Much like Toronto, laneways in Seattle have long been seen as spaces for dumping, deliveries, and drug dealing. In recent years, success in redefining some of these spaces has shown how government-led initiatives and bottom-up efforts can build on each other to produce remarkable results.
Seattle’s alley revitalization story begins in 2008, when organizations in two downtown neighbourhoods separately began holding events in local alleys. In historic Pioneer Square, a non-profit called the International Sustainability Institute (ISI) threw a party in Nord Alley near their office to draw people there and raise awareness of the untapped potential in the laneways. Just a kilometre southeast, in Chinatown-International District, the Wing Luke Museum was organizing “art walks” that passed through alleys in the neighbourhood.
Around the same time, the City’s Department of Public Utilities introduced the Clear Alleys Program in the Downtown, Belltown, and Pioneer Square business districts. By replacing hundreds of dumpsters with a colour-coded trash bag collection system and restricting when the bags can be placed outside, the program aimed to improve alley safety, attractiveness, and access for pedestrians and businesses.
The removal of dumpsters provided an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine alleys as viable public spaces and helped to literally clear the path for community-led activation efforts.
After its first event in Nord Alley, ISI partnered with the Alliance for Pioneer Square to implement the Alley Network Project. Working with businesses and stakeholders, they hosted alley events ranging from music performances to World Cup viewings to cat adoptions and beautified the spaces with hanging flower baskets, lighting, and rotating art installations. Businesses began to catch on, with shops and independent restaurants opening onto several ‘activated’ alleys.
While alley activation had not previously been a municipal priority, the City responded proactively to these community-driven initiatives. In 2011, the Seattle Department of Transportation demonstrated its support for alley events by creating a festival street designation, which provides a year-long street use permit for recurring pedestrian-oriented events. This designation has been granted to Nord Alley and Chinatown’s Canton Alley and has made it much easier to host events.
The successes of these community-led, temporary improvements have also resulted in the City’s decision to invest in permanent physical changes.
The Alley Network Project partnered with the Seattle Department of Transportation, along with another group, the Chinatown Historic Alley Partnership (CHAP), to apply for funding to improve pavement surfaces, update utility infrastructure, and install permanent lighting and signage in three alleys to improve accessibility. After years of planning, work began this year.
While there continues to be challenges (and the city continues to battle crime in its alleys, most recently by closing off access to several downtown alleys), these pioneer projects are paving the way for more laneway revitalization initiatives, supported by the City through its new Public Space Management Program. Other neighbourhood partnerships are working to bring the movement into their alleys: in 2015, the City approved an alley activation concept plan initiated by the University District Partnership.
What can be learned from Seattle’s experience?
A municipal program focused on access and safety opened up an opportunity for creative neighbourhood leaders, who seized the chance to redefine alleys as community gathering spaces. Their sustained efforts have convinced the City to invest in supportive policies, programs, and projects, which have in turn inspired other groups to develop projects in their own neighbourhoods. This process of top-down and grassroots approaches working off each other has changed Seattle and provides lessons for cities like Toronto looking to sustain momentum in their alley revitalization efforts.
Written by Frances Woo