Friday, April 18, 2014

Alleyways: obsolete or a good idea to recycle?

Amongst the elements that New Urbanists tend to favor, there is the alleyway. These narrow streets , 5- to 7-meter wide located behind buildings (which actually look a lot like actual Japanese streets...). In Québec, we do not build these in recent developments for the most part. But we do have them in certain old urban neighborhoods.
Alleyway on the Plateau Mont-Royal
However, certain areas in the rest of Canada build them for single-family neighborhoods, for example in Toronto or Vancouver.

Alleyway in Toronto

Vancouver Alleway
Those two examples are relatively old, but the new neighborhood of Cornell in Markham, a Toronto suburb, have them, as it is built in accordance to New Urbanist theories.

Markham alleyway

If we schematically compare typical Québec bungalows versus typical Vancouver houses with alleyways, we'd get something like this:

Typical Québec bungalows to the left, typical Vancouver housing to the right
Aerial view of the previous
So, a few comparisons:

  •  Vancouver suburban neighborhoods are more dense than suburban Montréal neighborhoods, but that's because Montréal bungalows tend to be bigger than Vancouver houses. With smaller houses, you'd get equal or higher density.
  • The depth of Vancouver lots tend to be significantly higher on average than for Québec bungalows, around 40 meters versus 30 meters in Québec.
  • Vancouver houses tend to be built in depth rather than in width, as the lots are narrow, and the backyards are much smaller, even inexistent, being replaced by garages. 
  • Roads and alleys occupy around 16% of the total area in Vancouver, versus 13% in Québec. That may seem little, but it's still 25% more.
  • Québec suburbs have an insanely high amount of pools for a place that's too cold for a outdoor swim 7-8 months out of every year (okay, off topic, but what is the deal with that?)

What's the point of alleyways anyway?

The main point of alleyways is to create a secondary street where all undesirable activities that disturb life on the street can be pushed to. For instance, garbage can be put in the alleyway instead of on the street.  Urban alleyways in Montréal predate cars and were used mainly for stocking firewood for winter. Since cars started becoming common, alleyways have been used to put garages and parking areas in the back, leaving the front of the building uncluttered with garage doors and driveways, having an human-centric front with a car-centric back.

So alleyways are used to keep "undesirables" from the front, out of sight of people on the street.

New Urbanism is a movement that largely seeks to reform sprawl to make it more human-friendly and denser, not to mention more aesthetically pleasing. Consequently, New Urbanists have embraced the idea of hiding undesirable activities from the main street. Furthermore, as they want to build denser single-family, which means narrower houses, they have realized that if you want to build a narrow house with a driveway and garage, you always end up with terrible design...

Are these houses with garages... or garages with sheds (Vaudreuil-Dorion, Québec)
Dingbats, the entire house is a roof for the cars (Lasalle, Québec... thankfully rare here, but common in California)
JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!!!... ahem, Mississauga snout houses
In all these cases, density is relatively high (23 units per hectare in Vaudreuil-Dorion, 45 with the Dingbats in Lasalle and 24 units per hectare in Mississauga), but since the lots are narrow, driveways and garage doors make up most of the front yard and facade of the house. These aren't prize-winning designs, to say the least. They are not inviting and the absence of trees on the front yards create an impression that the driveway is an extension of the street, inciting drivers to drive faster as they perceive they have a larger corridor. To have slower traffic, have narrow roads with objects, either trees or buildings, next to the curb. This is the opposite of that.

Also, New Urbanists tend to like on-street parking as a traffic-calming measure, since parked cars on the street reduce the width of the street for traffic and create fixed objects right next to travel lanes. When driveways occupy most of the front of the house, on-street parking can even become impossible, so parked cars can't calm traffic. By moving garages to alleyways, you free the front yard for trees or gardens, and allow on-street parking on the entire street, which New Urbanists hope people will use to reduce the width of the street for traffic and calm it.

Because I like my visual representations, here is another one. To the left, I've represented more or less the Vaudreuil-Dorion snout house, narrow with a driveway and garage occupying half the front yard. To the right, I've represented a similarly sized house, but with alleyways and garages on the alleyway. In the street, I marked places where cars can park in green, places where they can't in red. The brown area represents garages, whether built inside the house or outside it.

To the left, narrow houses with garages in front, to the right, similar house with garage behind in alleway
So dimensions are pretty similar, except in the second case, the front yard is free of driveway and garage door. The amount of parking is roughly equivalent, but there is more off-street parking in the first case (1 in garage, 2 in driveway versus 2 in garages in second cas) but less on-street parking. As people may not like always putting their cars in garages and on-street parking is closer to the house's door, on-street parking is much more likely to be used in the second case.

Also, density in the second case is lower, about 20% lower. In the first case, density is about 20 units per hectare, in the second, it's 16. The reason is that the lot has to be made deeper to accommodate both the garage and the backyard. Talking of the backyard, in the second case, it is squeezed between the house and the garage, not quite ideal.

Laneway houses: densification opportunity

There is another advantage to alleyways that New Urbanists like: the possibility of building a second house on the same lot, but facing the alley instead of the street. This has been allowed in Vancouver, where more than a thousand have been built. The idea is converting the garage into a smaller house, either preserving the garage and building above it or replacing it outright.
Example of laneway house in Vancouver
To be honest, the laneway house seems almost like a way of transforming North American suburbs into Japanese-like suburbs with small houses on smaller lots, with little to no yards. They allow suburban areas to double housing density if need be and to increase supply and affordability.


Alleyways have their fair share of disadvantages too:

  1. As the schema show, alleyways lead to deeper lots because they demand the garage and driveway to be put in back. So you need deeper lots to build all of this. This can reduce density by 10-20% compared to neighborhoods without alleyways
  2. The greater expected use of on-street parking may incite developers and cities to plan for and build much wider streets in order to accommodate on-street parking.
  3. On-street parking have their own disadvantages I already talked about.
  4. Alleyways require more money from cities to build and maintain.
  5. Alleyways increase the amount of space that is paved over in residential areas.
  6. Alleyways can make backyards pretty claustrophobic, stuck between the house and the garage, or may reduce the feeling of safety of the courtyard for parents as kids playing in the backyard are close to a poorly lit, alleyway.
  7. Alleyways often create poorly-lit, gloomy areas that have no eyes on them as there are no windows on them, which can attract suspicious individuals and favor graffitis and vandalism, especially in urban areas. In Montréal, when passing in front of an alleyway, I always keep an eye on it because it just doesn't feel safe

Personal opinion

Without being necessarily opposed to them, I can't say that I am convinced they are such a great idea. They do have some advantages and can provide a seed for much higher density in residential single-family areas. However, in the meanwhile, they reduce density, demand more investments from cities, create gloomy areas in which people aren't really safe and they may incite people to use on-street parking, which I don't like in residential areas.


  1. I think a lot of the baggage that comes with alleys derives from their history as 19th-century City Beautiful attempts to segregate front-of-house and back-of-house traffic. They work best when they are purged of that hierarchical association and treated as a way to make block sizes half as large and streets half as wide. The main impediment to this new way of thinking would be legacy zoning laws with arbitrary "front" and "back" setback requirements.

  2. As in, why not just have rear-facing zero-lot-line snout houses with no back yard? Why the need to have both a front and back yard?

  3. Alleyways: obsolete or a good idea to recycle? is very impressive post on this blog. I am too impressed with your hard work.

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