's historic Ladd's Addition neighborhood, for example, which was designed and built between 1905 and 1930, is one of the city's few plats with alleys. Like Orenco Station, Ladd's Addition is remarkable for its continuity of scale, house elevation, and garden aesthetic. Like Orenco station, the alleys are devoid of children — despite the neighborhood's high proportion of families with children.
April Streeter, a Ladd's Addition resident, says her children have yet to tap into the magical hidden possibilities of their back alleyway. "I don't let [my kids] play in the alley alone," Streeter notes. "I think in part because of the transients and homeless people who use the alleys for thoroughfares, to pick up recycling bottles, and even, sometimes, for drug deals."
As Streeter points out, many Ladd's Addition residents have responded to homeless activity in the alley by constructing high fences along the alley-facing yards. "I want to co-exist with this part of our community," said Streeter. "But there's a psychological barrier that our gate provides that is really important to me."
The declining number of urban families with young children, as well as an increase in real and perceived social problems, complicate efforts to revitalize public thoroughfares such as alleys. Seattle's downtown core, however, does offer another possibility: reclaim the city's dense network of center-city alleys through commercial activity.
In European cities such as Rome or Paris, back alleys are a treasure trove of hidden restaurants and art galleries, not to mention havens for apartment dwellers who choose to eat dinner outside on a hot summer evening.
The Pike Place Market's Post Alley development and a few well maintained alleys around the Seattle Center show how alleys can serve as public-private gathering places hospitable to both residents and shoppers.
Ultimately, the continued penetration of new urbanism into suburban American life will also help mainstream and diversify the residential alleyway. Iverson's firm, for example, is designing Villebois, a new mixed-use, planned community in Wilsonville, Oregon built around a network of plazas, narrow streets, and alleys.
Villebois will transform 500 acres (200 hectares) of empty buildings and fields — the former Dammasch Hospital grounds — into a dense European-style development. Iverson says the houses will be designed to appeal to families. For many people, owning a house on an alley, even in the early stages of its renewal, suggests a tantalizing possibility: you can go home again.
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Linda Baker is a Portland-based journalist who grew up on an alleyway in Seattle. Her articles appear in The New York Times, Salon and The Christian Science Monitor.