Valuing our Alleys

Portland’s 200-foot blocks have made us famous for being pedestrian-friendly, but they also mean that alleys are not common in Portland. Alleys can provide a lot of valuable use for access to things that we don’t necessarily want to put by our front doors – parking, dumpsters, etc.

In some cities, alleys have become opportunities for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Our northern neighbors in Vancouver, BC call them “laneway homes”.

But in fact, several neighborhoods in Portland DO have alleys, and an article in today’s Trib talks about how in many cases they have become attractive nuisances and focuses on an effort to revitalize them.

8 responses to “Valuing our Alleys”

  1. Interesting, though I don’t think that closing alleys to cars is a good idea. Alleys should act as woonerfs; i.e., multi-modal low-speed shared space. Cars should have access to get to garages and rear driveways… but pedestrians and bicycles should also have access, both for through traffic and for rear access to properties.

    Here would be my 6-point plan for alleys:

    1) Permeable Surface Treatment: Find a way to bring al alleysl up to a minimum green-street paving standard, one that uses a permeable surface (perhaps rock substrate covered with gravel and then wood chips) but could support travel by pedestrians and vehicles (bicycles, autos and utility trucks) without getting muddy; drainage should flow to infiltration bioswales artfully integrated with the alleys. Yes, in many cases this would require first clearing out the blackberries before the surface could be improved.

    2) Naming & Numbering: Most, if not all, alleys in Portland lack names & signs. Google and other mapping services may have assigned them names programmatically on maps, but these are not reflected with street signage. Our alleys should be honored with names; a community process should be initiated to determine the naming system and actual names for each alley. Along with the names, each alley should be numbered, so as to facilitate postal delivery and the numbering of accessory units whose primary access may be from the alley.

    3) Require Use of Alleys for Auto Access: Any new development or re-do of existing development that requires new or changed auto access to a property that abuts an alley (i.e. a new garage or driveway) must use the alley if one is present; new curb cuts on main streets should be avoided if at all possible.

    4) Trash & Recycling: Once the alleys are brought up to a sufficient standard of permeable paving quality, residents should once again be offered the option to have trash, recycling and compost pickup on the alley rather than on the street; this would prevent our sidewalks from being cluttered with trash/recycling/compost bins in the middle of the pedestrian ROW. This would be a reversal of the policy of current trash/compost/recycling pickup providers to try to shift service to streets and away from alleys.

    5) Art: As with all areas with graffitti issues, blank flat surfaces facing alleys are opportunities for community art/mural projects. Especially in the Alberta Arts District, a neighborhood-wide effort to encourage murals in alleys could be a beneficial way to expand the meaning of “arts district.”

    6) Financing: Financing for improvements should be via tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, so that homeowners aren’t confronted with increased out-of-pocket costs (remember that many alleys are in low-income neighborhoods where residents may not have extra expendable income).

  2. This Sunday afternoon there will be a Bunny Bike Ride through Ladd’s Addition.

    Good chance to explore nice alleys.

    Leaves 1430 from Abernethy School.

  3. Nice ideas Garlynn,

    one of the challenges facing this specific project in the Foster neighborhoods is that the residents barely have the finances to keep their house maintained, let alone develop the back alley.

    1) Permeable Surface Treatment

    This is a great idea. Low vehicle volumes would lend themselves the permeable surface treatment.

    Keep in mind though, these alleys are not wide. We’re talking 10-12 ft wide. I’d hate to see them transformed into a solid strip of paving, permeable or not.

    2) Naming & Numbering

    This is key for ADU access. It would be great to see the city take alley-accessible ADUs seriously in these neighborhoods.

    3) Require Use of Alleys for Auto Access

    Most of the alleys are in single family residential neighborhoods, and not main streets. The benefits of back-alley auto access still apply, but I’m not as sold on maintaining auto access. Some alleys might contribute more to their neighborhoods as pedestrian-scale walkways.

    4) Trash & Recycling

    I love this idea, but I’m not sure if waste pickup vehicles can fit in 10′ alleys.

    5) Art

    One of Foster’s coolest alleys had a mural on it for years. Repeated incidents of graffiti prompted whoever was responsible for the mural to paint over it.

    6) Financing

    Without appropriate financing options, renovation will never happen (unless the area is gentrified to a significant degree).

  4. Very cool.. I’ve got an unused 10′ wide alley behind my home – there are a few others scattered in North Tabor, Mt. Tabor, and Montavilla neighborhoods. In the past, it has been the place where garbage was burned and eventually overrun by blackberry bushes, holly trees, and every other invasive species out there. Now, it’s being transformed (slowly) into “backyard habitat” with native plants, raised veggie beds, and a small path. The neighbors have fenced off their portions though.

    Would love to see it become a residential lane for ADUs, perhaps funded by a local improvement district. Seems difficult to get everyone on board with that though..

  5. I grew up in what used to be a small town in SW Florida that had alleys in the older part of the city, the part where I lived. For a kid on a bike, it was great! There wasn’t much traffic on the roads, but the alleyways were even better. We didn’t ride them to be safe. We road them to explore.

    Great ideas by Nick & Garlynn above. I especially like using them for auto access. That might make it easier to get parking off the streets so that we can use that space for cycling infrastructure.

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