Back-Alley Breakthroughs

Baltimore and Melbourne transform dead lanes into vital public space.

Stereotypically dark, narrow spaces heaped with trash and left to the jurisdiction of rats, stray cats, and sometimes drug dealers and prostitutes, alleys are finally having their day in the sun. Residents worldwide have flocked back into town centers over the past decade, putting urban real estate at a premium. Now Baltimore and Melbourne—following in the foot­­steps of Copenhagen, which has pioneered the return of street space to citizens since the 1960s—are embracing planning pol­icies that encourage the use of alleyways for shops, din­ing, and communal gardens.

Last April, Baltimore passed a local ordinance that allows residents to gate and green these formerly dead service spaces, the fruition of a three-year effort spearheaded by the Community Greens program. “Many people think that an age is marked by innovators, but, in fact, it’s marked by the ideas we take for granted,” director Kate Herrod says, referencing Stanford law professor Lawrence Les­sig. In our age, Herrod argues, that perniciously accepted idea is privatization. “Capitalism is a great thing,” she says, “but some of our civic virtues are eroding.”

Fortunately, erosion is in reverse in Bal­timore’s Patterson Park neighborhood, where under the guidance of Community Greens a coalition of neighbors has beautified the once grubby strip behind their row homes with colorful planters and handsome benches. After the new legislation passed, iron gates were installed at each end of this pilot alley conversion, officially creating a community park. People are replacing the high cement walls that once defined their plots with low porous fences that visually unite them. Before the rehab, resident Tara Labosky didn’t know her neighbors’ names. Now, she says, “We keep an eye out for each other.”

In Melbourne, business owners have been reclaiming laneways since the mid-1990s, but the city only passed an amendment formalizing the phenomenon last March. The north-south network of lanes and arcades sprang up in the nineteenth century to forge passages through a dense grid of extralong blocks. As population growth created a demand for services, restaurants, bars, and boutiques opened in these low-rent spots. When urbanist Jan Gehl, who spearheaded Copenhagen’s public-space movement, was brought in as a consultant in 1994, he recommended revitalizing this network; by 2004 the expanse of active alleys had increased from 328 yards to more than two miles. “The lanes,” he says, “went from utilitarian—let’s get from A to B—to peo­pled environments filled with creative and enjoyable street life.”

To protect the network’s character, Mel­bourne’s City Council recently imposed new controls, including a height limit of 130 feet for surrounding buildings to prevent wind tunnels. And from 2007 to 2009 an advisory council will foster growth in underutilized alleys by, among other things, encouraging developers who buy up adjacent blocks in their entirety to bring in small businesses. “In any area that’s grown popular organically, the next thing you know there are four Star­bucks and people are saying, ‘Why isn’t anyone coming anymore?’” says architect Roger Nelson, who chairs the advisory council. “You can’t kill the goose who laid the golden egg. We’re identifying creative people who make things interesting and who understand the spirit.”

In both cities it is users who are shaping the profiles of individual lanes, a democratic trend that the municipalities want to facilitate. “When people come together to share a space,” Herrod says, “their multiple viewpoints even out any extreme swings in how it might be used.”

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