From Monroe Park, The Fan, a spatially-unique neighborhood, literally spreads out, with the spines of the unfolding fan taking the form of long avenues that stretch through Victorian-era residences, parks, and alleys. Through a tour organized through The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s What’s Out There weekend in Richmond, Virginia, Beth Marschak, a guide with the Valentine Richmond History Center, gave us a close-up look at the alley, an often-overlooked yet vital piece of infrastructure, and how neighborhood groups are coming together to green these spaces, turning them into a rugged form of linear parks.
Marschak said that after the Civil War, “there was nothing here.” Monroe Park, the city’s first public park, was the far edge of the city. Beginning in the 1880s, the strangely-shaped district began to take shape as it was divided into subdivisions given over to developers. Together, these distinct neighborhoods formed a “sort of streetcar neighborhood.” The homes closer to Monroe Park were richer, with carved wood instead of cheaper iron decorative arts, and taller, at three stories instead of two. While Richmond was already highly segregated, the restrictive Jim Crow laws enacted in the 1870s, further institutionalized the division of the races, making The Fan entirely white.
Alleys are multi-purpose public infrastructure. They were established to provide air space between homes in case of fire, as well as access for fire trucks. Deliveries were made through alleys. When The Fan fell into decline in the 1950s through the 1970s, some neighbors banded together to enclose and wall off their alleys, to increase security. Still, the vast majority remain open.
In contrast to the sidewalks of The Fan, which are made of bricks organized into a unique herringbone pattern, the alleys feature solid granite pavers organized into a running bond pattern, except for a strip in the middle.
Terry Clements, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at Virginia Tech, told me that the difference in paving patterns can be explained by cost and use. Herringbone-patterned brick sidewalks, which are found nearly everywhere in The Fan, hold up better to cross traffic as they lock together and resist sliding. The paths of the alleys were designed to be able to handle heavier loads, like fire trucks, so the running bond is laid perpendicular to the direction of traffic, making it more resistant to being pushed forward by heavy wheels. The middle of the alley subtly dips and has a vertical strip of pavers to help convey storm water out of the alleys.
As Marschak descibed, local neighborhood associations or residents have shaped the look and feel of many alleys, adding their own green spaces. In one, we see wall planters and even a sort of mini curbside parklet, just created one day by some residents.
However, this alley was really just the appetizer for a splendid one covered in gravel and planted with a soft palette of plants by a neighbor, who decided to extend his own private garden into the public space. Over the decades, he and his neighbors have created an alley arcadia.
Given paved, impermeable surfaces like streets and parking lots can easily cover 30-40 percent of cities, urban policymakers and designers are increasingly redesigning the alley, in large part because of stormwater management issues. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston are all experimenting with applying permeable pavement to their ubiquitous back roads. While this material provides great environmental benefits, it really just look like pavement. The approach taken by the neighborhood groups in The Fan not only offer environmental benefits but also create beautiful public spaces and help build communities. These approaches should also be in the mix when cities consider how best to green their alleys.