"Alley Allies Project" : Interview with Katie Hughes, Mill Street Community Planning, Portland, OR, by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Magazine
"Alley Allies Project" : Interview with Katie Hughes, Mill Street Community Planning, Portland, OR, by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Magazine

"The alleys are another game for him and the children now, like a labyrinth that lets them explore the neighborhood. But they have other uses, too. Cars still amble through to get to garages, although many have been converted to attractive accessory dwelling units, providing a new source of housing for many and income for longer-term residents. Businesses along Foster were quick to see the potential of the alleys, and now there is a busy market of construction and landscaping companies competing for jobs redeveloping the alleys in Northeast Portland. Far from the underutilized spaces they once were, alleys have become a source of pride, cohesion and community that is unique to the neighborhoods along Foster Road. They have set an example for alley communities everywhere, with projects popping up in cities throughout the country." - Tool Kit

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Interview with Katie by Willi

Please share some of the City planning level lessons that came from collaborating with your team and neighbors?

Alleys in Portland are public right-of-way spaces and are owned by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). As a result, we knew that we needed to build contacts at the City and involve them in the process. Due to budget cuts and limited resources at the City right now, we took a collaborative approach focused on "what can the alleys do for the city" rather than "what can the city do for alleys". We researched the many ways that alleys can help the city and region meet their planning, economic, community, and environmental goals. Some folks have the impression that the City is very restrictive or unwilling to consider projects in the public right-of-way, but everyone we talked with at the City was very receptive to the Alley Allies project.

The biggest lesson for me throughout this process was to not be afraid to ask for help and input! We reached out to several of the agencies, including: Portland Parks & Recreation, Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, Bureau of Development Services, Bureau of Environmental Services, Bureau of Transportation and the Portland Development Commission. They were ALL happy to meet with us and many participated in a City Agency Roundtable that we hosted to get a discussion started about the potential for alley improvements in the City. We also presented our products to many of the agencies, they offered to review potential site plans, incorporate language about alleys in the Portland Comprehensive Plan and suggested potential funding opportunities. All of this came out of asking questions and opening up the conversation in a collaborative way.
Please give us your impressions and how you would start to address a change for the West Berkeley, CA alley. See top row photo.

This alley isn't totally unlike some of the alleys we discovered in the Foster-Powell neighborhoods here in Portland. I see pavement, graffiti, high fences, and little vegetation- very similar conditions to some of the alleys here. My first impression is that this alley is a pretty intimidating space and not a place that I would feel particularly comfortable hanging out in or walking through.

In terms of how the residents along this alley could change this space, I would refer them to our "6 D's"framework: Discussion, Decision, Details, Dollars, Do!, and Delight. This 6 step framework is a starting point for those interested in making improvements to neglected spaces. The first and probably the most important step in the process is to start a discussion with your neighbors and fellow community members. It is so important to bring your neighbors together and talk about what you would like to do with the space. This is how you discover whether there are shared concerns and overlapping values that you could address in the space. For example, I would imagine that many folks along this alley are concerned about safety and maintenance due to the tagging. This would equate to a shared concern and value, and strategies that address this concern and value could be implemented, such as installing lighting.

Shifting a use paradigm? As a child I grew up in my alley. Snuck home, lit fireworks, rumbled with my friends and foes, and made hide-out! Is Alley Allies advocating a focus change from kids to adults / families? To a more formal, structured place?

The Alley Allies project is more about creating spaces that people in general can use, not about dictating what that use is. In general, the alleys in the focus area for our project (Foster-Powell, Mt. Scott-Arleta and Lents neighborhoods) are not being used at all. In fact, many community members consider their alley a liability rather than an asset due to crime, tagging and trash dumping. The goal of our project was to illustrate that these places could be utilized for a variety of uses that meet the needs of the community. All of the sample visualizations that we created were based upon community input that we gathered through a survey, coffee talks and a community workshop. We hope that when folks decide to implement projects like this in their community they begin with a discussion with their neighbors to find out what some common goals and interests are.

Cars are still king in your allies, right?

