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Activating Alleys For A Lively City

Alleys are places of drama–enticing in their narrow linearity, exciting in their perceived risk, and scaled as stage sets, where the human body figures large against a constrained backdrop and directed lighting. Alleys are also quintessentially about movement, whether by individuals perambulating and pedaling, vehicles accessing business backdoors, or water flowing from rooftops to drains. With this excitement, potential for human encounter, and utility in moving people, merchandise and water through the urban fabric, alleys possess compelling potential to produce a vibrant secondary public realm that might also help to repair the ecological performance of our cities.

Many cities in the world have discovered this capability of alleys to stimulate public life, interpersonal commerce, and enhanced ecological function: Melbourne’s lanes dissect oversized blocks to create networks of people places; Christchurch’s and Auckland’s lanes are loci of vibrant shopping, after-work gathering and nightlife; Tokyo’s narrow shopping and market lanes are filled with 24-hour commerce; and Chicago’s residential alleys bring neighbors together while infiltrating stormwater, keeping it out of overloaded sewers.

Galveston’s alleys possess this same promise, and there is now a surge of interest in reclaiming alley space as a public realm that is useful for more than only service deliveries. Gehl Architects’ recommendations for using downtown alleys as “green lungs,” ISI’s Nord Alley celebrations and World-Cup-Watching that engaged over 3000 people this past year and exemplify this movement of rediscovering and remodeling our alley networks to greater purpose.

Keys to successful, livable alleys include making a public realm, safe spaces, and a healthier more beautiful city, simply by activating alleys within the urban environment! People should be able to stop and enjoy spaces off of busy city streets. Alleys should be part of a city’s identity, not neglected ‘backside’ spaces. Alleys should contribute to healthy functioning ecosystems of a city, providing corridors for movement and habitats for plants, insects, and birds. Alleys should be safe at all hours and all people should be able to safely use alleys.

With improvement, alleys can begin to support more life and uses. By looking at the big and small changes that can be made in buildings, ground, environment, water treatment, atmosphere and safety of alleys, the City of Galveston can make a large impact. Factors such as water run-off, lighting, canopies or shelter, and minimal furniture, should all be considered. And while not all of these improvement areas will be applicable to every alley renovation project, each effort promotes higher-functioning alleys.

Integrating multiple functions into an alley can be easy with a little planning. Thinking about maintenance schedules, commuting times, events and activities can help alleys become the true public amenities that they are for the city. Alleys can be very dynamic places, bringing many types of users together in one little strip of space, creating some very interesting corridors and nodes for the city.

Love the alleys? Alley activism can change the way we engage with our city. Let’s start a bigger conversation on how to capitalize on Galveston’s back alley space.

Steps Towards Alley Improvement

1. Talk to your neighbors.

2. Clean up your alley.

3. Evaluate if there are major failures or dangers in the alley.

4. Determine the easy changes, like adding potted plants and chairs, versus long term plans, such as redoing pavement.

5. Find out if your alley is in a historical neighborhood.

6. Make plans, and divide tasks. If necessary, speak to an architect, landscape architect, or engineer.

7. Talk to the city and obtain necessary permits.

8. Make your alley changes for a better Galveston!


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