Why Alleys Deserve More Attention

On America's lackluster alleyways and what we can do about them: a conversation with Daniel Toole, author of Tight Urbanism.

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Daniel Toole

Daniel Toole is a 26-year-old, Seattle-based architect who has, quite accidentally, found himself immersed in the hidden world of alleys. Recently awarded a travel fellowship by the local American Institute of Architects branch, he headed to Japan and Australia to study this arguably under-appreciated urban form. Upon his return, Toole produced a self-published book, Tight Urbanism, followed by a photographic exhibition that spilled over several alleys in his own city. His blog, Alleys of Seattle, features entries from his travels as well as observances on efforts to preserve and revitalize alleys here in the U.S. and abroad. Toole took time out to chat with Atlantic Cities about his alley obsession.

How did your interest in alleys come about?
I had moved to Seattle for a job, and wanted to find something cool in my new city, so I could stay fresh and do something academic outside of work. I had never lived in a city that had alleys — Portland, Oregon, where I'm from didn't, and even uptown Manhattan, where I studied at Columbia, didn't.

And what appealed to you about Seattle's alleys?
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.

And, of course, they are also an asset for pedestrian passage, they offer exactly the kind of thing that everyone goes to Paris and Rome for: to walk through the little streets.  

But then do they become sort of prettified? What happens to all of those layers of brick and graffiti?
Yes, there's a danger of over-designing. The best ones will be sensitive adaptive reuses so you don't lose that powerful quality...there should be a happy balance. In places like Australia and Japan, they've just been organically developed so there's a sense of context that works.
 
How do alleys in different cities vary from each other in their use and appearance?
It's interesting because they really do retain their cultural specificity. Many of the roji in Tokyo are under threat of development, or have burned because of the wood buildings; in Kyoto there's a lot of wood too, but there's a large preservation effort. Another thing that's culturally specific are all of the red lanterns advertising the stores and restaurants.

In America, by the way, it's rare that you find a shop in an alley, but this is common in Melbourne, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka. Even major department stores have cut storefront windows into the back of their buildings that open onto alleys. And in Melbourne in particular, graffiti is endorsed by the city, it's become an iconic aspect of their laneways.

Which city's alleys are your favorite?
In Kyoto, I remember one that runs right along the river, it's incredible, and over a mile long with a really, really narrow street but with about eight different, absolutely ornate pavings and all types of entertainment, food, restaurants. It's been thriving for 300 or 400 years. In Melbourne, Centre Place was a real favorite, with five story buildings on either side, and just filled with shops and bars, people churning through it all days. Street musicians.

What's a quick fix for an alley?
One thing I'm doing with a number of groups here in Seattle is having an alley party, where you show a movie, get some food, and people will start getting on board. They get inspired about what can potentially happen behind their apartment or business instead of drug dealing or prostitution. I've done walking tours through alleys, too...it helps to give a really nice pedestrian quality that says they can be enjoyed without a danger of being mugged. The idea of a dark, closed place takes on something more positive.

Then you can go from there and start talking with the municipality. The main objection that comes up is the reorganization of waste. But instead of dumpsters, you can move the waste to one end of the alley in colored bags. Lighting is extremely important, too, most are very poorly lit. They look sketchy and unsafe. The city can help with that.

Then you get to more expensive investments: repaving, making them permeable*, turning them into parks. The possibilities are endless. There's all this potential. They're kind of romantic, they're secretive, they're protected. It's something that our cities should be considering. I think we're getting there. We're seeing people taking stake and ownership in these tiny forgotten spaces that need to be addressed, remembered and loved.

Top image: Centre Place in Melbourne, courtesy Daniel Toole.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post used the word impermeable when we in fact meant the opposite!

About the Author

  • JoAnn Greco writes frequently on the built environment, and is a contributing editor at PlanPhilly.com.