Finding the Untapped Potential of Alleys

In the early aughts, a former skateboard kid named Daniel Toole was chafing at his slick corporate job in Seattle. To feel more like his rulebreaking teenage self, he cut through back alleys on his way to work. He liked their grittiness and started taking pictures. Sometimes people threatened to kick Toole’s ass, which he handled just fine until three of those people were FBI agents. Turned out he’d photographed the security cameras on their building. They wiped the camera’s memory and warned him never to come back.

It’s a scene that’s just shady enough for its setting, but it made Toole wonder: Do alleys have to be such unwelcoming spaces? Today, Toole, 33, is the architect behind Jade and Steel Alleys, an expansive new project in the ultra-luxe Miami Design District. A recent graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he’s imagined spaces in the Design District alongside projects by world-renowned architects including Buckminster Fuller, Sou Fujimoto, and Patricia Urquiola.

That’s because Toole has become an expert in alleys. He has landed fellowships to study alleys around the world and gained a following for his blog about them. For centuries, he says, back alleys had evolved and served densely walked, commercial functions in world cities as disparate as Kyoto, Istanbul, and Melbourne. It hasn’t always happened that way in the U.S., but that may be starting to change.

“The American alley is on the rise for sure,” he says. “Because I think the alley in an Asian or European city goes through cycles—they’re more built into the fabric. They were always a place for people to be, whereas in America they were for horses or cars or garbage, and now we’re starting to realize they’re just as powerful as a park or plaza, potentially.”

Toole timed it well. Four decades ago, an obscure Louisville academic named Grady Clay wrote a small book called Alleys: A Hidden Resource, arguing that back alleys represented apple-pie-level Americana; most older cities in Europe and elsewhere hadn't been designed with utility routes behind the houses. As American cities and suburbs sprawled out, though, alleys were undervalued, and Clay’s book got little notice.

Learn More at CityLab