Living Alleys: The Book

Living Alleys: a new view of small streets


For many people exploring back alleys is always a mystery — an escape from the often predictable main street into a realm of the ad-hoc language of back buildings, where casualness and improvisation shape the use and presence of buildings, and the life that occurs between them. There is a quiet poetry to these often nameless places; of rough dirt or gravel and unpainted, ramshackle buildings where time and architecture are makeshift. These invisible and sometimes labyrinthine interior spaces defy the tendency for order often strived for in contemporary paradigms of modern planning of picturesque boulevards or tidy tree-lined streets. In addition to service deliveries and refuse pick-up, addresses of humbler buildings and marginal uses typically occur in alleys. Often just perceived as straight and narrow demi-streets, there is usually something askew about even the the straightest alleys.

Alleys are often about improvisation, but just as much about order.– whether  inserted in a street grid to adapt to irregularities of topography, use, or intersections with other grids; or planned as a part of the gridded street plan.  There are two basic types of alleys: those planned and laid out as a component of the original street grid; and those that are the result of incrementally subdividing larger blocks and lots into smaller properties.

The term alley derives from the French verb allee: to walk; as the tree-lined allees designed in sixteenth century French renaissance gardens were intended as walkways. The idea of densely planted rows of trees along narrow lanes was extended beyond the confines of the private pleasure gardens out into the surrounding fields to provide shade and wind protection. So that travel for work or pleasure was at least relatively comfortable compared to the exposure in the open countryside. Presumably the term was later applied to any narrow passage where walking was the only option. This is how the nooks and crannies between buildings came to also be called alleys.

Alleys are overlooked yet ubiquitous. They have existed in one form or another for at least two thousand years and in virtually every urban culture and location in the world. Look at the street plan of almost any North American city and chances are that you will find alleys in the older original grid. This is a landscape that most American cities share. They are an efficient way to organize transportation and regulate urban scale. They are perfect stages for socializing, strolling, playing and bicycling.

Webster’s dictionary defines an alley as a walk or passage bordered by rows of trees or bushes, or a passage between buildings, noting that especially in many American cities, an alley is a thoroughfare, through the middle of a square or block giving access to the rear of lots or buildings. Grady Clay, a long time booster of alleys, put it more simply: they are “public ways in private locations”. They can be either formal or informal, dirt or paved, maintained or neglected, dangerous or charming, paths or streets; but they are always at the backs of main thoroughfares and of public consciousness. We define an alley as any street that is the smallest, local serving right-of-way of a hierarchical street system that tends to subdivide a block served by larger streets.

Some people link alleys to gritty places where the “Jets” or the “Sharks” in West Side Story rumbled or engaged in other illegitimate encounters. Other popular images include unsavory elements such as garbage, rats, and society’s dark underbelly. The other family of alleys- the overgrown and often forgotten bucolic lanes- are seemingly known only to the children and urban wanderers of a neighborhood. These alleys lend themselves to walkable, connected places, where often one can find children at play and adults discovering common ground. Their scale offers neighborhood residents the possibility of direct or collective control, a phenomena missing in most urban landscapes. In short, alleys often conjure up contrary images of danger and vice or bucolic leisure. Clarifying this opposition is a key task for fostering new appreciation for these ill-fated servants of streets.

Although alleys share similar traits, they are not all the same. They are diverse and unique places that vary in type and degree of use, sense of comfort, and in size, form, and quality. Much of the seediness, and desirability, typically conjured up in popular images of alleys is a result of their hiddenness. By improving their visibility great steps may be taken towards increasing their utility. Visibility means public awareness of the factors that contribute to the success of alleys, and concern about the advantages alleys hold as vital components of street systems, neighborhoods, and ultimately cities.

Recognition alone, however, is not enough to improve and capitalize on alleys as legitimate areas for development. In addition, policy makers and community activists need comparable information, successful examples, and well conceived plans that coordinate local policies, finance, and design in order to create places congruent with culture, community, and the improvement of local residents’ lives.

