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Meet Us in the Alley!

Too many narrow spaces between and behind buildings have gotten a bad rap. That's why communities are "activating" their alleyways

Alleyways are generally perceived as sinister places where bad things happen and good people don’t go. The truth is, an alley is whatever it's used for. An alley that isn’t intentionally used in a productive, pleasant way can turn bad, but that needn't be the case. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, alleyways have provided a safe and socially-distant way for restaurants to remain open and for diners to eat out.

Pittsfield, Massachusetts

An alleyway transformation in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Photos courtesy Team Better Block

As part of a pop-up demonstration project by the urban design firm Team Better Block, an unwelcoming passage between Tyler Street and a parking lot became "Umbrella Alley."

In 2017, the community planning and design firm Team Better Block helped to reimagine a stretch of Tyler Street. The alleyway activation, conceived by resident Kate Louzon, attracted attention for its umbrella canopy and seemingly magnetic powers.

“I came across the umbrella alley in Portugal and I thought it would be really cool to do it in Pittsfield," she explains in a Team Better Block after-event report. About the temporarily transformed space, the firm declared: "Kate Louzon created a warm and inviting space for sitting, conversing, eating or simply people-watching. It was the show stopper of the project!"

Brevard, North Carolina

Brevard, North Carolina, alleyway activation

Photo by Melissa Stanton, AARP

A Beethoven-themed alley (and warm weather in January 2021) provided a safe-dining spot for takeout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

Before and After Images of Revitalized Alley in Oconomowoc Wisconsin

Photos Courtesy the City of Oconomowoc

"People now change their routes to experience the walkway. It gets folks to lift their heads up, look around and enjoy some untraditional and unexpected art," says city planner Kristi Weber.

Toddler plays in revitalized alley in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

Photo by Joe Haas

“The alley is a bright beacon in our downtown," says Weber. "Children love to hop and skip on the colorful geometric spaces. People walking by can’t help but stop and take a look."

The alley activation project showed the community how a useful but stark passageway between the lakefront and the downtown retail area could become a livelier link.

The alleyway wasn’t closed during the transformation work, and passersby were invited to join the rejuvenation process by painting a faux floor tile or several. Visitors asked about the transformation happening before their eyes. The project sparked conversations about how to activate the other downtown alleys so that each could have a unique look and offer a distinctive experience.

Frederick, Maryland

Frederick, Maryland alleyway activation

Photo by Melissa Stanton, AARP

Portable propane-heaters helped to keep this downtown alleyway suitable for dining in December 2020. An added benefit of alleyway eateries: The space is typically wheelchair- and baby stroller-accessible.

Upper Darby, Pennsylvania

Images of Revitalized Alley in Upper Darby Pennsylvania

Photos courtesy Upper darby township

The "Discover Upper Darby" mural was painted by volunteers and celebrates the town's diversity and history.

A 135-foot-long mural in the town spans the wall of a building in the heart of Upper Darby's 69th Street business district.

The public artwork highlights the town's history by depicting landmarks including the Tower Theater, a historic music venue built in the 1920s. Famous faces connected to the town make an appearance. (Comedy star Tina Fey was raised in Upper Darby.) Welcoming residents and visitors alike, the word "hello" appears in 60 languages throughout the mural and celebrates the community's diversity.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia alleyway activation

Photo by Melissa Stanton, AARP

String-lights and pleasant autumn weather in late October 2020 allowed for socially-distant alleyway and on-street dining after dark.

Camden, South Carolina

Before and After Images of Revitalized Alleyway in Camden South Carolina

Photos Courtesy the City of Camden

This 120-foot-long alley in Camden, South Carolina, lacked anything inviting. As shown in the video below, community members were invited to pop in during the alley “activation” and make “stained-glass” globes that would hang alongside the new LED string lights. More than 100 people had a hand in beautifying the alley.

Video: Activating an Alley 

Camden’s Main Street program transformed its Broad Street alley into a vibrant throughway for shoppers and diners. The city made the makeover a community event by inviting the public to stop by and then teaching visitors how to make stained glass–like globes out of tissue paper. The completed art pieces, LED string lights and UV shade canopies helped to create a decorative, open ceiling. Benches and planters were later added to turn the space into an elegant outdoor gathering place. 

Says Katharine Spadacenta, the program manager of Camden Main Street: "It’s wonderful to see the residents who created pieces strolling through the alley and pointing out to friends and family where their piece is located."

Turning Alleys Into Assets

The cities of Camden, South Carolina, and Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, each wanted to make good use of a neglected alleyway. Grant funds from the 2017 AARP Community Challenge were used to transform alley spaces into an attractive and useful connector. (Both spaces are featured in the 2018 edition of the AARP publication Where We Live.) 

In 2019, challenge funds helped Upper Darby Township, Pennsylvania, create a mural that celebrates the community's history.  

The alleyway in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was featured in The Pop-Up Placemaking Tool Kit, a publication by AARP and the placemaking firm Team Better Block. 

The aforementioned titles can be ordered or downloaded for free from the AARP Livable Communities Library

Learn more about placemaking (and alley activations) by watching a Livable Lesson taught by Andrew Howard, co-founder of Team Better Block.

Page published October 2019, updated February 2021

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