Alleyways: the Key to Better Urban Design and Meeting Emission Reduction Goals?

Garbage Cans and Bins on Dirty Alleyway Photo

Image via: somenametoforget on

Last night I attended the monthly Sacramento Sustainability Forum meeting, with special guest Graham Brownstein, Executive Director of the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS). Pretty soon into the meeting he struck a chord when he emphatically stated that in order to meet our carbon reduction goals, we have to stop sprawling. period. There is no way we will meet these goals any other way. Next thing, lets put the over 600 unused alleyways in our city to work to help us meet these goals.Using alleyways to fill in the city? Seriously? When he first said this I turned my head to the side, tried to digest the graphic on the screen as best as possible and just thought, I'm not really sure I get the vision. We're going to put businesses in alleyways? How will they fit? Is there even enough room? Turns out, there are some pretty smart and creative folks in Sacramento who have spent many hours working on just this issue and seems you can do more than just put a building there - one can help a city achieve sustainable development goals for the next 100 years.

What is Alley Activation?

Pasadena Alley Activation Project Photo
Many of the old lots in Sacramento (especially midtown and downtown) have really large property areas and yards that often go unused. Houses facing the lettered streets tend to have much larger properties than houses facing numbered streets, for example. The backyards face inwards and then open up to an alleyway running in between and it is here that the future of urban infill lies. Image of an Alley Activation project in Pasadena, CA via: Los Angeles Urban Design Studio on

If urban sprawl just brings more commuting and therefore transportation and air pollution issues, not to mention eating up usable greenspace with more houses and big box stores, then the question comes as to how to construct new comes in a city that is already developed? You have to look at areas that are unused and envision your city differently. Most city planning departments spend most of their people resources on sprawl activities to have a handful (and in some cases just one) of people working on infill issues - which are also harder to do because you want to install a building on land that already has pipes and wires running under the property. Seems pretty backwards, huh?

Alleys are designed to hold garbage and to drain water away, so they tend to be designed with a steep embankment that often does not meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. To reuse the alleyway, this is another challenge that will need to be tackled - leveling the road so its accessible and inviting to all. Alleys also tend to be high-crime areas and revitalizing them, by either putting housing or commercial property facing the alley puts new lighting and new eyes on the alley, making the area safer. Homeowners can also make use of unused property by turning those vacant backyards into commercial or residential buildings, while still keeping some greenspace to separate the two buildings.

In Sacramento now, there are several alleyways currently under development or in the planning stages. On 12th & Q St there is a new home development and a bakery opened on the alley near 17th and L Streets, which says business is booming despite the recession. More plans are in the works to install multi-use structures on alleys across the city. In addition, the city council is debating a plan to use $100,000 of unused development funds for an alley activation project. "The goal is to create an attractive, well-lit pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly corridor, giving diners and shoppers easy access..." reports the Sacramento Press. The next time you are ambling through your city's downtown area and happen upon an alley, picture in your mind the city 50 years out - do you want to see this same old, dirty alley, or would you rather see al fresco cafes, loft apartments and some LED twinkle lights strung from tree to tree?

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