Back to DC’s alleys… check out some of the previous posts HERE

Having presented the history, typologies, DC context, precedents + potentials, I am now going to take a plunge to articulate my general recommendations and visions for DC’s alleys.

This post will be followed by a couple additional articles discussing the current regulation state of alleys in Washington DC, as well as existing areas of opportunities to create more supportive regulations. Stay tuned!

For now, the vision…. Lets begin with a quick recap:

>> DC, The Problem

With rents rising 86% since 1980, compared to 33% in income, DC rents aren’t just expensive, they are “too damn high.”

Andre Chung for the Washington Post.jpeg

source: Andre Chung for the Washington Post

New values and economic processes have changed the manner in which our cities grow, stressing the challenge of balancing development while addressing exclusion, fragile community networks, decontextualized projects, inequality, and urban sprawl.

DC, a shrinking city since the 1960s, has been on the rise with over 20% population growth in the last 15 years. Given the city’s height and land area limitations due to federal lands, reserves and historic preservation, the unaffordable trend continues, pushing working households further out.

New housing is not translating to affordability; megaprojects privileging certain areas are leaving poverty in others. Prescriptive, broad-stroke regulations and a real estate industry built on a financial bottom line are not enabling intermediate, neighborhood scale projects that address the politics of place and realities on the ground.

apartment list.jpeg


This new map by the National Low Income housing coalition (NLIHC), shows what a person would need to earn to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in each state, and in neighborhoods, without spending more than 30% of their income on rent. In DC, it’s $33.58/h Source: National Low Income housing coalition

>> Alleys, The Pitch

Once boasting over 3300 houses in 275 alleys (1912), urban renewal policies in the 40s reduced them to 100 houses in 20 alleys.

With DC’s need to accommodate growth and affordability, there is huge potential in these vacant and stigmatized alleys. Well located, they allow alternatives for housing, mix-use and public space, creating density discretely in a manner that does not disrupt the character of neighborhoods.

In fact, DC’s alleys can become catalysts, inciting new traffic and uses, fomenting local economic development, embedding themselves in the community building and place making of the city.

>> Alleys, The Vision


DC alleys, Source: DC Public Library

Alley interventions have the potential to enhance the city’s urban design, housing and infrastructure, be it through additional housing, commerce, play/leisure spaces, urban amenities, or water management systems and interventions (for ex. protective structures can serve as water catchment systems).

Decentralized interventions addressing multiple scales

Rather than macro, one site, centralized developments, alley projects are decentralized smaller projects that add up to create an impact at the block, neighborhood and city levels.

Understanding the network though a systems based approach

Alley projects can work individually -the scale of a project or block- or, taking a step back and looking at the scale of a city, can work as a network interwoven in into the city’s urban fabric. As such, they bring forth incredible opportunities for system based strategies: to enhance water management strategies, greening possibilities, public spaces, improvements security and recreation, etc.

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Map showing leftover streets in San Francisco, source: Local Code Project, Nicholas de Monchaux

Addressing the missing middle: intermediate scales + housing

Developing alleys can fill the gap between single-family and large multi-family buildings, an intermediate scale that usually falls through the cracks of developers. This way, alley projects could also increase the housing supply for working families.


Enhancing public space + community building

Moreover, alleys bring about opportunities for DC’s urban fabric to breath, and to address semi-private and semi-public spaces; again, a scale primarily absent in the city. Knowing that open spaces do not equal productive public spaces (allowing numerous activities to unfold), alleys present opportunities that allow local appropriation and bring much needed programs to neighborhoods: Pop-up libraries, public art, places to rest and contemplate, small amphitheaters for concerts, amongst others are some of the potential uses the alleyways can enhance and hold.



sydney alley.jpg

Alley + Art, Sydney

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New York, source: globalphotos.org

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La marais, Paris

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Belgium, Ghent alley

Smart growth, sustainability, inclusion and resilience

With mix-use alley interventions, optimizing what is now primarily underused, left-over, yet existing space in the city, we can enhance walkability in neighborhoods, create new job opportunities, etc.

Through smaller interventions and structures (as opposed to macro projects and buildings we currently see in the city as it attempts to accommodate demographic growth), we can create more efficient interventions with lower carbon impacts and thus, can further contribute to sustainable city growth (note: smaller envelopes are more efficient than a large lead certified structure).

Decentralized and passive infrastructure + services

Accentuating off-the-grid and decentralized infrastructure and services can allow for passive design and alternatives, and more sustainable management and cost efficiency. For example, for water management, the emphasis can be placed on improving the ground permeability of the area- though rain gardens and landscapes. The creation of rain-water catchment systems and collection could also provide interesting closed-loop systems in the alley for irrigation or other uses.

In addition, public lighting and electrical needs can be developed through solar power.

Optimizing passive design thorough the orientation of structures, their use of natural sun-light, wind protection, etc. would support the city’s green building efforts.

photo by Sylvain Ouellet.jpg

Photo by Sylvain Ouellet

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living alleys, San Francisco

Celebrating history and culture + adaptive reuse


Knowing the richness and importance of alleys spaces and structures in the city, alley interventions can seek to celebrate these spaces, rehabilitating and preserving the integrity of their structures (though adaptive reuse strategies rather than a traditional developer’s tabula rasa approach) and optimize their use of space. In this manner, interventions can reflect the history and culture of the city while at the same time adapt and mold to the new demands and needs of the city.


Above: DC Stable, and Adaptive reuse project (source: internet)

New economic opportunities

Recuperating and reintegrating alleys, would create new paths and destinations in the city. Alleys could openly provide an alternative narrative for DC; a new narrative of its history, of its forgotten stories, and its current discourses and evolutions. Think of what this could mean for the tourism industry that remains on the Mall, solely conscious of “Washington”, yet unaware of the past, present and future of the true DC.

Aside from the beautification of sites and structures, new uses and activities in alley developments would incite an increase of traffics and flows to alleys and their surroundings, encouraging new opportunities for local economic development: restaurants, cafes as well as public interest events such as concerts, markets, and others.

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alley, Istambul


Portland, Old Town Alley

>> Alleys, The Who + How

Because of some of the reasons and vision cited above, I am focusing my practice, urbanSEED, on DC’s alleys and their potential to reflect integrated and sustainable developments in the city.

What is urbanSEED?  We are a design/urban consultancy and real estate development practice that centers on participatory approach and funding options, working with and for communities.

Through an approach we term as urban stitching, we seek to weave together marginalized, interstitial spaces in cities- such as DC’s alleys- with thoughtful, integrated and community-based interventions to enhance sustainable urban development and  create more inclusion, equity and resilient city making.



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