As we have become a more compact city, there is a re-examination of spaces of all kinds within urban environments. In the City of Seattle, almost 25% of the surface area of the city lies within public right-of-way areas; in the Central Business District that number increases to 35%. One significant but often-overlooked piece of the urban right-of-way is the alley. Alleys have historically earned a somewhat dubious reputation; for many they conjure images of dirty, dark places, attracting unsavory characters and activities. But with increasing urbanization, alleys present great opportunity to create a more vibrant, healthy and sustainable urban environment - if we can rise to the occasion and implement ideas that breathe life into these forgotten spaces, while still maintaining their key utilitarian functions.
Similar transformations are already taking shape in various other cities. Chicago has incorporated natural drainage to help clean the runoff from its urban areas through its Green Alleys program. On the other side of the globe, Sydney, Australia is integrating arts and culture into its alleys (known there as laneways), with a recent temporary art installation project that is part of a larger government revitalization program. A popular movement to reclaim and revitalize laneways in the city’s Newtown neighborhood staged a parade and party that traversed and energized the area’s alleys.
Recently, Seattle held a design competition to generate ideas and public interest in a new vision for the city’s alleys. The competition focused particularly on the downtown core, inviting participants to envision “…potential new uses that in combination could add functionality to our transportation and ecological systems as well as improving the aesthetic and community-building elements of our City.” This new frame for viewing alleys builds on similar thought for all components of the built environment: we must continually design spaces and systems that are resilient and multi-functional, adapting to different uses and users at different times. Such places should foster environmental health as well as enrich the human spirit.
In considering how to achieve these goals, our team decided that we needed incentives to help private business use and improve Seattle's alleyways. We developed the idea of “Alley Enterprise Zones,” areas in which special city rules would be applied to blocks of alleys to spur the improvements there. The Enterprise Zones would achieve the alley improvements through a continuous feedback loop: The city gives tax breaks to landowners and small businesses with storefronts or main entries along the alley; a portion of the remaining taxes that those businesses pay would go into a fund dedicated toward alley improvements in their enterprise zone; the new businesses and ensuing improvements to the alley would help draw visitors and customers, thus supporting further business growth and development, further alley improvements, and so on.
These smaller-scaled pedestrian-friendly businesses seem ideal to provide places to gather and relax, and would support the growth of a potential secondary pedestrian network through the web of the city. In so doing, they increase the "granularity" of the city - a term used by our friend Liz Dunn to describe the tightness of scenes and experiences in the urban landscape. These alley-front locations also offer an incubation zone for niche businesses & entrepreneurs.
So how do we draw more people into the alleys, making them hospitable, safe places to visit while also increasing their environmental performance? To answer this question we developed a toolbox of solutions that designers and the community could draw on in transforming each alley. Bending the rules of the competition, we chose to focus on “our” alley for our design proposal.
At the southern end of the alley, new food service or other businesses could locate in the now vacant alley-front real estate and take advantage of outdoor seating opportunities during lunch and dinner hours. Setting fixed delivery and trash pickup hours for the alley would provide a time at which one end of the alley could be shut down to vehicles to allow it to be used for café and restaurant seating (while maintaining vehicular access from the north end). An awning that folds down from the building’s façade during dining hours could provide shelter and evening lighting, adding to the transformed ambiance of the space. A simple deck built out over the adjacent sloping parcel would provide seating space even during times the alley’s south end is open to vehicles, and provide an additional income source for the property’s owner.
The northern end of the alley is more enclosed, with taller buildings on either side. Solar reflectors and a projected video and still-frame art installation would add more light and dynamism to the space. A kinetic green wall would detain stormwater runoff from the large roof area of the adjacent buildings. Additional stormwater detention and treatment capacity would be gained by adding planted porous paving to portions of the alley driving lane. Ideally these on-site natural drainage systems could be engineered with enough subsurface capacity to allow disconnecting of the buildings’ roof downspouts from the city’s overtaxed combined sewer system.
The interventions to transform the city’s alleys do not need to be overly complex or expensive, and can be tackled incrementally. Many of the individual elements of the design proposed in our entry could be applied to other alleys. Likewise all of the Green Alleys Competition entries included many good ideas, centered around Pioneer Square’s Nord Alley but also more broadly applicable. Creating a regulatory framework that supports alley improvements, such as that proposed with Alley Enterprise Zones, would be one way for cities to move forward with a low-cost solution that encourages sustainable development through local business, green infrastructure, and vibrant urban places.