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.
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
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.
Upper Darby, Pennsylvania
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.
Camden, South Carolina
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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