Is Urbanism Without Effort the Best Urbanism of All?

More

There are ready and simple victories in residential alleys less known or described, where neighborhood is there for the taking

WolfeUrbanism1-Post.jpg

Real neighborhood experiences can provide a meaningful gloss on current discussions about how to make cities better and increase shared places for all.

On Saturday night, in response to an email, I went to the movies by walking 100 feet from my home. Admission was free. And it was not in the comfort of an isolated home or downtown space, but among some 20 neighbors in an everyday place, hidden and in plain sight: Monica and Michael's alley entry, against Anne and Jerry's retaining wall.

The Green Report

Our last "alley movie night" of the summer was an important reminder that a city neighborhood can experience community without really trying -- an "urbanism without effort" that needs no thought leadership nor sound bytes -- and is as natural as European street life in places we sometimes wish we were.

We can try awfully hard -- sometimes too hard, in my opinion -- to extol the virtues of the city by proselytizing and debating ideas and opportunities. In particular, the potential for American urban alleys remains in the spotlight. This attention, often aspirational, is well-deserved given the raw alley palette for remade narrow streets in the organic European tradition, pedestrian in scale, narrow, interesting, and a natural focus for greening street life and new small businesses.

UrbanismNoEffort_ChuckWolfe3-300x199.jpg

Recently, additional essays (e.g., Alyse Nelson writing in Sightline last week) have recalled alleys' placemaking role within the urbanist toolbox. Specific, grant-funded work by Seattle's Daniel Toole has emphasized the now iconic, reclaimed laneway precedent of Melbourne and beyond.

The challenges, of course, are how to pay for reclaiming and maintaining these alleys. And, as with many instances of infrastructure improvement, we must determine where and how the private sector can make a difference in implementing improvements and maintenance too costly for today's municipal public transportation and utility agencies.

After all, it's not just about clearing away the dumpsters. As I've related before in contributions to the urbanist dialogue (in myurbanist and on Seattle's KUOW radio), public rights of way, stormwater system maintenance, pavement resurfacing, and other forms of street improvement may be required in order to materially reinvent desired space.

UrbanismNoEffort_ChuckWolfe2-300x199.jpg

Yet, in the meantime, there are ready and simple victories in residential alleys less known or described, where neighborhood is there for the taking.

Admittedly, not all of us have traditional alleys at our back doors (which we often treat as main entries), but those of us who do can readily avail ourselves of the once and future urbanism of alley reinvention. Those of us who don't might find a driveway and garage to suffice for now.

Email, potluck food and drink, equipment setup, and a bedsheet-as-movie screen yield public space for community, not because of doctrine or dogma, but because it is as natural as the place next door.

The best urbanism is that which is already there to be nurtured.

Images: Charles R. Wolfe.


This post also appears on My Urbanist.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

Just In