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cityscape

Public Works: Are Alleys the Answer for Urban Renewal?

A Seattle group is rejuvenating its neighbourhood one laneway at a time.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square is a bit between the buttons. The downtown neighbourhood, originally the city’s skid row, has been slogging its way to urban renewal since the 1960s. But, in spite of a growing population of yuppie-fied loft dwellers, Pioneer Square is still home to poverty and drug addiction. It also happens to be a federally and locally protected historic district, thanks to its Romanesque Revival architecture (whatever that is), meaning development in the area is limited to the “sensitive rehabilitation” of heritage buildings. The neighbourhood is, however, rich with pedestrian-friendly alleys, until recently underused and likely a little foreboding.

Enter the International Sustainability Institute (ISI) and its Alley Network Project, which engages residents, business owners, and community groups in developing Pioneers Square’s alleyways and promoting local arts, commerce, and healthy living. Since 2008, the Alley Network Project has hosted art installations, documentary screenings, bike festivals, Tour de France and FIFA World Cup viewing parties, and performance art shows, drawing thousands of visitors to Pioneer Square’s alleys.

The campaign to develop Pioneer Square’s alleys continues to grow. Last year, ISI got a boost from the City of Seattle, which awarded it funding to resurface and install new lighting in the area’s alleys—they’ll be retrofitted with modern infrastructure, but the neighbourhood’s historic standards will be maintained.

Here in Toronto, we’ve already put some effort into brightening up our dark alleys. And local quarters like Cabbagetown and the Junction, both in the process of revivals, are built around grids of alleyways and back lanes, which are just waiting to be put to use.

Any enterprising Torontonians who wanted to take a shot at a Toronto Alley Project would have a ready-made DIY guide at their disposal. In 2012, ISI published The Alley Event Handbook, essentially an abridged Bible for planning your own alley event. Available online, it runs through the basics, including picking a theme and determining the best catering options, and the obscure process of getting municipal event permits.

With a long list of partner organizations and advisers from government, academia, and civil society, the Alley Network Project has brought a diverse community closer together, united in the goal of bettering Pioneer Square. While the initiative focuses on just one part of one city, it’s a solid model for the development of underused urban space in Seattle and beyond.

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