Building social space in the nooks and crannies of the inner city

· The Pulse

Edmonton's back alley transformation projects could create much-needed social space in the downtown core, says an urban planner.

"The focus has been on the main avenues, but I think it's high time now to look at what I call the nooks and crannies, like alleyways and laneways and public spaces that are available to be activated," said Sandeep Agrawal, director of the University of Alberta's School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Two alleys are expected to be transformed into public spaces this summer, thanks to a $400,000 initiative funded by the federal government, the City of Edmonton, and the Edmonton Downtown Business Association. Full details of the makeovers for spaces behind Rice Howard Way and the alley between 103 Street and 104 Street have yet to be revealed, but they will include murals and other art projects that are still in the proposal phase, the business association said.

Inner-city neighbourhoods tend to have fewer public spaces than those built in the mid-20th century, Agrawal said. New downtown residential developments bring population density, but they also contribute to the relative shortage of such areas, he added.

Creating more attractive public spaces off of the main avenues also contributes to the city's goal of drawing people back downtown and revitalizing the core, said Coun. Ashley Salvador.

"We have been trying for a long time to get folks to want to linger and hang out and spend time in our downtown, and investing in our public realm is part of that solution," said Salvador.

"I think we need to be investing in our main streets and our public realms to make them inviting places for people. I think that the alley transformation is a unique opportunity to turn underutilized, typically utilitarian places for vehicles into a place for people to hang out, socialize, spend time, and really turn our alleyways into more lively places."

A concrete-lined back alley in downtown Edmonton, with a view of a dumpster and blue sky ahead

With a coat of paint and a creative redesign, this nondescript alley south of Jasper Avenue is slated to become Lulu Lane, a more attractive social space intended to honour civil rights advocate Lulu Anderson. (Brett McKay)

The transformation of Lulu Lane, a one-block stretch that runs from 103 Street to 104 Street south of Jasper Avenue, will be managed by HCMA Architecture + Design, which completed similar laneway activations in Vancouver in 2016. The company's More Awesome Now project in Vancouver created themed social spaces that saw a significant increase in traffic and a shift in who felt comfortable using these spaces. Before the redesign, 75% of the people who used the alleys were men, compared to 58% now.

These types of projects are only beginning to scratch the surface of how previously neglected space in inner cities can be utilized, Salvador suggested.

"One thing I would say about laneways and alleys is that the scale of them and the location of them makes them good candidates for activation," Salvador said. "Because they are human scale, they're separated from busy traffic, and they could offer a secondary active transportation network, separate from your main roads."

This is not the first such effort to turn transform neglected spaces in the downtown core. The lane between Beaver Hills House Park and 103 Street was turned into the Alley of Light and Michael Phair Park about seven years ago. There's also Warehouse Park, an area stretching from 106 Street to 108 Street and from Jasper Avenue to 102 Avenue; the city recently concluded its public engagement on the design options for the park.

The creative embrace of design principles to make existing space more accessible is an interesting initiative, Agrawal said, but its success will ultimately depend on how people respond to and use the revamped lanes.

"I think time will tell what Edmontonians take out of it and how to put it to use elsewhere."