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Transforming alleys and service areas on Main Street
posted by Joe Lawniczak

In nearly every historic commercial district, there are two sides: the “public face,” which includes the storefront, the streetscape and most of the activity; and the “behind-the-scenes area,” which includes the back alleys, utilities and delivery zones. But more and more, these behind the-scenes spaces are being transformed into vibrant, active public spaces, often for very little cost. And the great thing is, the “unfinished” or “gritty” appearance of these areas actually creates a perfect backdrop for the types of activities often held within them.


Some of these alleyways are in the rear of the buildings, some are on the side, some are public right-of-ways, some are privately-owned. Some serve multiple properties, some serve only one. The current use can sometimes dictate what can or cannot be done with a space. If deliveries and trash pick-up are located here and there is no other logical location for these services, it could limit or alter any reuse plans. But in example after example across the country, creative ways to work around these issues are found, often with an artist’s touch.


Our first inspirational case study is “Osky, the Alley” in Oskaloosa, Iowa, a fun, award-winning transformation completed in 2016. This project has everything we preach in Main Street: public and private involvement, a dedicated group of volunteers, utilization of local artists and businesses, promoting history, hosting special events, and more. It began when five women (Karen, Ann, Deb, Theresa and Sherry) partnered with Mainstreet Oskaloosa to form Alley KADTS. Their mission was to spruce up a highly visible, litter-strewn service alley between their town square and the downtown mall. They met with local businesses and officials, heard their needs and concerns, and developed a plan. 

Activating alleys

Activating alleys does not always require expensive upgrades. Sometimes it is the programming of the spaces that make them destinations, rather than physical improvements.


One example is Buckham Alley in Flint, Michigan. Back in 2011 in an effort to attract pedestrian traffic to the businesses located alongside this downtown alley, local residents organized a one-day music festival called the Buckham Alley Fest. In that first year, they had nine bands, 50 vendors and nearly 1,500 attendees.

Alleys as a business amenity

Too often, the alley-side and rear entrances of buildings are an overlooked business opportunity. Originally designed as service and delivery areas, these facades were most often not visible to the general public. Today, demolition of nearby buildings or the creation of parking lots have made these rear facades much more visible, yet they still lack any aesthetic appeal for customers. Physical improvements in these spaces can have tremendous impact at little cost. 

September 2017

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Further Reading

There are a number of successful projects and toolkits to address or enhance alleys in your community. Check out the following: 


A Guide to Value Added Alleys for Small Towns and Cities


5 Urban Alley Reinventions
That Are Changing The Look And Feel Of American Cities  


Seattle’s Alley Network Project 


Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative 


Seattle Integrated Alley Handbook


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