BY: SWIKAR OLI
Todd Vogel recalls moving into his office in 2008. His window gave a view to Seattle’s Nord Alley, a space that had seen better days. He remembers seeing “a pool of blood and the apparent weapon, a pointy umbrella.” Further down the alley was a cardboard box used as a toilet. Vogel also found a crack pipe in his window. Another resident of the building, Jack Bennetto, would avoid stepping out onto his balcony because of the foul odour from the neglected dumpsters below, and the frequent criminal activity in the alley.
Vogel, the Executive Director of the International Sustainability Institute, decided that something had to change. As Seattle’s King 5 reported in 2011: “[Vogel] started by placing a $26 table he found on Craigslist in the alley. He also applied for small grants and gathered donations. Neighbors volunteered to help”. Bennetto and other residents started putting plants and flowers on their balconies, and the city agreed to pick up trash and recycling daily so that the dumpsters could be moved out of the alley.
The alley’s first event, a small poetry reading that Vogel hosted, brought in 60 people. Other early events included music performances, readings, cat adoptions and circus acts.
With help from residents, the alley has been transformed into a space for performances and community gatherings. Nord Alley’s success led to Vogel’s Alley Network Project, which has seen other alleys in the area become fun and lively public spaces.
While many alleys in America are being shut down due to crime, many are being repurposed for the public. San Francisco’s Living Alley project has been planting trees and other greenery to “reclaim” their neglected public spaces. The green alley project not only plants for practical reasons like flood protection, but also contributes to the beautification of urban areas like Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle.
A University of Washington study concludes that opening these oft-avoided alleyways to the public in a city like Seattle can increase space for pedestrians by an additional 50 percent, letting pedestrians ease away from congested streets and get to know others in their community. This initiative is a forward-thinking idea that keeps both sustainability and community growth in mind.