Alleys Offer Important Advantages in Keeping Cars Behind Houses

attractive alley with uniform row of garages

Today the advantages of alleys are recognized in many brand new real estate developments. In older neighborhoods, there's a movement toward alley beautification, clean-up, or even re-use. Also the potential for providing environmental benefits, such as stormwater management, is being explored.

In post-World War II suburbs, they were considered obsolete. After all, in older city and small town neighborhoods, they are often dirty, rodent-infested, weedy, stinky, and occasionally criminal hideouts or escape routes.

So why would anyone want to bring back this idea? Isn't the green alley a contradiction in terms?

Well, when new urbanism began to assert itself, we revisited one of the possible benefits of the rear entranceway for cars. It is a great way to put the garage behind the house, where it belongs.

The front of the house should be where we have porches and sidewalks, and where we socialize. When we put mammoth garages in the front of our homes, protruding even further toward the street than our front door (resulting in what is sometimes called snout houses), it is equal to crossing our arms when we meet someone.

It is as if we say, "We don't want to interact with you. Our car is more important than our neighbor. We're going to try to get inside our house without even seeing our neighbors."

Of course, other benefits include providing a reasonable place to stash your trash, out of the view of the public, and providing an alternative entrance to garages.

The Rise of Beautification, Clean-Ups, and Environmental Functionality

Now we're seeing a welcome flurry of activity beautifying alleys. Cities large and small, as well as neighborhood groups, stage cleanups, including removing wayward trash, unwanted weeds gone wild, and graffiti.

Sometimes flowers are planted, the dumpsters are lined up more neatly (until the garbage truck's lifting device plants them at a jaunty angle again), and fences are repaired or painted.

Commercial districts and downtown redevelopment projects can beautify their rear parking lots and entrances by helping or requiring businesses to repair or repaint ugly doors and windows, redo their stairways or fire escapes from the second floor, add landscaping in odd spaces, and paint or repair fences. That's in addition, of course, to the usual clean-up activities.

Keeping a rear-door circulation pattern is critical to many businesses that receive supplies from that side of the building. Making an area inviting both to delivery trucks and to human beings is a big challenge, but one that you can manage with some fencing and landscaping as screening to keep the one use away from the other.

The pavement itself can be repaired, or allowed to deteriorate into two paved strips with grass growing between.

If the alleys are no longer functional in terms of people having a good reason to drive on them, they can be allowed to revert back to green space. We would prefer that to allowing them to be handed back to each private resident; who knows what future use the public sector may have for a linear corridor?

Ideas for Alley Projects

It's really not hard to generate ideas. Here as much as anywhere in your neighborhood or community, just a short walk with friends will identify what should be done. So plan that walk for the next nice day.

Make a list of all the negatives, and then as you're refreshing yourselves with a beverage together afterward, see if you can create a positive or two along the way.

While you are looking around, consider the possibility of adding some accessory dwelling units in the form of alley or laneway houses, modern-day carriage houses that can add reasonably priced rental housing if you are in an expensive housing market. These alley houses are an integral part of plans to increase the stock of reasonably priced housing in some U.S. West Coast cities where housing has become very pricey.

The very interesting Baltimore gating and greening program allows residents to decide they want to block off their alley and reclaim it for other purposes. Suggestions include cleanup, planting grass or landscaping, picnic tables, art, or anything else residents want. There's talk of making yourselves safer from criminal activity as you beautify these strips.

And the grand-daddy of all repurposing must be Chicago's green program. The City used a menu of choices to try to improve stormwater runoff practices by introducing permeable paving, reducing urban heat effects, and replacing old, energy-intensive fixtures with sky-friendly street lighting.

So if you wouldn't want to see a photo gallery of your leaning fences, weeds, dead animals, and trash on Instagram or Facebook, get busy with a spring or fall beautification, clean-up, or greening project. 

For example, the Indianapolis Public Works Department has sponsored an Indy Alley Clean-Up Program, which now occurs as part of the Great Indy Cleanup. The City provides a dumpster, trash bags, and gloves for organized groups that participate.

If you're proud of what has happened behind  your property, show off your clean-up project here. You can include photos! That page also includes our favorite ten tips for organizing your first alley clean up, if you're not quite sure what to consider before the big day.

Also of Interest In Thinking About Alleys

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  3. Beautification
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  5. Alleys

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