A magical space behind your home

The author is founder of Vive la allée and content director of Group of Fifty. He also collaborates in washington post.

When I walk the alleyways of La Petite-Patrie, I make it a point to stop and talk to everyone I meet. Half the time it doesn’t go further than a “hello”. But the other half of the time, the results are fantastic: people are quite happy to stop and chat, sometimes for a minute, sometimes for five, sometimes for an hour. No one has ever responded rudely or aggressively to my greetings.

Think about it: You can’t just walk up to a stranger on the street, say hello and strike up a conversation. This is not normal behavior! But in the alley, yes. A different code of conduct applies here. Interactions that might seem threatening on Sherbrooke Street seem perfectly normal to us behind our house.

Curious. That was my first clue that there is something magical about Montreal’s back streets. The latter are small fields free of urban alienation, where the barriers separating us from our neighbors break down. But what really convinced me that there was something out of the ordinary about these spaces was when I started asking the adults I met about their childhood memories in the little street.

The results continue to amaze me. Without exception, Montrealers who were lucky enough to grow up with an alley behind them stop when their memories are called upon. Often they start looking away. We quickly notice the eyes are slightly misty. Then the stories break out: stories about gang of the alley, stories of days spent in the alley, returning dirty and happy just in time for dinner. Stories about picking flowers and building sheds with found wood scraps. Stories of first kisses, of hockey games, of the exciting mix of freedom and security my neighbors could find walking behind their house. If you were lucky enough to grow up near an alley, I’m sure you have your own memories.

Multiple roles

Montreal has 490 kilometers of an accidental urban treasure, a universally accessible playground where children never have to cross an intersection. I find it strange that so little is said about the role the alley plays in children’s lives. The course is too often reduced to a space that can only be greened. And although green alleys are beautiful places, I wonder if the exclusive emphasis on green makes us blind to all the other roles that the alley plays in the urban structure. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Too often in history, the tendency has been to view alleys as playing only one role. In the 19the century this role was to keep horses off the high streets: that’s why they were built! At the beginning of XXe century, waste disposal became the sole purpose of the alleys. Later, from the 1950s, when we were obsessed with cars, it was parking. Then, with the development of ecological awareness in the 1990s, it became the green alley’s raison d’être.

But the alley has never been limited to playing a single role in the life of our city. People who live near them have different needs and use their lane in different ways. A path strategy for the next generation should begin by identifying the many ways in which paths enrich urban life, and then develop design approaches that balance them.

Consider, for example, the role the alley plays as a space for grassroots creativity: a lovingly painted poem on an abandoned wall, a sculpture made from old bicycle parts or scraps, a formal mural made with a grant de la Ville or, more often, a homemade painting on a wooden panel. There are the ubiquitous little signs with the names of the children, but there are also many more.

I saw small bar tables for 5-7 attached to Hydro poles, swings hanging from overhanging branches, eyes, compasses and flowers painted on manhole covers. Almost every alley bears the footprints of at least one neighbor who decided that if he didn’t have access to a fancy downtown gallery, he could still make his mark right behind his house. This happened not because of the city, but in spite of it. The real question for planners is how to help foster this source of creative civic energy and how to give neighbors the tools to make these spaces their own.


Consider the role of the alley in the lives of newcomers to Montreal. Moving to a new city, sometimes a new country, where you have no social network can be extremely difficult. For new immigrants cut off from family and friends and colleagues, it is easy to feel despair. But many of the newcomers I’ve spoken to say they met their first Montreal friends through the community in their alley.

For those lucky enough to have direct access, the alley can become the first place they turn when they need guidance on how to function in their new community.

Of course, most new immigrants are renters, and renters often do not have direct access to the alley outside their apartment. The city should consider how to incentivize landlords to provide tenants with access points to the track, as part of an overall strategy to ensure that the track can play its part in integrating them into the Montreal community.

The development of the new urbanism and mobility plan in Montreal is an opportunity to leave the reductive approaches of the alley behind us. The city should seize this opportunity to strengthen this urban gem and set itself the goal of creating a network of living lanes – full of greenery, full of art, full of birds, full of children and filled with neighbors quietly watching over. on each other and produce the strong and vibrant communities that make Montreal the amazing success it is.

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