Alley Activation in Northeast Portland

In Boise, Community Stories, Concordia by Sachi Arakawa

Alleys Abound

It is estimated that there are 76 miles of alleys in Portland. That is approximately 3,800,000 square feet of potential green community space in our backyards.
In low-density residential neighborhoods dealing with service gaps, an alley can be an auxiliary route to school and accessible green space or play areas on neighbor’s doorsteps; in high-density neighborhoods it can offset the impact of tall, monolithic buildings by transforming people’s experience at ground level. In every neighborhood, these improved public spaces have the potential to spark conversations and connections between neighbors.

Though Portland has ample alleys, many of them are overgrown and uncared for, and can often be dangerous and unsightly.
Residents in the Concordia and Boise neighborhoods are working to clean and rebuild alleys into active community gathering spaces.

Before neighborhood cleanup.

after neighborhood cleanup.

Taking Underused Spaces to the Next Level

In the Boise neighborhood, neighbors around the Beech-Failing Alley have banded together to revitalize their alley into an active, safe gathering place where residents can gather informally, or use the space for community events.

Their project is called the Beech-Failing Alley Project (BFAP) , and since March 2016, they have been pushing for city programming to aid livable community-based development on neglected alleys and other pedestrian-shared infrastructure.

The Beech-Failing Alley Project has been advocating for city improvements to their alley for over a year, and has partnered with several local organizations like Kairos School and Oregon Tradeswomen to make citizen-lead improvements to their alley, and to hold events to engage the neighborhood.

Lead by alley resident Melinda Matson, BFAP put together specific suggestions for city programming that would encompass placemaking, environmental stewardship and thoughtful housing centered on alleys and other underutilized rights-of-way. Their website, documents their efforts, and archives resources for others interested in their development model.

Comprehensive livable alley development holds big potential for increasing green space and pedestrian connectivity, mitigating impacts of urban development by reducing runoff pollution and urban-heat-island, and fostering creative housing infill options. But advancement of this model is difficult to negotiate because of high initial capital investment and multi stakeholder and inter-bureau nature of road management.

Images, clockwise from top right:
Oregon Tradeswomen assist Beech-Failing Alley residents in building benches and planters for their alley; DIY pothole repair on Beech-Failing Alley; Kids from neighboring Kairos School making art to decorate the alley; Residents gather to talk and play games at the alley entrance.

Portland’s Comprehensive Plan recognizes that the city’s alleys can serve innovative new community uses in addition to more traditional transportation functions in Policy 4.11:  “Encourage the continued use of alleys for parking access and expand their use as the location of accessory dwelling units and as multi‐purpose community space.”

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) has been developing a “Livable Streets Strategy“, intended to support community-based creative uses of streets and alleys. PBOT says Livable Streets encourages residents “to get creative and re-imagine their streets, parking spaces, plazas, and alleys”. This strategy is geared primarily towards re-purposing streets for events such as block party’s and street fairs, but may have the flexibility to support community-lead alley revitalization projects.

a toolkit for alley activation in your neighborhood

This Toolkit was created by a group of Portland State University graduate students to assist Portland residents in overcoming barriers for making improvements to their alley by providing them with resources and tools. The tool provides instructions for visioning, designing, and implementing an alley activation project.

More about the Portland Alley Project.

Alley, ho! future of alley activation in Portland is dependent on the engagement of city government and elected officials supporting this type of grassroots place-making. More importantly, however, it will require the perseverance and dedication of residents and community-builders to mobilize neighbors to improve these under-utilized public spaces.

For more information about current and past alley activation projects in the Portland area, check out:

Alley Activation Portland
The Portland Alley Project



Image Credits: Derek Daupin, Melinda Matson, KATU News

Special thanks to Beech-Failing Alley Project President Melinda Matson and Portland Alley Project for providing content.