By examining the historical and contemporary roles alleys play in the functioning of cities and neighborhoods, analyzing their physical characteristics through observations and mapped comparisons, and cataloging the elements and activities found in alleys, designers and others involved in making decisions about the urban environment can be better informed. One of this book’s aims is to illustrate positive

patterns of alleys and their constituent elements at work in the urban environment, and to demonstrate how to harness the potential of alleys to become better used public spaces and support private uses, such as housing.

Over the past sixty years American politicians and planners have implemented almost exclusive automobile dependent, low-density development patterns through transit policies, mortgage lending practices, and other inexpensive initial costs associated with suburban development. The result: real cities drained of their economies, populations, diversity, and life, and coincidentally, the virtual elimination of alleys. Re-inhabiting cities is possible by counter balancing the momentum of these policies and taking a fresh look at the benefits of denser, urban living.

In addition to their traditional pragmatic uses as locations for utilities, service delivery, and refuse collection; alleys have traditionally accommodated many types of housing. Promoting infill housing along alleys may help mitigate development pressure for land on the urban fringe, and offset some of the wasteful effects of suburban expansion. Seizing the opportunity in underused alleys of older central cities and suburbs, may give planners a tool to use against suburban sprawl. The potential of tens of thousands of additional backyard sites represent a huge, but dormant, spatial resource, which if reclaimed may even allow landowners to capture more economic value from their land through development of secondary units. It may possibly create housing that is affordable and act as a catalyst for neighborhood renewal. Insuring that existing alleys are preserved as public right-of-ways is important to the vitality of cities. It is also important to plan for eventual higher density in today’s suburbs by including alleys in new development plans.

Ironically, alleys, once razed to eliminate urban vices and to eradicate the conditions of poverty, may now provide vital opportunities to improve cities. However, in exploiting alleys, it is also important to realize how vulnerable they are to change and destruction. Architects and planners in the past have made the mistake of automatically attributing the existence of alleys to the urban filth and vice that sometimes inhabited them, which in turn led to the “renewal” and destruction of many of these places. A distinction is needed to dispel their negative image; one which accepts the components of a living and functioning casualness, accounts for improvement and renewal, and yet resists designing them into too precious artifacts.

Some alleys, like commons, are places where people inhabit with routine social interaction, and improve and maintain without ownership. The more intimate the scale of the street, the greater the likelihood of residents achieving a degree of control or “ownership”. Many alleys exude this intimate feeling of familiarity through details. Details nurtured by personal efforts that lay claim to a space and contribute to making a place feel familiar or distinct. The charm and interest of a small but vivid detail such as cobblestone paving, a backyard sculpture or painting, a finely crafted gate, or a cherished miniature garden stays in our minds and tells a visitor this is someone’s backyard.

Alleys support uses neglected by conventional city planning and development including casual refuge for transients; a place to lie low away from the busy crowded main streets; and space for local industriousness such as cottage industries to incubate. Flexibility of use makes alleys vital parts of cities. They are naturally disposed to a variety and mix of uses, allowed or not by zoning, where such enterprises such as small manufacturing, service businesses, galleries, or auto workshops, intermingled with dwellings are found. This inclusion of alternatives is a key ingredient to diversity and life currently lacking many city plans.

This book is about alleys as important urban spaces in their own right, but also the relationship of the buildings and uses found along them. It examines the potential for transforming alleys into habitable places, their capacity for accommodating residential use in new and existing development, and their uses as focal points for community improvement. This book is also about what makes alleys vital to urban form and function, and how to insure they become good places. We will also examine the factors that contribute to the success and the failures of these public streets.

It is my hope, as a lover of urban environments and architecture, this book will help increase the vitality of cities by promoting density, diversity, and livability by using these locally serving places.



A Brief History

Historically, alleys sorted a variety of uses and classes of people within a block to accommodate diversity within the scale of pedestrian cities. When intentionally planned as parts of street systems they were efficient organizers of transportation and integrators of multiple uses. As haphazard remnants of urban growth they fostered unscrupulous excesses that taxed the quality of life of society’s poorest inhabitants. Invisible, tucked behind buildings on the larger streets they were often leftovers from the construction of the harshest and greediest construction of housing the world has ever seen. A few examples from European and American urban history show these clearly.

