Sunday, March 23, 2008

Urban Dispatch: Converting Underused and Blighted Commercial Alleys into Vibrant Urban Assets/Livable Streets

center city alley philadelphia[ From time to time, we’ll post a dispatch from another city that could serve as an example of how Philadelphia might accomplish something similarly smart. ]

We were leafing through last month’s Metropolis when we came upon a nice little article by Ms. Design-Phan — Philly’s very own… — about reclaiming urban alleyways.

And since we had heard that the Center City District was already evaluating related policies to implement here, we knew we’d probably want to share.
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 foot-steps 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.
It’s true. Center City is small. All of the real estate is precious. And not to be wasted by surface parking lots, parking garages and/or dumpsters.
A bustling alley in melbourneIn 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.”
“Creative and enjoyable street life,” folks. That’s what livable streets, i.e. successful cities, are all about.

The tireless urbanists at the Center City District recognize as much. They’re already working on a bunch of potential solutions to use here in Philadelphia:
Unlike successful alleys and small streets in residential areas of Center City, commercial counterparts downtown are underutilized due to neglect and unsavory conditions. But other cities have shown that these intimate spaces can be reclaimed as pleasant pedestrian links or as destinations on their own.

The CCD surveyed 43 alleys and narrow streets within District boundaries in May [2007]f, identifying 27 east of Broad Street and 16 west of Broad. Most are service corridors for the backs of buildings and are used for deliveries and dumpsters. Conditions at 11 alleys were found to be particularly bad, with homeless individuals encamped among overflowing dumpsters.
They say:
Enforcement is key — but it must focus on both irresponsible businesses and on the anti-social behavior of those who rummage through dumpsters and sleep in the alleys.

A more cooperative or centralized system of dumpster management among multiple owners could help, as can new compactor technology that reduces the amount of space needed.

New restaurants should place compactors inside. The CCD is currently examining best practices from other cities. Downtown Vancouver, for example, has developed a plan to eliminate dumpsters altogether.
Ultimately, this isn't only about aesthetics. As several cities have seen, adjacent building rents can rise and the assessed value of real estate improves when alleys are reclaimed for public use.
No. Doy.

Yo Nutts — you and Rina Cutler et al. got somebody on this??

Cuz, livable streets man… livable streets are where it's frickin' at.

an alley in melbourne
Back-Alley Breakthroughs [ Metropolis ]
Commercial Alleys: Turning a Liability into an Asset [ Center City Digest - PDF ]

[ Photos via Flickr user martypants (middle right) and Darrian Traynor (bottom) ]

1 comment:

Sensible Developments said...

Those pictures remind me of certain spots in New York during the spring and summertime.

In general Philly has a lot of underused space. Whether we are referring to alleys in Center City or shells in North Philly.

Sensible Developments mission is to turn some of these blighted spaces into livable and enjoyable places.

Check us out at