Civilizing the Alley

New Urbanists promote back streets to bring neighbors together.
by | September 2005

Tom DiGiovanni needed a new term to describe the type of roadway he was building. "Alley" only conjured dark images of filth and scary movie scenes. That certainly didn't fit the pleasant image the developer was selling for his traditional-style village in the California town of Chico.

So DiGiovanni began calling the passages behind his new houses "rear lanes." He also made a few physical changes to alleys as we think of them. Far from the dingy, dusty alleys of Charles Dickens and Jacob Riis, the alleys in DiGiovanni's Doe Mill community are a comfortable 12-feet wide, well-drained and nicely paved in concrete. But make no mistake: the new "rear lanes" serve the same functions alleys always did. It's where the utilities go, where the garbage gets picked up, and where residents park their cars.

After a long hiatus from American city planning, alleys are making a comeback. They're also going through an exercise in rebranding. Developers around the country call the new roadways "service roads," "lanes," or "carriage ways"--anything, it seems, but "alley." "The term 'alley' has had such a negative connotation with municipalities," DiGiovanni says. "But you can also create a civilized alley."

The rebirth of alleys is closely tied to the New Urbanist movement, which aims to build traditional neighborhoods with a cozy old-time feel to them. New Urbanists see alleys as a means for cleaning up driveways, garages and all the other visual clutter of Levittown-style suburbia. Putting all that on the back street, the thinking goes, reclaims the front streetscape for pedestrians, making it easier for neighbors to get to know each other by name, rather than the model of car they drive.

DiGiovanni expected socializing to happen in front of the houses he's built. What's surprised him, in the three years since residents began moving in, is how much his "rear lanes" have become social outlets. The neighbors fronting one alley hold an afternoon barbeque in the lane every Saturday. Kids like to play basketball and Frisbee back there. And many homeowners are building so-called "granny flats" above their garages, meaning that some people in Doe Mill are literally living in the alleys.

Still, alleys make some local officials nervous. Most cities haven't okayed construction of new alleys since the 1920s. In newer suburbs, laws not only discourage alleys but in some cases make them illegal. Older parts of Lincoln, Nebraska, are criss-crossed by alleys. But new development is governed by a 1970s subdivision ordinance that allows alleys only in "unique and unusual circumstances."

That policy has been questioned in recent years. Two developers have proposed building traditional-style villages. The city permitted alleys in both cases, on one condition: that the homeowners' associations, not the public works department, take care of maintenance and snow removal. "They'll walk, talk and squawk like an alley, but they'll be privately owned and maintained," says Lincoln planner Stephen Henrichsen.

There were other considerations in Lincoln, says Carrie Campbell, the developer of one of the projects. Large garbage trucks won't fit down the alleys, so the homeowners' association has to contract with a trash hauler that uses small trucks. In addition, the alleys were designed with tapered entrances in an attempt to keep driving speeds slow. "We really wanted to make sure the alleys didn't look like streets," Campbell says. "There are no curbs, and the alleys are concrete where the streets are asphalt. We want it to be safe, in case kids are back there playing."

Still, alleys have their critics. In the February issue of Reason magazine, Steven Town and Randall O'Toole wrote: "alleys make houses easier to burgle and are dangerous routes for pedestrians." A recent Department of Justice report suggested that sealing off alleys in high-crime areas could be an effective crime deterrent.

Tom DiGiovanni disagrees with that assessment. The social life in the alleys of Doe Mill, he says, is actually a check on crime. Just as "eyes on the street" are considered a crime deterrent, so are eyes on the alley. "If anything," DiGiovanni says, "I think the community is a safer place because of the alleys."