Guest post by Mia Feng
William Hollingsworth Whyte, an American Urbanist and the author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces once said the city street is “the river of life…where we come together.” If this is true, laneways are branches of the river, an important public space asset in the city. They can be unique routes that support walking activity and a fine grained pedestrian network.
My first individual project in planning school was to explore the laneways at the North End, Halifax. The North End is located at the northern part of the Halifax Peninsula. It is an artistic and vibrant community, home to a cosmopolitan mix of people including painters, musicians and writers. The history, culture, diversity and creativity of this area has drawn a veil of secrecy and uniqueness over its laneways.
Looking at the map of the North End, you should be able to see ten short parallel streets. That is where the Hydrostone neighbourhood is located. English town planner Thomas Adams helped build the neighbourhood for families displaced by the Halifax Explosion in 1917. The design was inspired by the Garden City Movement: homogeneous terrace-type houses face green courtyards and are accessed at rear by service lanes (Canada’s Historic Places, n.d.). The laneways between house backyards provide a sense of safety, intimacy and coziness.
A few blocks from the Hydrostone neighbourhood, you can find a similar type of residential laneway: Belle Aire Terrace. The laneway is framed by a wall of coloured houses and various types of backyards which keep you interested while you are walking. Windows and doors of the houses fronting the laneway make the neighbourhood feel safe because there are “eyes on the street”.
Different land uses can impact the feel and character of laneways. Gottingen Street, occupied by numerous shops, bars and clubs, is the commercial and entertainment district of the North End. Near the Uniacke Square, a public housing area for displaced Africville population, an unnamed laneway seemed to have been recognized as public space for a long time, but not well maintained. It is between a parking lot which is never fully filled and a retail store abandoned a while ago.
Much like Toronto’s laneways, by addressing waste management issues and infrastructure, and utilizing the adjacent space, the laneways in the North End can be improved and revitalized. They have the potential to be a critical part of the public realm, the pedestrian network and social fabric of the community.
Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Imagine is there were pop up markets at the parking lot on Sundays, people having brunch at outdoor cafés, gardens and plants throughout, and people crossing the laneway towards the St. Patrick's Church on the other side.
Laneways, these small, hidden public space assets, bring people closer to each other.
Canada’s Historic Places. (n.d.). Hydrostone District National Historic Site of Canada. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=7625&pid=0