Key Issues and Measures to Improve Safety and Functionality
The whole issue of achieving safety within urban alley environments has long been an intriguing challenge for me throughout my career as a planner, most notably as it relates to my work within the law enforcement profession. Alleys exist in many Ontario and Canadian communities, particularly within older neighbourhoods but they suffer an identity crisis of seemingly always being perceived as less than safe. Just like our community roadways, alleys represent key connecting elements of the municipal infrastructure, however they are often relegated to being the “poor cousin” when it comes to usage opportunities, maintenance, and perceived public value when compared to our streets and avenues.
A big reason for this is that alleys are “back-of-house” spaces that are outside prominent public view, with most possessing no real identity via names or physical features that would conceivably draw people regularly to them for lawful usage. The end result in many cases is some degree of overt physical neglect (graffiti, broken glass, overgrown vegetation, lack of lighting, etc.) that makes them vulnerable to unlawful behaviour at the expense of beneficial, lawful public activity within them.
It begs the question: What can we do then to reverse this trend and instead make these public spaces more attractive for functional use that will drive lawful usage and drive away unlawful usage? One possible avenue to pursue involves looking at these spaces with a lens of “Environmental Criminology”, to get at the root cause of their misuse in order to elevate them to more functional prominence for everyone’s benefit.
Environmental criminology involves the study of crime, criminality, and victimization as they relate, first, to particular places/spaces, and subsequently, to the manner in which individuals and groups shape their activities spatially. This results in users being influenced by place-based or spatial factors – or so called “ingredients” that combine to dictate how people can and/or will use both natural and built environments.
Key facts about alleys that are correlated to public safety:
- While alleys do support vehicular activity, volumes are typically much lower than traditional roadways, making them more ideally suited to accommodating active transportation activity (walking, bicycling, etc.). The physical design and upkeep of alleys therefore needs to recognize this, as increased positive usage will help deter unlawful behaviour from establishing and remaining.
- Arguably, the four greatest physical improvements that can be applied to an alley, in no particular order, to noticeably improve its safety are the following:
- Installation of adequate, high quality lighting that produces a balanced output of illumination with widespread coverage to encourage a broadened timeframe for lawful users to be present
- Thorough cleaning up of alley spaces, inclusive of debris removal and trimming/elimination of any extraneous vegetative growth
- Re-paving of the laneway, complete with proper drainage and appropriate pavement markings and signs to direct users accordingly
- Injecting positive activity generation in the form of events such as public markets, cafés, etc., along with promoting them as viable spaces for regular active transportation usage (walking, cycling, etc.)
Proper illumination (bottom) and creative leveraging of space for positive usage such as a cafe (top) are ways of alley spaces can sustain safer functionality
3. Many urban alleys possess considerable “texturing” which poses a safety challenge, most notably at night. Such “texturing” results in pockets of discreet, unobservable space that attracts loitering and trespassing, reducing a user’s perception of safety. Physical improvements such as lighting, art murals, signage that gives the alley a name, and better ongoing maintenance are most effective at addressing this problem. A well maintained public alley is a strong, visible sign to any criminal that lawful users are in constant care and control, making for increased resistance against crime and therefore less attractive to criminals as an enticing target.
Organized cleanup events and installations of public art can make alley spaces feel even more comfortable and welcoming, which also improves their safety
4. It is of great assistance to emergency service responders (Police, Fire, EMS) if a property’s address number is visible from the alley, since incident response in these areas can often occur from the alley rather than the street. The numbers need to be large and easily recognizable while in the alley, not obstructed by shrubs/tree branches, featuring numbering with strong contrast that stands out against the background onto which the address number is mounted. This greatly aids first responders in quickly identifying an incident location when making an emergency response to your property – particularly at night.
5. Abutting property owners to alleys should be encouraged to install motion-activated floodlights to supplement existing static alley lights and install CCTV cameras that record activity as well. When abutting property owners do this, the neighbourhood gains a discernible and beneficial “collective impact” that improves safety for the broader area and not simply on a lot-by-lot basis. Combined, such measures strengthen the criminal resistance of the space.
In conclusion, the sky is truly the limit when it comes to ways we can make our urban alley spaces safer and therefore more functional. If we allow ourselves to be uninhibited in our creativity for how this can happen, the end result will be improvements that elevate alleys from merely being our roadway’s “poor cousins” to a more distinguished status of “equal sibling” within all our communities.
Creativity can translate into pleasant outcomes such as the “log house” style alley garage (top) or transformation of alleys into environmentally sustainable spaces that integrate natural landscaping features to help prevent flooding and sustain wildlife, while making such spaces more enjoyable for people to use
Barry A. Horrobin, B.A., M.A., CLEP, CMM-III is a Planner and Environmental Criminologist who works in the law enforcement profession and is an independent consultant. Barry currently serves on the CPTED Canada Board of Directors.