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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.


  • Whatever that is

    It is difficult to take seriously an article on Urban Development by someone who apparently is unfamiliar with the term:”Romanesque Revival architecture”. When people don’t know something basic and yet dismiss it with a “whatever that is” and a google link, it certainly doesn’t give the reader any confidence.

    • Jim_Clarke

      I took that as a less forbidding* way of saying “click here to learn more,” rather than a serious expression of ignorance.

      * Not foreboding as in the article, but that’s a whole other pedantic fish.

      • Steveinto

        considering Romanesque Revival architecture can be found in every Canadian city, a kind of signature architectural style in Canada. I would agree with the original post. Would you say the same thing regarding Neoclassical architecture when referring to American cities?

        • Jim_Clarke

          I’m certainly not knowledgeable about architecture, and wouldn’t argue with either you or the original poster about it. However, his point and mine were about writing, not architecture.

          Both his point and mine were pretty trivial, however, so I’m happy to accept defeat without further argument.

  • pinky8888

    Melbourne (Australia) has made amazing use of its downtown city lanes. Cafes, wine bars, wee boutique shops, loads of street art … definitely adds to the vibrancy of a city.

  • Digital

    We used to have a great alley turned walkway/shopping at Yonge and Bloor SE for decades until the new condo being built there ripped it out. Never mind brightening alleys we need to brighten Yonge St. from Bloor to Dundas first, it is drab, dull and scary now that the lights from the arcades and movie theaters are gone. Yonge St. used to be a tourist attraction all by itself, now it is a memory of once great city street, oh well : |