As early as 430 B.C. the Greek city of Olynthus, was laid out in a grid pattern, and used alleys for drainage of refuse. (fig. 12) The urban form of the ancient seaport of Rome at Ostia Antica reveals a street hierarchy that ordered commercial, residential and industrial activities into distinct but mutually interdependent zones. The main commercial streets were twenty five feet wide with nine foot wide sidewalks raised above the roadbed. Street level shops were spaced about every twenty feet with living quarters above that extended over the side-walk to create a covered walk. Workshops were located in the back half of the shops facing ten foot wide alleys, where goods were produced and stored and off-street deliveries were made to reduce congestion. Romans, having a genius for order and sanitation, used the alleys to minimize interference from street commerce, messy industrial work, and the removal of refuse. (fig.14) The use of alleys in Europe was virtually non-existent during the Middle Ages. French Bastide and Italian terre murata towns were exceptions. These were planned medieval new towns, similar to the Roman castra, located to extend trade or military presence. They were typically laid out on a grid that distinguished between traffic streets and lesser streets including alleys. “In Montpazier the houses had two street frontages, one on a broad twenty-four foot wide street and one on an alley seven feet wide.”

19th Century Industrial England

Alleys, much like medieval streets, evolved in England as a result of access to a hodgepodge of housing. They were the remnant space leftover after dense tenements were constructed where a landowner saw fit. Starting in the 1850s in response to harsh urban conditions caused by the industrial expansion in England Friedrich Engels chronicled the living conditions of the poor. Engels described conditions from unregulated housing that resulted in buildings crammed one behind another along narrow alleys in an effort to maximize density. In city after city Engels cited overcrowding, lack of water, inadequate sewage disposal, and filth of every description in the winding mazes of working class quarters. Typically the back lot tenements were even more squalid than housing on the main roads owing to their invisibility and location. Every great town had one or more slum areas into which working classes are packed.

He writes of London:

…worse conditions are to be found in the houses that lie off the main road down narrow alleys leading to the courts. These dwellings are approached by covered passages between the houses. The extent to which these filthy passages are falling into decay begs all description. There is hardly an unbroken window pane to be seen, the walls are crumbling, the doors, where they exist are made of old boards nailed together. Indeed in this nest of thieves doors are superfluous, because there is nothing worth stealing. Piles of refuse and ashes lie all over the place and the slops thrown out into the street collect in pools which emit a foul stench. Here live the poorest of the poor. Here the worst paid workers rub shoulders with thieves rogues and prostitutes….In the vast mass of streets which make up the metropolis there are thousands of hidden alleys and passages where the houses are so bad that no one with an iota of self respect would live in them unless forced to do so by dire poverty. Such dens of extreme poverty are often to be found close to he splendid mansions of the wealthy.

He also commonly cited lack of adequate ventilation “where the air is soiled by vegetable and animal waste from pig sties kept in the narrow streets.”

Engels cites a study of mortality rates based on the class of the street. Not surprising, the lower the class of the street the higher the mortality rate.

The vast number of courts, back passages and blind alleys were created as a result of unplanned building.

Another type of English alley, the mews, which originally served as the access for horse stables, has found new use as fashionable living quarters. Transformation of modest two story buildings along narrow brick or cobblestone paths has been an inexpensive housing alternative in London for the past three decades. Part of the allure to living on these streets is the intimate and quiet settings amidst the bustling districts of London. Brick, and sometimes gated entries give an impression of private streets in a culture where a premium is put on privacy. In some cases they dead end or face a wall, unhindered by through traffic or across the street neighbors.

American Grid

Tucked away from view behind respectable facades, alleys were indispensable elements in American city building during the last half of the nineteenth century where the impolite realities of the industrial era were hidden from polite Victorian society. Alleys not only allowed physical services such as refuse removal, underground and above ground utilities to be separated from the main street, but also provided a place that supported housing for the poor. In cities such as Philadelphia and Washington D.C., and Galveston, the generously sized original blocks were subdivided with alleys and housing.

