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Urban Alleys: New Roles for Old Paths

By May 30, 2012 July 8th, 2014 8 Comments

The concept of what an alley is varies from place to place. But alleys everywhere are in a state of flux, changing and responding to how people live and businesses operate. Some of these changes are pretty exciting – and have a lot to do with how they are paved, and if the potholes are kept at bay.

In Chicago, adherents to the Chicago Plan of 1909 (which was drawn by up by the venerated Daniel Burnham, a design described as “the most influential document in the history of urban planning”), more than 1,400 miles of alleys provide utility access and places for garages for city residents as well as businesses, large and small. By contrast, Manhattan (New York City) has almost no alleys. The difference is most visible in how Chicagoans have their garbage picked up from the alleys, while tony New Yorkers find themselves sidestepping garbage (and garbage smells) that is placed at the curb, at the front doors of multimillion-dollar town homes.

In Europe, alleys in older parts of cities follow centuries-old footpaths, most of them too narrow to handle vehicular traffic. In the old quarters of Barcelona, Paris, London, Rome and Vienna, alleys are filled with restaurants, boutiques and service providers – often, a fashionable place to promenade. In the trendy Le Marais quarter of Paris, distinguishing between streets and alleys is sometimes hard to do. It’s in the alleys where the most fashionable businesses are and where their stylish patrons gather.

Chicago’s permeable alley pavement experiment

Back in Chicago, the alleys are viewed as both a problem and a solution. The pavement is deteriorated in many areas (see photos), in part due to irregular maintenance and to frequent utility cuts. Many are still paved with bricks, an indication of how infrequently alleys are resurfaced.

But the larger problem is overall hard surfaces in Chicago and many other urban areas in America. In heavy rains, water is not absorbed naturally into the earth but instead runs off roofs, parking lots, roads and alleys into the storm sewer system. In low-lying areas, the water load is so great that streets, viaducts and basements flood in a matter of minutes. A multi-billion dollar “Deep Tunnel Project,” which is about half complete, is intended to channel these rainwater floods to a series of reservoirs. However, it will not be complete until 2029, and even then skeptics suggest it will never be able to handle all the water all the time. In the meantime, this watershed is mixed with raw sewage which empties into Lake Michigan after storms and befouls the cities beachs with high bacteria counts. This can happen a dozen or more times per summer, disappointing beachgoers for days at a time.

To mitigate the stormwater loads, Chicago is experimenting with permeable pavement in what it calls the “Green Alleys Program.” Permeable pavement comes in many forms, some of which can look like traditional asphalt (or, paving blocks and grids); all feature holes with a porous underlayment that allows water absorption. In a current test in the city, only a depressed center of some alleys is permeable while the remainder is traditional asphalt. The rainwater channels to the permeable section, preventing it from flushing out to the street and into a storm system drain. Much of the city nearest Lake Michigan is underlain with sandy soils, which further helps with this soaking up of rainwater – once the hard surface above it allows water to percolate down.

Seattle works to create Paris-style alleys

Architecture writer Mark Hinshaw, in Crosscut.com, talks about a hoped-for conversion of alleys in Seattle from “havens of antisocial and criminal behavior … lined with trash bins and truck-loading docks.” He cites an existing section that fits his ideal called Post Alley, connected to the recognized Pike Market district, where “vegetable stands, fishmongers, bakeries, coffee bars, French and Italian cafes, an Irish pub and diminutive specialty shops” now thrive. He wants to extend the commercial use of that alley, where the presence of back-building fire escapes remind him of New York’s Little Italy.

Seattle’s Department of Transportation is working with the International Sustainability Institute (ISI, also based in the “Emerald City”) to develop ideas for converting another alley, Nord Alley off Pioneer Square, into some type of public, “lively, outdoor room,” as Hinshaw describes it. Seattle DOT and the ISI sponsored a competition in 2010 for designers to offer up plans for making that happen. The ideas incorporated guidebooks and phone apps to help visitors understand the significance of points of interest in the alleys, and one took a more ambitious course in upgrading paving, lightning, trash/recycling containment and storm water infiltration. All agree that businesses to attract foot traffic will complete the picture.

ISI studied pedestrian traffic in Seattle’s downtown and found that about 75 percent of people there are willing to walk nine or more blocks. The Institute itself fronts on an alley that “people would use as a bathroom,” says founder Todd Vogel. But by installing window planters, a hanging art installation made of recycled water bottles and adding second hand patio furniture, he thinks that alley is on its way up. “We started respecting the space and people started to respect it.”

Hinshaw also wrote that giving alleys names might be a way to render them more important. He sees character in alleys, particularly where they are in close proximity to the city’s cultural history. While much of the city grid is numbered (145th Street, for example), which he decries for lacking in poetry and imagination, the naming of alleys can create a stronger sense of history and character for neighborhoods. A few alleys are now named are for poets and writers, which he seems to like, and he suggests that reviving names from the indigenous people who preceding European settlers would be appropriate and educational as well.

Hinshaw’s main point about alleys is that instead of treating them as places to hide, for utility and garbage, these points of egress can be much more functional and attractive.

In a future for cities like Seattle and Chicago, there could be less talk about “back alleys” and more about those interesting places that play an important role in the local retail business culture and environment.

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