Activate your Alley

Spotlight

…and so the alley could once again become a special world, not so much a place for the discards and helpless but for a wider range of city dwellers. It offers one of the few urban rather than suburban or rural ‘retreats’, an enclave just off the busy street, a step away from the hurly burly.

from Alleys: A Hidden Resource by Grady Clay

As the streets of Toronto are disappearing one more time under a beautiful blanket of snow that will turn in no time at all into slush and ice, an article on alleys and urban renewal in Torontoist made me long for the days when you can go out without the mandatory down-filled uniform (video). After all, now is the perfect time to plan for next summer’s alley parties, so here are a few thoughts, images and links.

Eventful Alleys

World Cup screening, Alley Network Project, Seattle (2010)

World Cup screening, Alley Network Project, Seattle (2010)

‘Alley activation’ is one of the core activities of Seattle-based not-for-profit International Sustainability Institute. Focusing on the network of alleys around the historical Pioneers Square and working collaboratively with residents, business owners and community groups, they have developed the Alley Project Network to promote local arts, commerce and healthy living.

Since 2008, the Alley Network Project has hosted art installations, documentary screenings, bike festivals, Tour de France and World Cup viewing parties and performance art shows, attracting over 5,000 visitors to the alleys surrounding Pioneer Square.

They share the lessons learned in a handbook (pdf) that provides a step-by-step guide to organising an alley event, from a planning checklist that would be relevant to most situations (including cleaning, signage, communicating with residents…) to a breakdown of the alley permit application in Seattle, useful to understand the kind of process and responsibilities that might be involved in other contexts and plan in consequence.

The handbook opens with the guiding principle behind the ‘alley activation’:

WHY EVENTS?
Putting people in your alley is a first step. People breath new life into spaces that have long been used for illegal activity or dumping trash. Our approach was to throw unique events. After hosting numerous events over several years, we can see Pioneer Square’s alleys transforming. A bicycle repair shop recently moved into one alley – with its front entrance in the alley. Plants and flower pots are starting to sprout up in the nooks and crannies of alleys. And some shops now feature their signs and menus on alley doors. All of these steps are collectively starting to change how these spaces are perceived and used.

The cobbled back streets have hosted photo slams (local professional journalists presenting 5 to 8 minute photographic essays on a variety of topics, from prison photography to portraiture), a summer festival called Alley-Palooza, various screenings (documentaries, World Cup, Tour de France…), PARK(ing) Day installations and an annual dog parade (with hot chocolate and live music), all of which are free, broadly inclusive and involve local businesses or interest groups. Coming up: a Bike Love Party, with beer and tattoos. In late 2013, the Project also led a series of community consultation workshops to develop a new “historically appropriate” lighting and resurfacing design.

alley-Open-House-10.3-1024x768

Alley Design Concepts Survey ‘open house’ (2013)

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There are many other projects around the world injecting a new life into the dark and neglected back alleys, most of which I borrowed from Vancouver blog This City Life.

Green Alleys

Vancouvery Photo c:o Ben Nelms for National Post

Country Lane, Vancouver (Photo: Ben Nelms for National Post)

Vancouver has been running a Country Lane programme for several years, ‘countrifying’ back lanes by depaving them, save for 2 concrete strips, and planting durable grass.

Montréal has a similar volunteer-run programme, Ruelles Vertes – the website offers lots of links and practical tips (in French).

Chicago has retrofitted over 100 laneways since 2006 and produced a free Green Alley Handbook (pdf) for inspiration.

San Francisco is also developing a community-led Living Alley concept and offers workshops to residents to help them design and implement a Living Alley Network.

Ruelle Verte, Montréal (photo Sylvain Ouellet)

Ruelle Verte, Montréal (photo: Sylvain Ouellet)

Public Art & Design

Athens street

Pittaki Street, Athens, Before Light & Imagine the City (2013)

Sydney has developed a curated programme of commissioned public art, Laneway Art, featuring among many other projects the lovely Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill, a sound installation commemorating the songs of fifty diurnal and nocturnal birds once heard in central Sydney; yarn-bombed steps in Sussex Lane by Knitta founder Magda Sayeg; and a giant PVC donut by Brook Andrew.

Austin Art Alliance created “temporary activations” in Alley #111, a “mix of installations and multi-generational happenings” including visual and sound installation, an opening party, a Pecha Kucha and a family day.

Athens-based non-for-profit urban renewal organisation Imagine The City partnered with creative studio Before Light to illuminate one seedy back-alley for one year, gathering “Chandeliers, shantungs, bell shades, paper Asian lanterns (…) retrofitted with new wiring and weatherproofing” to create a party-ready fairy-tale atmosphere (video) that makes the alley both safer and prettier.

