The word “alley” often calls to mind images of scattered trash, abandoned furniture, overgrown weeds, drugs and crime. That was largely true for Mona Seymour, assistant professor of urban studies, when she was a graduate student at USC. In the alley near her home, she recalls, “someone got car-jacked, another person was pistol-whipped and robbed, and a brick was thrown through my car window.”
But as a Ph.D. student at USC, she was brought in to a research project on alleys by her advisor and her advisor’s colleagues. Seymour traversed Los Angeles County to photograph alleys, which she calls “quasi-private and quasi-public” urban spaces.
Los Angeles, along with other major U.S. cities, has been studying ways to reclaim alleys from disuse, misuse and underuse. Laid out in a straight line, L.A.’s alleys would stretch for some 930 miles. Although the City of Angels is renowned for its sprawl, L.A. has a dearth of public parks: Its ratio of park acres to people is among the nation’s worst. And, in general, alley density is highest in areas where public park acreage is lowest. In one study, Seymour and her colleagues divided Los Angeles into five regions: South, South Bay, Metro, West and San Fernando. The South region had the highest alley density and was the most park-poor, suggesting that alleys could be redesigned as recreational space.
With focused attention, funding and planning, alleys can be turned into walking lanes, bike paths, play areas and gardening spaces — all improvements in the city’s quality of life. By introducing porous paving, Seymour says, renovated alleys can help recharge groundwater basins and limit storm water runoff that washes toxic substances, like spilled engine oil, into drainage systems. They also can reduce the city’s urban “heat island” phenomenon. Renovated alleys may help spur economic development for nearby businesses.
Those are among the reasons that L.A. community groups, small business owners, environmentalists, water conservationists and others have promoted the study and funding of alley revitalization for the past decade. Those efforts led to the adoption of a “green alleys program” in 2008 by the Los Angeles City Council. One result of the work is the East Cahuenga Pedestrian Alley, opened in 2012 in a site that a resident had dubbed “heroin alley.” EaCa Alley, as it is now known, is between N. Cahuenga Blvd. and Cosmo St., and opens onto Selma Ave. With landscaping, lighting and permeable paving, the thoroughfare is the site of a farmer’s market and outdoor dining areas.
Seymour says L.A.’s redevelopment of alleys has been the product of a “nice convergence of interests.” But much work remains. “There’s more potential in these spaces than there is action at this point,” she says.