The author is the founder of Vive la allée and content director of Group of Fifty. He also cooperated The Washington Post.
When I’m out walking the streets of La Petite-Patrie, I make a point to stop and talk to everyone I meet. Half the time, it goes no further than “hello”. But the other half the time, the results are surprising: people are quite happy to stop and chat, sometimes for a minute, sometimes for five, sometimes for an hour. No one has ever responded rudely or aggressively to my greetings.
Think about it: you can’t just walk up to a stranger on the street, say hello and strike up a conversation This is not normal behavior! But in the alley, yes. Here, a different code of conduct applies. Interactions that might seem threatening on Sherbrooke Street behind our house seem perfectly normal to us.
curious It was my first clue that there was something magical about Montreal’s back streets. The latter are small areas free of urban isolation where the barriers separating us from our neighbors are crumbling. But what really convinced me that there was something out of the ordinary in these places was when I started asking the adults I met on the small streets about their childhood memories.
The results continue to amaze me. Without exception, Montrealers who were lucky enough to grow up with an alley behind them fall short when their memories are called upon. Often they start looking away. Quickly, we notice the eyes are slightly misty. Then the stories erupted: about the stories team In the alleys, stories of days spent in the alleys, dirty and happy returns just in time for dinner. Stories of picking flowers and building sheds with scrap wood. Stories of first kisses, hockey games, the joyous mix of freedom and safety my neighbors can walk behind their house. If you were lucky enough to grow up near an alley, I’m sure you have your own memories.
Montreal has 490 kilometers of accidental urban treasure, a publicly accessible playground where children never have to cross an intersection. I find it curious that so little is said about the role of alleys in children’s lives. The lane is often reduced to an area that can only be greened. And while green alley spaces are beautiful, I wonder if an exclusive emphasis on greenery blinds us to the role the alley plays in the urban fabric. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Often, in history, trend alleys have been considered to play only one role. In the 19th yeare Centuries, this role was to keep horses away from the main road: why they build! At the beginning of XXe century, waste disposal became the sole purpose of the alley. Later, from the 1950s, when we were obsessed with cars, it was parking. Then, with the development of environmental consciousness in the 1990s, green became lanes.
But the street was never limited to playing a single role in the life of our city. People who live near them have different needs and use their lane in different ways. A lane strategy for the next generation should begin by identifying the many ways urban life is enriched, and then develop a design approach that balances them.
For example, think about the role the alley plays as a space for grassroots creativity: a loving painted poem on an abandoned wall, a sculpture made from old bicycle parts or scraps, a formal mural created with a donation or, more often, A homemade painting on a wooden panel. There are small signs ubiquitous with children’s names, but there are many more.
I saw small bar counters for 5-7 on hydro poles, swings hanging from hanging branches, eyes, compasses and flowers painted on manhole covers. Almost every street has the footprints of at least one neighbor who decided that if he didn’t have access to a posh gallery, he might as well leave his mark right behind his house. It happened not because of the city, but in spite of it. The real question for planners is how they can help nurture this source of creative civic energy and how to give neighbors the tools to make these spaces their own.
Think about the role of alleys in the lives of newcomers to Montreal. Moving to a new city, sometimes a new country, where you have no social network, can be extremely difficult. For new immigrants isolated from family and friends and colleagues, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But many of the newcomers I spoke to met their first Montreal friends through the local community on their street.
For those fortunate enough to have direct access, the alley may be the first place they turn when they need guidance on how to function in their new society.
Of course, most new immigrants are renters, and renters often don’t have direct access to the street outside their apartment. The City should consider how to incentivize landlords to provide tenants with access points to the lane, as part of an overall strategy to ensure that the lane can play a role in integrating them into Montreal society here.
The development of Montreal’s new urbanism and mobility plan is an opportunity to leave the reductive approaches of the streets behind us. The city should seize this opportunity to strengthen this urban gem and set itself the goal of creating a network of living lanes — full of greenery, full of art, full of birds, full of children and full of neighbors who quietly watch over. Each other, creating the strong and vibrant community that makes Montreal such an amazing success.