One key premise of our concept of Biophilic Cities is that nature is (and ought to be) all around us, nearby and readily accessible. We should not have to make a long trip to enjoy birds, trees and greenery. It should be in our neighborhoods.

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Increasingly cities are finding creative ways to transform leftover spaces, pulling up pavement and impermeable sidewalks and installing verdant gardens, planting on rooftops and building facades.

Alleys represent one interesting place to insert or re-grow nature, and several cities have made impressive strides here.

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On a recent trip to Montreal in May to attend and speak at the “Urban Biodiversity: A Value to Appreciate” conference, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the ways in which  this city’s alleys have been lovingly greened, and that the city has supported these neighborhood projects in many ways.

Josée Duplessis, who sits on the Montreal City Council, and whose portfolio includes parks and green spaces, drew me quick maps of her favorite green alleys – one off of St. Urbain, the other off of Rue du Square St-Louis. They were hidden gems, with doorways and openings not easy to find.

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There are now more than 100 of these green alleys throughout the city (and there is even a map of them). The history of these alleys goes back to a time when they had great utility  for the delivery of coal to houses.   They are officially acknowledged by the city, and there is a process for applying for city designation (requiring approval of a certain percentage of the residents. Once officially designated there is a Ruelle Verte sign posted prominently at the entrances to these spaces. The city provides funding for the planting and greening of the alleys through its network of so-called eco-quartiers, or eco-districts (neighborhood associations,focused on green projects and sustainability).

My visits to these alleys were much too brief, but they did give me a nice sense of what these spaces could be like and the kinds of urban nature one might be able to experience when visiting them. They were quite impressive and clearly provide a form of hidden nature, secret garden spaces, that would have been hard to imagine existing from the street or entrance.

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photo (18)These green spaces are, not surprisingly, very linear spaces, with tree cookies as stepping stones or pavers embedded into the ground. Thoug public, most are closed on one end, and so probably not widely visited by residents outside the immediate neighborhood. The green alleys seem especially valuable to the many homes and apartment buildings that have a direct gate or entranceway to the alley. In a number of places just inside the private inside the yard there was a vegetable garden or other tended garden space, further adding the greenness of the alley.

The steps and actions taken to green these alleys are varied, but often involve creative efforts to add raised beds along the edges of walls. These are constructed of a variety of materials including stone and brick, and when planted provide a green softening of these walls. Some are bordered in plastic, others in wood or stone. In some cases there are bushes and small trees, in others, flowers and vegetables.

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There are composting structures for garden and organic wastes, rainwater collection barrels, and chairs for sitting. Stand-alone pots are found and lots of plants climbing their way up the sides of fences and walls.

Sylvain Ouellet,  one of the organizers of the conference, chimed in with his own favorite green alley. I did not have time to visit this one, but Sylvain sent me lovely photos of it later, two of them below:

photo by Sylvain Ouellet
photo by Sylvain Ouellet
photo by Sylvain Ouellet
photo by Sylvain Ouellet

Other cities have been actively promoting the greening of alleys also, although out for a much shorter time. Chicago has its own highly successful Green Alley Program and has developed a Green Alley Handbook to guide interested homeowners and businesses, and show what is possible in these spaces.  In San Francisco, the idea of “living alleys” is picking up steam, with the first, Linden Alley, in the Hays Valley neighborhood, showing the benefits and beauty such pedestrian and green improvements can provide. The city is now working to include the concept in area plans, and the concept of a network of loving alleys is a key design feature of the Market and Octavia Area Plan.

SF City Market & Octavia Plan
SF City Market & Octavia Plan

I have had the occasion to linger several times at the Linden Alley, in San Francisco. It is an appealing design, with benches, little-to-no car traffic, trees replacing pavement in key spots. Sitting on a bench across the alley from popular Blue Bottle Coffee convinces one of the virtues of recapturing these spaces for the pedestrian, for the urban wanderer in search of green respite, and also just how different these alleys can be from city to city.

Post by Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley, PhD, is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities & Chair of the Department of Urban & Environmental Planning at the UVa School of Architecture.