Not necessarily. We did an inventory of every single alley in our focus area (over 120!) and walked through each and every one. We identified three different types of alleys- car focused alleys, pedestrian focused alleys, and destination alleys. In the car focused alleys people were actually using the alley to drive through or park in their garage. There were other alleys near busy streets, parks, or schools and those appeared to be more pedestrian friendly. Lastly, there were other alleys that were completely overgrown with vegetation and not drivable. We saw these as potential destination alleys for a park or gathering space. We spent a good amount of time in the neighborhood and in and around the alleys and actually saw very few of any modes utilizing the space (cars, bikes, and pedestrians).

Talk about pedestrian safety, lighting and wildlife habitat in the "new alley?"

Improving alleys throughout the neighborhood could create a safe, walkable alley network. By creating spaces that encourage more users, there would be more "eyes on the alley" to help discourage illicit activities. One example of improving safety is the "kid-grid" concept. A "kid-grid" is a concept utilized in Europe to create safe, low-stress and well-connected thoroughfares for young children to travel to and from home, school, and play areas. Alleys could play this role.

Like streets, parks, and backyards, a dark alley is an unsafe alley. This is true for pedestrians and cyclists passing through, but a dark alley is also more likely to be a refuge for those wanting to hide their activity. Alley lighting can provide a sense of activity at night that attracts people to the space. In general, a well maintained alley encourages positive uses and discourages negative ones.

Alleys also have huge potential as wildlife corridors. Planting native plants and trees is not only beautiful, but it also creates habitat and could even help to manage stormwater. Utilizing alleys as natural space could be a really effective way to connect wildlife habitat throughout a city.

These are only a few strategies that could be implemented in alleys. Check out the toolkit for over 35 different strategies and tips for implementing them.

Is an alley a better place for a block party than the street?

I think they have the potential to be! Alleys are unique spaces away from the hustle and bustle of a street. I can imagine a neighborhood "alley party" where people walk through and explore the different alleys. The Foster-Powell neighborhood already hosts an annual garden tour. How cool would it be if they could add an alley to the mix next year? During the coffee talks that we did with community members, people were excited about the idea of using the alley as a gathering space. Some of my favorite ideas were creating community message boards, hosting a wine night or bocci ball tournament and installing a free little library.

Are folks generating and sharing new stories as a result of their alley renovations?

Definitely. My favorite part of working on this project was the community outreach. We did a great deal of outreach at community events during the beginning of the process and it was interesting to hear people share their experiences about their alleys. Unfortunately many were negative such as discovering someone dumping trash or a finding an intruder.

We also held six informal coffee talks along different alleys. We found a champion along each alley and invited everyone who lived in a one-block radius to come over and talk about their alley. It was so great to see people connect and share their stories and perspectives. One gentleman said that it was the first neighborhood event he had ever been too. He had been maintaining his alley space on his own for decades, and was really excited about the possibility to work with his neighbors.

Here's one of my reactions: "Allies begin and end at a street; moated by property lines, power poles and garbage cans?" Is this an accurate baseline?

All cities, and sometimes even neighborhoods within a city, are slightly different. We created a diagram that illustrates a typical alley from the neighborhoods we were working with on page 8 of our toolkit.

In Portland, most all alleys have a street on either end. There are utility lines in some of the alleys, but not all. In the Foster-Powell, Mt. Scott-Arleta and Lents neighborhoods, there is not trash collection taking place in the alley. However, some businesses on the alleys have parking lots or trash collection nearby. The property line question is interesting. Alleys are public right of way and owned by the Portland Bureau of Transportation. However, similar to the city policy on sidewalks and maintenance, homeowners are required to maintain the space behind their yard, to the middle of the alley.

Are temporary uses a better fit than trying to change the alley permanently? Is a permit required?

It depends on what the neighbors along the alley would like to do. As I mentioned previously, the goal of our project was to illustrate that these places could be utilized for a variety of uses that meet a variety of needs. We hope that when folks decide to implement projects like this in their community they begin with a discussion with their neighbors to find out what some common goals and interests are. Some neighbors may want to do less intense improvements such as general maintenance, stringing up lights, planting flowers or painting their fence.

Other community members may want to apply for grants and gain funds for larger improvements such as a bike and pedestrian path, rain gardens or café seating. Our toolkit includes an extensive overview of the types of improvements you can make based upon the goals of the neighbors (i.e. if folks are interested in food security they could create a community garden or install planting beds). We also included a scale to show how difficult or expensive a strategy may be.

