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Alley Allies: Connecting our neighborhoods by building better alleys

It’s 8 a.m. on a spring morning in Southeast Portland in the year 2020. Roberto is ten years old. His mom hands him his lunch as he scampers out the back door and down the alley towards Arleta School from his home on Boise and 66th. With the exception of crossing Foster, Roberto can make it from his door to the school grounds without ever hitting a busy street. Even on Foster, a raised and guarded crosswalk makes it safe to cross traffic.

Two of his friends see him from the front window of their accessory dwelling units and scramble out to join him on his walk to school. Down Lupine Alley between 65th and 66th streets, Roberto notices how the alleys change from block to block. Residents have given each alley a character and style that reflects their needs and interests. He likes the one between Boise and Holgate because it has a playset and apple trees. The cafés have expanded into the alley, and he sees business people getting morning coffee, reading the paper, or meeting for an early chat in the sanctuary provided by the alley.

He hops along the cobbled surface, oblivious to the way the alleys used to be—unkempt, overgrown, sometimes dangerous. Instead, he enjoys the art, flowers, green walls, benches, and natural environment. Crossing Foster, the alleys change. Now there’s artwork and murals covering the fences. Bigger kids are heading to school as well, skateboards slung as they walk along the stone path. He passes the garden plots and produce beds with signs saying to “take what you need and share the rest.” Sometimes he grabs a carrot for a snack.

The alleys are a game for Roberto and his friends, 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 neighborhood pride, cohesion, and community. They have set an example for alley communities everywhere, with projects popping up in cities throughout the country.

Alley Allies

Alley Allies began as the capstone project for six PSU Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) students in January 2013. Each year the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning releases a request for proposals and receives a large number of proposals from agencies, community groups, and nonprofits seeking planning help for new and innovative projects. Students in the final year of the MURP program form groups around projects they find most exciting and work with clients and stakeholders during winter and spring terms to develop plans and other products that help bring the project to fruition. Alley Allies was proposed by the Foster Green EcoDistrict. The concept was simple: surveys showed that most residents felt their unpaved alleys were a liability, but the EcoDistrict believed they had great potential for community building, sustainability, and livability goals. In January, six graduate students, Shavon Caldwell, Derek Dauphin, Scotty Ellis, Katie Hughes, Sarah Isbitz, and Liz Paterson, formed Mill Street Community Planning and conducted a six-month community engagement and urban design process to establish a vision for Portland’s residential alleys and the tools needed to empower residents and organizations to begin alley improvement projects.

Why Alleys?

Alleys represent an insignificant portion of the city’s public right of way—land the city owns that is dedicated for transportation uses, such as roads and highways. Most of the alleys in Southeast Portland provide poor driving conditions because they are unpaved, uneven, muddy, and contain overgrown vegetation. The city currently lacks funds to maintain alleys, let alone make the major investment required to bring the alleys into the street network. However, alleys have the potential to significantly increase the amount of open space available to residents in the Foster corridor community. The square footage of alleys in the Foster-Green EcoDistrict is comparable to that of the city parks in the area.

Due to development practices when many Portland neighborhoods were built, neighborhoods with alleys tend to have relatively few parks and other open spaces. Alleys are therefore a unique asset: they can provide open space without taking up developable land and are prevalent in the parts of the city most in need of open spaces.

Community Values Key to Reimagining Alleys

For Alley Allies, the students knew that community values must be at the core of their work. An extensive six-month public engagement process started with tabling, presentations at neighborhood association meetings, and a survey to make residents aware of the project and find residents interested in taking on projects. Three example alleys were chosen, one in each neighborhood, and six coffee talks were held in the homes of residents along the example alleys to understand how residents used their alley, what they liked about their neighborhood, and what they felt was missing. This information was used to develop photosimulations of the alleys showing the result of improvements that addressed these needs and desires.


Residents identifying values at a neighborhood "Coffee Talk" organized
by Alley Allies.

A workshop and design charrette event was held in April so that the Foster community could come together to discuss the alleys and create their own plans using the example alleys for inspiration. At the same time the team sought feedback on what kinds of information residents needed to conduct their alley improvement projects.

This information, combined with their own research on the Foster area alleys, case studies of alleys from other US and international cities, and interviews with key stakeholders and leaders were used to create three documents: The Plan, a Background Report rich with data and information about the planning process, and a Toolkit designed as a one-stop shop to take residents from early to end stages of their own projects. These can be found online at the group’s website: www.MillStreetPlanning.com.

Photo simulations of improved alleys based on resident needs and concerns:




What Happens Next?

A number of community groups are currently planning alley projects along the Foster corridor, including neighborhood associations and community development nonprofits. Many City of Portland grant programs can be utilized for alley improvements by residents themselves and by organizations working on behalf residents. Information on funding projects can be found in the team’s Toolkit.

Three of the graduate students, Derek Dauphin, Scotty Ellis, and Katie Hughes, have continued working with these groups over the summer, as well as with agencies to clarify the city’s strategy for alley improvements. The students are also trying to spread the word about the benefits of alleys to other neighborhoods in Portland by presenting to interested neighborhood associations, community groups, and land use organizations. They are working to put together partnerships that have the capacity to conduct community projects and a mission that includes neighborhood revitalization. To request more information or discuss a project idea, contact the team at MillStreetPlanning@gmail.com