Turning alleys into neighborhood spaces

Issue Date: Thu, 2009-01-01
Page Number: 13


Large American cities increasingly are trying to improve the aesthetics, environmental performance, or sociability of their alleys.

In 2007 the City of Chicago issued “The Chicago Green Alley Handbook,” which is aimed at installing permeable paving, introducing planting, and relieving flooding along many of the city’s approximately 1,900 miles of public alleys.

Recently Los Angeles has been looking at how to create park-like settings or friendly neighborhood spaces in some of that city’s 12,309 blocks of alleys, with encouragement from the University of Southern California’s Center for Sustainable Cities.

Probably the most energetic alley improvement program now under way is in Baltimore, where an organization called Community Greens is collaborating with neighborhood groups and City Hall to reclaim rundown and often crime-ridden rear passages.

Community Greens — an initiative of Ashoka, a nonprofit international “social entrepreneur” organization based in Arlington, Virginia — began working with the Patterson Park Community Development Corp. in 2003 to convert a decrepit Baltimore alley into a place where residents would feel secure and might mingle with their neighbors.

That alley, between Luzerne Avenue and Glover Street in the Patterson Park neighborhood, was outfitted with planters, potted plants, benches, and a barbecue grill. Gates were installed near the ends of the alley, and garbage collection was moved elsewhere — first to areas in front of the houses and later to the ends of the alley.

“It’s been nothing short of transformational,” says Kate Herrod, director of Community Greens. “Where there used to be pimping, crime, and drug activities, they got safety and community.” Residents “feel much more safe and committed to their block” than before, she says.

The success led Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon to sign an ordinance in May 2007 that authorizes “gating and greening” of any alley where the adjacent residents overwhelmingly request it and where there is no objection from the city departments of police, fire, sanitation, transportation, and public works. If 80 percent of the owners of the surrounding occupied houses approve it, various improvements can be made to the alley. The surrounding homeowners must consent unanimously before gates, trees, or other obstructions to vehicles can be included in the upgrading.

Patterson Park now has a reported 14 blocks carrying out alley improvements, considering them, or requesting authorization. In all, about 60 blocks in 22 Baltimore neighborhoods have expressed interest in the program.

From the perspective of New Urbanism, the conversion of alleys to communal spaces has both an upside and a downside. Over the past 20 years, new urbanists made alleys an accepted part of contemporary planning, even in suburbs that historically lacked them. Many developments — in cities, suburbs, and small towns — have introduced or reintroduced alleys as a way of upgrading the neighborhood atmosphere. Rear passages have become inconspicuous locations for garages, garbage collection, and some utilities. Baltimore’s move toward closing some of its long-established alleys goes against that trend.

If many alleys are placed off-limits to parking, that could divert parked cars to the streets. One danger in the emerging trend toward converting alleys into private or gated neighborhood spaces is that it could end up reinforcing the conventional practice of putting driveways or garages in front of houses. That very pattern undermined the attractiveness of many American residential streets during the past six decades. However, in Baltimore’s program, off-street parking is sometimes installed at the ends of the alleys.

The specifics vary widely. In a redeveloped portion of Patterson Park known as Dexter Walk, the area behind the houses has been designed to be fairly open to the alley and the neighbors. Residents can drive in and park their cars behind the homes. When the cars are removed, however, the unobstructed expanse of space becomes a good spot for block parties and other neighborly activities. The houses were built without fences between properties, so that the alley and the rest of the rear area could be used at times for community events.

Baltimore’s experiment with new treatments for alleys stems largely from the city’s severe crime problems. The greening and gating of alleys can be “a way for people to create defensible space,” Herrod says. Many alleys have become no-man’s-lands, she observes. “This initiative is really to help residents take ownership over spaces where there are issues of crime, dumping, and vandalism,” Nathanson confirms.