The permit process is dependent on the improvements. Again, our toolkit includes specific guidance for each strategy. For example, if someone wanted to put in a small garden, they would likely have to apply for an encroachment permit through the Portland Bureau of Transportation. If someone wanted to vacate the alley to create a bikeway, that would require a different process that involves getting every homeowner along the alley to sign off. We have had several conversations with PBOT and they are excited about the project and open to working with the community on these permits. From our conversations with them, encroachment permits seemed to be best way to go for "temporary" improvements, or an improvement that could be removed fairly easily if it needed to be, such as a wayfinding sign.

I imagine that every city has different policies and processes. I encourage community member to contact their local government to learn what the possibilities are in their community.

More reactions from here: Alley Allies is a "localization engine!" and a "neighborhood design incubator?" Yes? No?

Yes and yes!

Alleys definitely have the potential to encourage people to think and act local. Some examples: using local contractors, creating safe thoroughfares to local businesses, and planting gardens and orchards to encourage local food production.

We also encourage neighbors to consider the strengths within the community. Create a skills list that includes you and your neighbors. Do you have a passion for drawing or experience with design or site planning? Maybe one of you works in construction or has worked with the City on previous projects and is familiar with City policy? Perhaps one of you has a knack for organization and motivating people. Utilize your strengths; it's likely you have a strong team to make the improvements you desire. Assign an Alley Captain and create an Alley Committee to facilitate assigning roles and responsibilities to distribute the work.

Have you considered building a structure in the alley, such as a green house or a homeless shelter, with a path alongside?

We did explore putting structures in the alley. One of our alley visualizations includes a children's playscape and community garden. However, these types of strategies would require vacating the alley which would involve a more intense and involved permitting process. It would also require sign-off from all of the neighbors adjacent to the alley.

One of the other strategies we believe has a lot of potential is thinking about alleys as an entrance for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). An ADU is a second dwelling unit created on a lot with a house, attached house or manufactured home. You can construct an ADU on your lot with access from the alley. Besides the social and environmental benefits they may provide, ADUs have legitimate income potential. The City also is waiving system development charges for ADUs until July 16, 2016. Now is a great time to consider this option.

How are you subscribing to New Urbanism, Transition and Permaculture?

While Alley Allies doesn't necessarily promote one strategy or approach over another, I believe alley projects definitely have the potential to incorporate principles from New Urbanism and Permaculture. New Urbanism promotes walkability and a variety housing types, which alley improvements could definitely encourage through pedestrian pathways and ADU development. Permaculture is a way of thinking about environmental design that is modeled after natural ecosystems. If the neighbors adjacent to an alley wanted to redevelop the space utilizing permaculture concepts, I personally think that would be very cool!

I can't say we discussed the Transition economy concept, so I can't comment on that.

Please tell us how your tools and values relate to my New Myths #47 & #48.

I want to reiterate that this project was entirely community driven and based upon the values and needs of the community rather than ours. The reason why I and my other teammates were so drawn to this project back in January is because it was a community based project. Our team strongly believes that when neighbors come together to discuss something positive that they all share, powerful results occur: relationships build, ownership of the community develops, and strategies form on how to make their neighborhoods a place where all residents can thrive and be healthy.

We wanted to create a forum for community members to come together and talk about their community. The toolkit is organized so people can choose strategies that fit within their goals and values.
With that being said, I don't doubt that potential alley projects could address myths #47 and #48 that discuss food forests and zones. Food forests are a very interesting concept and food security definitely came up during our conversations with residents. As I mentioned previously, we discovered there were different alley "types" and this could lend well to a zone concept. Some alleys could be better suited towards gardening, orchards and park space where others could have business activity or paved walkways.

Note: Scott Ellis contributed to this interview

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Katie's Bio -

As a result of her work with the U.S. Green Building Council and the City of Portland, Bureau of Environmental Services, Katie has extensive experience in project management, strategic planning, public outreach, and green building and infrastructure. Katie also holds a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree from Portland State University, and has developed expertise in sustainability planning, land use issues, and downtown revitalization. Katie brings planning and development perspectives from: Detroit, MI; Washington, DC; Portland, OR; Havana, Cuba; Tuscany, Italy; and Tianjin, China.

Connections -

Katie Hughes
Mill Street Community Planning
khughes98 at gmail.com