Intentionally planned alleys, like those at Ostia, did not come into fashion again until the early nineteenth century. The platting of American towns and cities in the 1800s was geared to expeditious commercial expansion and land speculation from a distance. The original platting of Sacramento is a classic example. When gold was discovered at Sutter’s mill in 1849 Sacramento became a boom town overnight. It had to be laid out with urgency, well in advance and with a size to accommodate an excess of the actual population. During this period land speculators and their surveyors built grid street plans with alleys in most cases to accommodate livery and horse and carriage stables in the rear of properties; the rear location mitigated the noxious odors from the front streets, and also the off-site removal of the bulky wastes, such as ashes resulting from wood and coal burned for heating and cooking. Mormons in Salt Lake City built alleys with houses in the back of the main residences to accommodate the second wives.


The presence of alleys in the U.S. generally indicate the origins of a town’s development that pre-date World War I. While there is no definitive death knell for alleys, there are a few clues that may help to explain why by around the 1910’s they were being ushered out of fashion in the American urban pattern. The causes of this demise were precipitated by innovations in transportation technology coupled with the creation of a more affluent middle class that enabled emigration from the city to the new suburbs. The romantic era ideal of purity of nature helped spur this outward expansion. Inexpensive transportation, cheap land, and the desire for open space stimulated an increased consumption of land. Larger lots with front yards mediated between house and street.

Suburbanization was coupled with another force that helped make alleys obsolete: reform, which started around the same time and continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Strong reactions to the conditions created by an unfettered industrial revolution led to documentation and a call for alleviating the conditions of urban poverty and squalor. By the turn of the century in urban America, reformers, appalled by unsanitary and dehumanizing living conditions of people housed in alleys, were shedding light upon the evils plaguing the poor. Alleys and alley housing, labeled by one reformer as “horizontal tenements”, became singled out as repositories of poverty as well as intemperance, vice, and sloth; conditions that were considered outside the pale of social acceptability. Reformers, such as Jacob Riis and Charles Weller, from the turn of the century through the 1930s sponsored the removal and improvement of the conditions coincident with poverty which they thought would in turn bring about the improvement of the impoverished. As a result much of the housing and the social places occurring in alleys that served the lowest class were removed.

Suburbs and Privatization of Space

Early suburbanization perhaps best exemplified by Olmstead and Vaux’s 1869 plan for Riverside, Illinois, started a wave that swept through the country. Curving streets began to replace the old grid. The organic block pattern in Riverside incorporated alleys into some of the blocks, but “the fate of the alley was related to the fate of the gridded street pattern.”

Aided by streetcars the pedestrian city and its dependence on density slowly started to erode. Between 1915 and 1925 car ownership increased from 2,332,426 to 17,481,001.

Narrow meandering streets that followed topography and added visual relief in the early suburbs gradually became wider and simply curved without apparent reason in later generations of suburbs. Garden city ideals disseminated at the turn of the century by Howard and later by Stein, Wright, and Le Corbusier took hold and continued the separation of building and the street. Ironically, the Radburn plan, which used a cul de sac street to access the rear of houses like an alley, most graphically demonstrates the divorce of the house from the street. A hierarchy of streets and greenspace assisted the segregation of uses. The Radburn plan was very seductive to cost cutting developers and use segregation minded planners with its dendritic hierarchy of roads. It eschewed the redundancy of the grid plan. Large scale post-war super block housing adopted the garden city principals.

The social and cultural change that accompanied the opening up of suburbs factored in the obsolescence and demise of alleys.  The relation of the house to its lot and the street at the turn of the century — the garage in the backyard and the porch facing the front yard — was inverted when cars became the prevalent form of transportation. Affluence, however, brought an expectation of privacy and the privatization of space. By the 1930s home builders had begun to reorient private houses toward the backyard as the most cherished space and away from the street  which was increasingly becoming more noisome, and less social. More control was needed to accompany the domestic reorientation; one that excluded the possible disturbances and security breaches emanating from the alley.

Federal Housing Administration Standards

Subdivision standards adopted and implemented of by the federal government had the effect of law, and also caused disinvestment in alleys. To aid the recovery from the Depression the Federal Housing Administration attempted to secure the housing market with large national secondary mortgage and insurance markets by establishing loan and insurance underwriting standards that would attempt to commodify the small, diverse, and local housing markets. The regulation of everything from house design and construction, to its location on the lot, and access from street were thought to insure the value of a sound product. Alleys suffered directly when in 1947 the FHA recommended that “vehicular access to the lot be provided directly from an abutting, improved, and permanently maintained public or private street. Sole vehicular access shall not be by an alley.

