Sunday, January 25, 2009

Green Alley Projects

Among developers and city planners, there is an increasing emphasis on building green neighborhoods, not just green buildings. New Urbanism has been a force within urban planning and architecture to bring the components of a village - walkability, mixed-use, neighborliness - back into North American planning. As medical sociologists, we study and document the connections between communities and human health and well-being. At the center of sustainable urbanism is an intention to, among other things, create, support or revitalize neighborhoods where the requirements for achieving a high quality life can all be met without ever getting into a car. When sustainable communities happen, they not only improve environmental conditions, but they get people exercising, experiencing nature and breathing clean air both indoors and out. As creatures of the planet, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that what’s good for the planet’s health is also good for ours. Douglas Farr documents this well in his book, Sustainable Urbanism.

Green Alley Projects are one such way to increase human health and wellbeing. And they are popping up in most major cities across the United States, Canada and elsewhere. As featured on Planetizen in collaboration with grist, these projects are designed to convert concrete alleys used mostly for garbage disposal, parking, and as throughways through urban areas into shared community, green spaces. In Los Angeles, for example, the city's alleyways account for more than 900 linear miles of pavement. Research by the University of Southern California's, Center for Sustainable Cities has shown that activity occurs in alleys only about 20% of the time – and much of that activity involves either driving or walking through.

But today, city alleyways are being converted into shared green spaces that provide community space, planting areas, and for some cities, permeable areas that absorb stormwater. For the cities of Seattle and Vancouver such projects have shown to reduce stormwater flooding and facilitate groundwater recharge. In a two-year study of one pilot project, the amount of stormwater leaving the street was reduced almost completely.

South Los Angeles is home to a high concentration of alleys found in dense single-family residential neighborhoods. The city's Green Alleys Program has the goal of converting these from unsafe, dirty alleys into shared green areas. Similar to Baltimore’s Community Green: Shared Parks in Urban Blocks project that we study, the Green Alleys Program is currently in the process of establishing design and project selection criteria to begin alley conversion.

The importance of these urban alleyways to human health and well-being must be better understood. It is not only the benefits to the aethetics or the improved water or air quality of the neighborhoods, it is also the impact of these gardens on what urban planners and sociologists call social capital. By getting people walking in their neighborhoods, by encouraging participation in local economies, people become more tightly woven into their communities. In our research, we found that having social connections and meaningful bonds facilitate environmental sustainability at both an individual and a community level. In our current research and book project, Healing Green, we are exploring the health impacts of built and non-built environments.

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