Designers and builders have an opportunity to elevate the alley as a neighborhood amenity.
By David Poppleton, RA
Considered radical 20 years ago, New Urbanist concepts are now commonplace in neighborhood design. The car and garage are being deemphasized, and higher value is being placed on the pedestrian experience. Great care and attention is being given to the design of streets, sidewalks, and fronts of homes.
But what about the alley? In many cases, it could be argued that the alley is the true front of the home: in the everyday routine of going to and from work, running errands, or heading out on a bike ride, families travel through the alley.
Yet while the alley is experienced many times a day, it is most often neglected as the back of the house. It’s the place you take the trash and access the garage. A dark strip of asphalt, it is typically value-engineered to save money on details and finishes. The alley is the forgotten piece of the neighborhood.
It doesn’t have to be this way
The alley could be so much more. If the alley were treated as more of a “front door” experience, it would improve and enrich the overall feel of the community. In London, the Mews have been transformed into highly desirable neighborhoods that bring character and charm to the densely packed city streets.
In other cities around the globe, alleys have been transformed into lively entertainment areas lined with small shops and restaurants, creating pedestrian-friendly zones between the busy car-dominated streets. Those in-between spaces have become the heart of the city, where businesses thrive and people come together to create community.
Could the same thinking be brought into neighborhood design? What if we reimaged the alley as a place that encourages community, connection, and play? How would the perception of the alley change if it was designed to be an engaging space?
A thoughtful alley design can transform an ordinary neighborhood into a lifestyle community, increasing home values and sales. This “found” space becomes a lasting memory, a touch point that sticks in the head of a potential buyer–it sets a neighborhood apart, making it a destination.
When we think of the alley differently, it becomes a place that enhances people’s daily lives and gives them a place they are proud of and can call home.
Here are just a few ways to turn the alley into a neighborhood amenity:
Activity barns. The garage isn’t just for cars or storage. Creatively placed doors allow the garage to become an extension of the backyard. Whether a place to escape the rain at a family barbeque, a game room, an artist studio, or workshop, the garage is a flexible space that can enhance and complement the outdoor area.
Home design. The massing of the home is designed to soften the alley; single-story massing will open the alley up and allow light to penetrate the yard and home. Well-placed trees reach up past the architecture and create a shade canopy that reduces the building mass and creates a welcoming environment. Ornamental trees, grasses, and shrubs create pops of color for year-round interest and engagement.
Covered patios. Creating a welcoming outdoor space is essential to activating the alley and making it into the neighborhood amenity it could be. Covered outdoor space encourages people to gather and hang out. Low fences and gates welcome guests to the “front” of the house while giving each home a little personality.
The plaza. Replacing the predictable asphalt paving with permeable pavers helps mitigate water runoff and softens the utilitarian nature of how we typically view the alley. It also creates the perception that you aren’t heading into the back of a home. Enhancing the alley with landscaping helps turn it into a plaza space that encourages people to get outside, be active, and engage with their community of neighbors.
Gardens. Home herb and flower gardens are a major trend in backyard design, but with lots getting smaller and smaller, it’s hard to find enough land to plant a garden. Pulling the fence back and pushing the garden into the alley allows home owners to plant raised gardens for their favorite herbs, vegetables and flowers. The alley is activated as people water and tend to their plants, creating opportunities for neighbors to run into each other and develop friendships, reinforcing the feeling of community.
—David Poppleton, RA, is an associate/senior architect with DTJ Design in Boulder, Colorado
This article was originally published in the Best in American Living magazine 2017 fall issue.