The idea of greening alleys is becoming more and more prevalent in cities across the globe. Just last year, Tim Beatley wrote about Montreal’s impressive Green Alley program.  From using alleys as stormwater management tools to creating new public green spaces, alleys provide a unique opportunity for nature in an unexpected place. This month I had the opportunity to interview Barbara Brown Wilson about a unique, ten year collaboration between the University of Texas-Austin, the City of Austin, Texas, and many community groups to make unused alleys into livable, green spaces.

Caption: Students captured the greening possibilities of an alleyscape transformed.
Credits: 2009 University of Texas Architectural Studio

Alleys in Austin were never consistently used and had recently become a liability to the city in terms of safety and stormwater overflow. In addition, Austin has been threatened by sprawl for many years because of a lack of affordable housing and land in the city. This engaged community partnership began around this issues of urban sprawl, underutilized land abutting alleys within the central city and the need for more high quality, affordable housing. The Alley Flat Initiative was created to address these issues. Through many community meetings, studio classes, and working with over ten city departments, prototypes of sustainable, affordable housing were designed and built to test and promote the concept.

Caption: Students artwork that celebrates the watersheds on either side of the alley.
Credits: The 2014 University of Texas Public Interest Design Interdisciplinary Studio

Public attention to the alleys expanded greatly when it became about much more than just housing. Through the Alley Flat Initiative, it became clear that these liminal spaces could be transformed into thriving community corridors for people and nature. Students in the Public Interest Design program at the University of Texas-Austin experimented with how the alleys could be used as wildlife corridors, exhibit public art, hubs for food production, and function as rain gardens. Wilson discussed how the students were able to imagine what the alleys could look like without the restrictions often placed on city departments. The community had input throughout the entire process. According to the City of Austin, the Green Alley Demonstration Project is beneficial in these ways[1]:

  • Encouraging compact neighborhoods
  • Increasing the sustainability performance of public Right-of-Way
  • Creating a model project that demonstrates sustainability and Imagine Austin goals
  • Increasing affordable housing choices with Alley Flats or other secondary unit infill
  • Addressing gentrification issues
  • Activating alleys to increase public safety
  • Encouraging residents to “adopt” and care for alleys.

The Alley Flat Initiative and the Green Alley Demonstration Project show that partnerships between universities and cities can make projects stronger. Wilson mentioned that these collaborations provide continuity and expansion in terms of resources and funding opportunities, as well as a third party perspective on a civic concern. It provides a resource safety net that helps the project continue when the city, university, or community-based organizations may not have the resources to do so. Universities can also provide important research support that provides evidence to help secure funding and garner support in the community.

Barbara Brown Wilson says that “Coalition building is incredibly critical. This project didn’t really take off until we built the coalition. For the Green Alley Demonstration Project, a diverse set of interests strengthened the project. Participatory action research helped us abandon narrow interests and form the coalition around a broader collective vision.”

Caption: Graphic Illustrating the Dynamic Potential of Biodiverse Green Parking Garages
Credits: UT Faculty Danelle Briscoe, Mark Simmons, and their Student Researchers

The coalition does not end with green alleys. When asked where else you can find nature in unexpected places in Austin, Texas, Wilson mentions the greening of parking garages by integrating them into wildlife corridors. Along with Danelle Briscoe and Dean Fritz Steiner at the School of Architecture, Mark Simmons of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, university facilities and city council members to think through how many public parking garages at the University of Texas and across the City could be part of a wildlife corridor. Wilson explains the compelling notion driving this team, “If we embed wildlife habitats on the sides of these garages, what impacts might it have? How might it better air quality? Improve biodiversity? What sorts of benefits might exist beyond the really deep need for people to be near nature? There are all sorts of areas that are built into our urban fabric that we don’t re-imagine enough. We think of them as obdurate or ‘fixed.’ There really is no urban space that couldn’t be transformed to be more natural to the benefit of both humans and non-human residents. Every median in the country could be a place of deep beauty and innovation.”

Post written by Carla Jones