Dublin‘s city centre Dame Lane got ‘activated’ for 8 full days by designers me&him&you, who conducted a community consultation to install colourful custom seating, a ‘play me’ piano and lots of plants.

And finally, small street parties everywhere have their own planning toolkit (covered a few months ago) which goes hand-in-hand with the outdoor event accessibility guide.

Laneway Project Dublin

Laneway Project Dublin by me&him&you (2010)

Street Art

Most of the banner images I use on this blog were taken in Toronto’s back alleys.  They provide access to garages and business back doors – and, incidentally, perfect canvases for street artists.

Lego Head - Spud & DMC

Lego Head – Spud & DMC – via Torontoist

Toronto is developing guidelines and programmes for street art, encouraging commissioned murals to ‘beautify’ neighbourhoods and deter vandalism (including graffiti). A map of these official murals is available on the City website, and if some are easily forgotten, others are pretty epic, such as Andrew Schoultz’s ‘The Winds Are Changing‘, which I try to walk by as often as I can.

Left to their own devices, alleys develop other interesting sights. Local guide Graeme Perry (from whose website the opening Grady Clay quote is borrowed) has been leading free walking and cycling alley tours for 10 years and has documented his favourite categories on his website: greenery, textures and ‘funk dump junk’.

Graeme Perry_GreenGraeme Perry_TextureGraeme Perry_funk dump junk

Local photographer and urban cyclist advocate Yvonne Bambrick also captures the alley sights, here framed within reclaimed bicycle wheels:

Yvonne Bambrick, Rusted (2013)

Yvonne Bambrick, Rusted (2013)

Yvonne Bambrick hot pink

Yvonne Bambrick, Hot Pink (2013)

If Toronto’s alleys lend themselves well to urban exploration and graffiti safaris, they’re also prime estate for another type of activation, also a bit more on the wild side than previous examples.

Every summer for the past 3 years now, the Ossington neighbourhood has hosted an Alleyway Party that has everything from local bands – including Toronto’s very own Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super Band, dancing in the rain, communal BBQ, giant Scrabble and collective garage door painting. It’s a bring-your-own, pass-the-hat affair between neighbours, with no lane closure – traffic is usually very light – or formal schedule. Time to get planning…

Ossington Village Alleyway Party

Ossington Village Alleyway Party (2012)

Ossington Village Alleyway Party Scrabble

Choreographing Our Future

The Long Read

In the post-institution-building era, how is art created and supported? Should – and can – public funding be as innovative as the contemporary practices and experiments it is meant to enable?

These are questions addressed in a recent report written by Shannon Litzenberger, a practising artist (a dancer, as the title might give it away) and arts policy researcher during her Innovation Fellowship at Canadian private foundation Metcalf.

The report is introduced as such on the foundation’s website:

As our cultural expression evolves, there is a need to re-look at some of the fundamental assumptions regarding how the arts are supported and sustained in Canada. The environment in which we are operating is radically different than in decades past. New technologies, changing demographics, global interconnectedness, and the evolving nature of public engagement in the arts have transformed our industry. Consequently, the working practice of the emerging generation is increasingly misaligned with current arts funding policies.

The author spent three years investigating industry trends in Canada, the UK, the US and Australia, meeting over 100 cultural leaders and reflecting on context and process. Her report is full of ideas and examples from artists, arts organisations, granting agencies and strategic consultants in the 4 countries of research – from Arts Council England’s project-based, continuous-intake funding programme Grants for the Arts to Toronto’s leading collaborative platform and shared workspaces Centre for Social Innovation and Artscape, via insights from DEMOS associate John Holden and WolfBrown’s consultant Alan Brown.

Litzenberger is careful to mention that “the recommendations contained in Choreographing our Future are not intended as prescribed solutions. They are designed to trigger a more informed debate within the sector about new ways to address future arts development.” The debate was there right from the launch event, where three Toronto-based arts advocate – a granting officer, an independent theatre creator and a consultant – presented to a full room their own views and reaction to the findings. What emerged from the public discussion was a strong desire to go further – but where?

The report conclusion contains clues to a possible direction: towards collaboration, between genres, generations and even industries.

It is not our intellect that will propel us forward, but our courage. We must be willing to erase the line that separates artist and institution, that polarizes the traditional from the contemporary, that pits disciplines of practice against each other, and isolates generations and cultural groups. In this new age of the arts — this newly celebrated creative economy — I am optimistic about the possibilities for artists, arts organizations, and funders to work together as creative innovators, as facilitators of engagement in creative life, and as ambassadors of a healthy, thriving, vibrant arts sector.