Bust the Grid: Back Alleys Become Commons


January 12, 2007


Browse in Commons

The built environment gets inside us with the force of habit.  Once things are constructed it soon seems that they have been that way forever.  Even people who thought the World Trade Center was a monstrosity (myself for one) were unsettled by the hole in the sky after 9/11, and not just because of the barbarity of the attack. It wasn’t just the towers that were gone but normality itself.

As with structures, so with the underlying template.  It is hard for an American to envision development on any pattern other than the standard grid. Rectangular lots, lined up like ledger entries; yours there and mine here. The grid emerged for the purpose of turning land into a fungible commodity. It is obtuse to the landscape and to the social needs of the people who inhabit it. Yet the grid determines the shape of our settlements and therefore, in large degree, the pathways of our daily lives.  Few things so illustrate the tragedy of commodity thinking.

Lewis Mumford has a wonderful critique of the grid in his book The City In History.  I’m going to quote it at the end, because my point here is the recent efforts to declare freedom from this spatial repression and the strictures it imposes upon our lives. I’ve written before about the City Repair project in Portland, Oregon, which is reclaiming traffic intersections and turning them into neighborhood gathering places.  By turning car space into social space, City Repair is helping to turn strangers into neighbors and neighborhoods into real communities. (Mark Lakeman, a founder of City Repair, was guest blogger here last month.)

Now comes word from Baltimore, where inner city neighbors are starting to close off alleys and turn them into protected commons for socializing and children’s play.  The move is a commonsense answer to a number of problems that many city dwellers face.  They don’t know their neighbors.  They feel confined in their apartments.  Their children lack safe places in which to play. Crime flourishes in the social void.  All these things help drive people to the suburbs, which worsens sprawl, traffic and the rest.

All of them moreover are related in some degree to the grid that consigns us to small and separate spaces.  But wait a minute, look out back.  There’s an alley there, running right down the middle of the interior of the block.  Probably it is a mess: trash, rats, carcasses of old washing machines and even cars.  Drug dealers hang out there; junkies shoot up.  It’s not a place you like to spend much time.

But it’s space. What if you could fix it up, even turn it into a park?  What if neighbors lowered their back fences, opened up their yards to the new shared space? What if they put gates at the ends, with locks, so that children could play safely and neighbors could plant gardens and install benches without worries about intruders?  Then, what if people on the block actually gave a portion of their backyards to the new commons to make it bigger.  Each one would lose a little.  But together they would gain so much.

Gee, do you suppose?

In fact there are projects along this line in numerous cities around the country.  In Baltimore, the idea took hold on a block in the Patterson Park neighborhood.  With help from Community Greens, a project of the Ashoka Foundation, residents there got permission from the city to gate the alley. Then they cleaned it up, installed painted planters, and held a big block party.  They haven’t widened the space yet or turned it into a park but they are talking about it.  Some residents have lowered their fences so they actually can see their neighbors and talk with them.

The effort has been successful enough that the city council now is working on legislation to make it easier for other blocks to follow suit.   The grid, being a form of habit set literally in concrete, does not yield without difficulties.  Some residents are reluctant to give up their alley parking, for example. At Patterson Park, the commons had to be shortened to accommodate one such holdout.  The city attorney, ultra cautious as city attorneys tend to be, has advised that 100% of the property owners – even absentees —  must consent in order to close an alley.

Considering that properties can be owned by dummy corporations, or tied up in estates, that’s a big hurdle.  Bad habits are easier to make than to break as the old saying goes.  But the idea is so appealing that it is moving forward anyway, and as I said not just in Baltimore. In Boston’s South End there is a new commons called Montgomery Park, which neighbors have turned from a virtual dump into an urban oasis.  (The Community Greens website  has more on this and other examples.)

On Stanton Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side there is a low income project that was designed with help from people the community. They scrapped the typical project model of structures set on an exposed landscape, and opted instead for one flush to the sidewalk with an enclosed inner courtyard.  Children actually have a safe place to play, in a neighborhood that not that long ago was a drug combat zone. The apartments are designed so that parents can watch their children from the kitchen window, and even from the laundry room.

It might seem new but actually it is ancient wisdom – development designed to meet social needs and not just those of real estate speculators. The Pilgrims built their houses close together in town, and farmed fields on the outskirts.  In Paris, many old apartment buildings are built around inner courtyards like the one on Stanton Street, (Many alas are parking lots now.)

Even in American cities, one happens upon similar designs.  I learned recently of one in Little Italy in Manhattan.  I walked past it almost every day for more than a year and didn’t even know it was there.  The facades on the block didn’t give a clue regarding the island of serenity that lay within.  But there’s another New York example that gives some people pause – namely Grammercy Park, a gated block that is owned cooperatively by the buildings that surround it and that is available only to residents of those buildings who have keys.

Even in Baltimore there have been charges of elitism and exclusivity.  How can it be a commons if it is not open to everyone?   Those alleys are city property after all.  The question goes to the very nature of a  commons – a finite, land-based one at least.  (Infinite commons, such as language, knowledge, and the internet are different in this regard.)  Finite commons must have rules of access; and historically, this access usually has been defined locally.

You couldn’t just show up in Boston with a cow in colonial days and expect to graze it on the Boston Common.  The Common was for residents of Boston.  It was common to a defined group and exclusive to others.  This is how most commons have worked; and it is why the “tragedy of the commons” thesis is a canard, as the author, Garret Hardin, came to see late in his life.  The tragedy thesis assumes no rules of access; which means that it assumes away history.  As E.F. Thompson, the historian, once put it, commoners “have not been so lacking in common sense.”

Some physical spaces can work with open access but heavy policing, such as Central Park in New York.  Back alleys won’t and that’s just the way things are.  Why shouldn’t inner city residents be able to enjoy the peace and safety of an enclosed – though common – space?   Individual residences are exclusive.  Why can’t a group of them have some exclusive space to share?


Here’s the passage from Lewis Mumford’s The City In History (pp 422-423).  I’ve cut out portions but strongly recommend the whole thing:

If the layout of a town has no relation to human needs and activities other than business, the pattern of the city may be simplified: the ideal layout for the business man is that which can be most swiftly reduced to standard monetary units for purchase and sale.  The fundamental unit is no longer the neighborhood or the precinct, but the individual building lot, whose value can be gauged in terms of front feet…

Such plans fitted nothing but a quick parceling of the land, a quick conversion of farmsteads into real estate, and a quick sale.  The very absence of more specific adaptations to landscape or to human purpose only increased, by its very indefiniteness and designlessness, its general usefulness for exchange.  Urban land, too, became now became a mere commodity, like labor: its market value expressed its only value.  Being conceived as a purely physical agglomeration of rentable buildings, the town planned on these lines could sprawl in any direction, limited only by gross physical obstacles and the need for rapid public transportation.  Every street might become a traffic street; every section might become a business section.