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Alleys: The Comeback Kids of Planning

By Elly Shaw-Belblidia

Alleys are the comeback kids of city planning. Normally associated with decaying inner city neighborhoods, the alley is a staple feature of neotraditional developments, for many good reasons.

Alleys take garages off the street and tuck them out of sight. Imagine, for example, the often-photographed row of old-fashioned Victorian homes on San Francisco's Alamo Square. The Victorians stand close together and to the street. No garages disrupt their beauty.

Suburban garages, in contrast, sit with huge mouths, shut tight or gaping open, one after the other in a sameness that diminishes any individuality. In some suburban neighborhoods, garages are set back from the house to minimize their negative effect. In others, though, they project forward, overwhelming the houses and dominating the street.

By cutting the space between houses, alleys encourage social contact among neighbors. This is the overarching goal of neotraditional planning: rebuilding the social fabric of our neighborhoods.

Suburbanites often seek homes on cul-de-sacs to offer their kids a relatively safe spot for bike riding and games. Neotraditional city planners reject cul-de-sacs because such dead-end streets discourage the physical and social flow of neighbors. A cul-de-sac is not a place for strolling around on an evening walk - it is the turf of the people who live there, not that of the whole neighborhood. People stroll on streets that lead someplace else.

Alleys offer an alternative. "The kids play kickball, they play baseball, they're out there right now playing tennis," said Lorraine Kinman, mother of three boys, when asked about the alley behind her house in Kentlands, a traditional neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Md.

The children on this alleyway rarely play in their backyards; the alley offers a larger, public space where anyone is free to join in. Neighbors have set out benches where parents gather to watch. And with a public play space behind the house, toys and sports equipment are always close by.

Before she moved to a neotraditional neighborhood, Kinman said, she would not have chosen to have an alley behind her house. "Now I definitely see it as a plus."

Neotraditional planners try to create neighborhoods with a mix of housing costs so people of different incomes and backgrounds can live together. In older cities, grander homes fronted the street, then alleys filled in with smaller housing.

Alleys can do this in our newly developing neighborhoods, too. Carriage houses, for example, are usually apartments built above garages on alleys. Most have one bedroom and are ideal rental housing for single adults or couples. Owners like them as a source of rental income.

Renters who later decide they want to buy a home can stay in the same neighborhood because of the wide variety of housing sizes and costs available. Contrast this to the narrow range of options in most suburban neighborhoods.

Some buyers are leery of this mix of housing prices. They feel that having cheaper homes or small rental units nearby brings down the value of their own home. That's certainly not the experience in Kentlands. Here a small house can sit across the street from a big house that costs twice as much; the value of all homes is rising.

The Lure of the Attached Garage
The thought of alleys may evoke images of piles of junk or even criminals slinking around out back. However, alleys will stay clean if residents are proud of their neighborhood. In my seven years living in a TND, I've never heard of any crime, major or minor, taking place on an alleyway in my community. The close contact among neighbors and the fact that we know each other and all keep our eyes on the streets (and alleys) help keep the neighborhood safe.

For buyers who want the atmosphere and style of a neotraditional development but feel they can't live without the attached garage, some home lots may offer this choice. Though the vast majority of garages sit apart from the homes in Kentlands, there are a few attached garages. Most of these houses sit on wider lots that back up to forests or lakes; alleys would require deeper lots and would disturb the view behind the house. Also, in some homes on alleys, garages connect directly to a deck or porch for quick access.

Most garages on alleys, though, will sit some distance from the residence. This can be seen as an advantage or a disadvantage. It's an advantage to remove smelly and potentially hazardous items - garbage cans, gasoline, old paint cans - from anywhere attached to your home. It's a disadvantage to have to run through the rain with grocery bags, which is the only time I think it might be nice to have an attached garage.

Planning for an Alley
New homebuyers must be sure a reliable path connects their garage to their house. If the builder neglects to put in a sidewalk or stepping-stones, buyers end up with worn grass and slippery spots and will eventually need to put in a path at their own expense. If there is any slope to the yard, graduated steps or stairs are needed for safe movement up and down from the garage; stepping-stones alone are not good enough on a slope. Buyers should also demand lighting on their alleys.

Alleys are service roads, traveled by heavy equipment like garbage trucks and snowplows that mash the grass and run over bushes. Most cities or homeowners associations would be reluctant to pour beautification funds into them. The policy in my own neighborhood is minimal expenditure on alleyways; residents make improvements at their own risk. But as a new neighborhood matures, inevitably some of the residents? decorating energy flows into the alley. This will come well after the flurry of activity of building the new house, then furnishing it, then working on the garden and trees. Eventually, though, it will come, maybe in the form of an arch, a birdhouse or a trellis of climbing roses.

Any city planning feature inspires differences of opinion (even a simple sidewalk can be controversial). Overall, though, I come solidly down on the side of alleys. They make it possible for me to look down my street at a beautiful stretch of homes and trees, unblemished by garages. Neighbors are closer together, so we know each other better. All this wins out easily over a few wet grocery bags.