From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Alleys and New Urbanism

And What I Think About It...



Alley
Boys playing in an alley, Dubuque, Iowa. Photographed by John Vachon, Farm Security Administration, 1940. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [LC-USF33-T01-001703-M2 DLC]


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Wikipedia defines an alley as "a narrow street found in urban areas". The article continues:

The reduced usage of alleys has resulted in their decline. Under use, poor maintenance, poor night time illumination and narrow width has contributed to an increase in anti-social or illegal activities such as:

* dumping of rubbish
* sexual assault
* consensual sexual behaviour and/or prostitution
* urination
* burglary
* robbery
* illicit drug use
* murders

Source


Some alleys do host these activities, but it seems to me that the reputation of many a mild-mannered, well-behaved alley is tainted by this list.

I have some pleasant memories associated with alleys. I enjoyed the narrow, ancient alleys in the historic downtown areas of two Bavarian villages -- Sulzbach (history) and Kleinwallstadt -- where we lived in Germany, and never saw a hint of any of the dubious activities listed above or felt I was in any danger.

When we lived in Warrensburg, MO, I walked my dog daily in an alley that ran for ten blocks or more. It was a lovely quiet walk, shaded by the backyard trees of the homes the alley served. Most of the alley was brick-paved, but there was rarely any vehicle traffic at all.

That residential alley wouldn't have been so quiet when the houses were young. It was once used for deliveries of ice, coal, and groceries to the rear of the house, to be carried in through the back door.

Nowadays, homeowners still bring many purchases through the back door, but the deliveries are made by the family automobile, which is driven down the street and parked beside the house or in the attached garage. I suppose that's why planners started omitting the alleys just like they forgot about sidewalks. With cars, who needs them?

New Urbanism is a movement and a school of thought that seeks to reverse urban sprawl and the problems associated with it by better city planning. A community should have connectivity, New Urbanists say-- that is, communities need a network of boulevards, smaller streets, alleys, and sidewalks.

As well as dispersing the vehicle traffic, such a web between homes, stores, and other business places makes walking and biking easier, more efficient and more pleasant. Alleys in New Urban communities often provide access to the home's garage.

This sounds right to me.

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4 comments:

Trixie said...

I have rather fond memories of the alleys of my childhood. In my hometown, they were not nearly so wide as the one in the photo. For the most part, the ones in residential areas were a one-lane gravel road down the middle of the block running behind the houses. That was where the garbage cans were kept for the sanitation trucks to pick up twice a week. There was some vehicle traffic, but it was sporadic.

For me, the alley was also a cut-through way for me to reach my friends' houses in a hurry. My best friend lived on the next block, with her house facing the next street over. But from my back door to hers, through the alley, I could get there in 30 seconds. Gosh, we used to talk for hours on the phone and then time each other to see how long it took to get to the other's house! LOL.

Once newer neighborhoods were built in my hometown, alleys gave way to "easements." All that amounted to was determining where fences could be placed in order to give utility companies the access they need. Trash pickup moved to the front of the houses, on the streets, and in those polycarts. Pickup was reduced to once a week. But sidewalks were still built in these neighborhoods, for which I am thankful. They are a rare thing in the city where I've lived as an adult.

One of the major declines, in my opinion, is the death of local grocery stores. Neighborhoods have a hard time surviving when buying groceries becomes a time-consuming operation.

Wrkinprogress said...

I have a friend who lives in Memphis in a neighborhood with alleys. Unfortunately, their alleyway is as described in the Wikipedia definition. However, as this neighborhood is circa early 1900 (beautiful bungalows/arts & crafts-style), you can easily imagine that these alleys were put to good use back in the day.

Here in Nashville, there are many neighborhoods that are very walkable, thanks to sidewalks, but there are more that are not. I wonder if this city will have the sense enough to try to help create more connection between neighbors by building more sidewalks, or even decent, well-lit alleyways. The benefits could be numerous, if done correctly. Trixie's reminiscence of having an easy shortcut to her friend's house brought a smile to my face. How many kids miss out on things like that these days? Maybe this treatise on New Urbanism will bring a little more awareness to the masses.

Thanks for being a ray of sunshine, Genevieve. :)

Peace,
WIP

Genevieve said...

Trixie,
Thanks for your comment.

A little store that carries the staples of life is great to have in the neighborhood.

The problem, of course, is that in the U.S., so many mom and pop stores have been forced out of business by larger stores. It takes some real commitment from the neighborhood to support a little store.

There wouldn't be such a problem with a little store getting enough business to survive if everyone had to walk to WalMart and Kroger. ;)

Here's a list of typical characterisics of New Urban communities (scroll down). We need this sort of development even in Hopkinsville. More and more of our good farmland goes under asphalt and concrete each year. It is sickening to watch.

Genevieve said...

WIP,

There are alleys in Hopkinsville that I wouldn't walk, even in daylight. I wouldn't want to live near an alley that had a lot of illegal activity in it.

If the alleys could be brought back under control in such places, I think the crime rate would drop dramatically!

But in planning for urban renewal and for new development, it makes sense to have lighted one-way streets serving the rear of the house as well as the usual streets in front. If neighbors regularly travel the alleys, it actually increases security.

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