Any housing located directly off an alley was now not suitable to the underwriting standards that financed the majority of housing. By the edict of a standard alley dwellings were made substandard. Conservative lending practices adhering to the  standards that ultimately underwrote 80% of the mortgage financed post-depression housing meant that money was no longer available to buy or construct alley houses. Though the F.H.A. still maintained that garbage removal and fuel delivery shall occur by a back alley for row houses, the elimination of housing provides a major justification for the disappearance of alleys. By setting standards too strict the creation of housing at the extreme low end became impossible.

One of the qualities that makes alleys interesting spaces is that they go between private and public, into the realm of a commons, which ironically may also account for their disinvestment. Just like the examples of other commons, failure of a collective group to form and take responsibility in maintaining the common property leads to a tragedy of the commons. Lack of clear ownership may have also muddled the rights and responsibilities of upkeep. The public may have thought the private owners were responsible and the private owners may have thought that the public was responsible for the maintenance of alleys.

Another reason for the disappearance of alleys in an era of urban disinvestment lies in the diminishing amount of money cities have available for maintenance of infrastructure. Since alleys are on the lowest rung of the public street hierarchy the chance that they are the first to be neglected is high. They become undesirable to the point of dispensable when a public authority objects to maintaining them. Often when maintenance burdens the municipality and alarms the residents they are petitioned to be vacated.

In his 1958 guide to planning, Webster recommends that alleys in residential areas be discouraged except to provide access to lots which front on busy streets, or where some other special circumstance exists such as providing access to houses on steep slopes.

The elimination of driveways leading directly into heavy and high speed traffic seems a sensible reason for alleys. He does not explain however, why in other cases alleys should be avoided.

In 1967 the Institute of Traffic Engineers’ (ITE) “Recommended Practices for Subdivision Streets” write:

In modern subdivision design there is a strong trend to eliminate alleys. In lower density areas lot widths are ample to provide building width plus side drive to open pads, carports or garages. The modern alley may be an asset if provided with proper width (20 ft. min.), adequate radii at the street intersections (15 to 20 feet), all-weather paved surface, and protected by building and parking bay setback limits. The typical alley in today’s cities is unfortunately often a narrow canyon of filth. Such design errors in the past should not blind the engineer and planner to potential benefits of the alleys.

The Urban Land Institute favored alleys as a means of constructing narrow lots and reducing costs, although they often recommended concrete curbs and gutters. The effect of these standards was to turn a humble lane into an expensive and redundant street.

around 1970 the (ITE) stressed:

…certain disadvantages of alleys, such as additional pavement to be constructed and maintained, the area removed from tax rolls, the added mileage of police patrol, and street lighting needs, all suggest alternate solutions to current design problems.


Land assembly for large scale redevelopment projects is another motive for alley removal that is clearly legible in the development of many downtowns during the sixties and seventies. By the 1950s small, half blocks divided by alleys made less economic sense than control and development of a single large site. The language of legislation mandating redevelopment is sufficiently general to allow for any opportunity to allow a developer to dictate their needs with respect to land assembly. Subdivision (b) of Section 33031 of the California Redevelopment Act describes the economic conditions of blight may consist of stagnant or depreciated property values, abnormally high vacancies, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, lack of commercial facilities, residential overcrowding, an excess of bars or other adult vices, or high crime rates. Symptoms of physical blight may include dilapidated, unsafe or unsanitary buildings; faulty or inadequate utilities; defective design; inadequate lot size or configuration, or parking; and adjacent or nearby uses that are incompatible with each other.

Redevelopment action is justified by the reasoning that the best way of providing for the health and welfare of a community lies in the wholesale removal of conditions coincident with poverty and poor upkeep.

In the end, excess cost was responsible for the disappearance of the alley as prevalent a street type. Alleys were redundant. The same services could now be easily provided on the street, the auto-dominated suburbs revered the car to the point of inviting it in the front door, and there was no profitable advantage to offset the additional cost to developers, nor to the costs of the city to maintain them. No large constituency was going to miss or defend such an unglamorous thing as an alley.


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