A trip to the Dallas Metroplex last fall helped acquaint me with a characteristic to Texas street subdivision design that I had never noticed before: the unusual prevalence of the back alley, even in housing built within the last 25 years. While it’s possible this never struck me in the past because it’s a Dallas thing, and last fall was my first trip to that part of the state, a quick survey around other major cities in Texas revealed that it’s a design feature developers use in San Antonio as well, and a little bit in El Paso (despite being hundreds of miles away), yet they seem to shy away from back alleys in in Dallas’s little sister city of Fort Worth, as well as Austin and Houston.
This characteristic puts Texas cities like Dallas—and, apparently, quite a few of the Dallas suburbs—in a completely different class from housing construction from that similar time period in most cities in the Midwest. Quite simply, in that era when Midwestern households adopted a more automobile centric way of life—in which the typical family owned not one but two or more cars—the new housing to accommodate these households drifted further away from pre-war urban form, which oriented itself on gridded roads with a back alley. During that first decade after World War II, the prominence of off-street parking increased significantly, so that a private residence’s driveway earned a much more central role related to the home’s position on its lot. It wasn’t just a narrow little path designed for a single sedan. In the era of rampant suburbanization, the car became the home’s key accessory—the family’s link to the surrounding community. In most suburbs built after 1965, the average family couldn’t get around anywhere without the car.
By the time, when the middle-class family could typically afford a separate car for both him and her, the demand for back alleys diminished to zero; the front of the home (and its primary street) assumed every role and function, so back alleys no longer became necessary. Nor did the backyard shed, carport, or detached garage, for which the back alley had previously served as a means of access. People preferred entering their property from the front—from the primary street. As the back alley receded in importance, garages themselves asserted a far greater importance too, often growing in size to accommodate two or three vehicles and becoming a physical part of the house. Though the garage doors are often situated on the side or even the back of the house (the driveway stretches from the prime road around the side yard, wending its way to the back of the house), they are nearly always physically attached to the home, and with street access up front, the back yard became resolutely private—the family’s outdoor empire. The territoriality in many middle-class suburban back yards is so clear that a fence isn’t necessary; there’s no question where one owner’s land ends and his or her neighbor’s back yard begins. Here’s some archetypal middle-class housing probably dating from the 1990s, in a smaller Dallas suburb of Glenn Heights.
Granted, these homes do typically seem to have back yard fences, but they don’t have to. The demarcation is clear. Regardless, these homes clearly take what used to be a back yard and back alley use and oriented it entirely to the front.
Using this configuration sometimes the garage stares right back out onto that same front yard and primary street. For homes on small lots, it’s not uncommon for the massive two-car garage door to comprise close to half of the home’s visible façade from the front yard. Take, for example, these suburban Dallas homes, where the two-car garage doors comprise half the homes’ frontage.This appearance is standard for homes built after 1970 all across the country. But the back alley is not. In most of the country, one can almost trace the homes built before 1945 (the dawn of widespread suburbanization), because they are the end of the era of the back alley.
Then there’s Dallas, where both it and many of its suburbs seem to have bucked this trend. Here’s an example of a typical street in the affluent northern suburb of Carrollton.At first blush, it doesn’t look different from the previous homes in Glenn Heights. But these subdivisions in Carrollton have something we don’t expect to see:A back alley. Thanks to the presence of the alley, these very contemporary developments in Carrollton (probably dating after 1990) feature garages in the back of the house. Returning to the front, one can look down a typical street and see not a single curb cut.No driveways to speak of. All the cars must either park along the shoulder on the main road or use those back alleys to get in to the garages.Did the constituents of the Dallas Metroplex reveal an uncharacteristic demand for this old urban form? Not likely. This isn’t some sort of neo-traditionalist or new urbanist community. It’s a very conventional arrangement by Carrollton’s standards. So where’s the evidence that this is what people want? Well, it’s Carrollton; it’s a desirable suburb, and it tripled in size (from 40,000 to 120,000) between 1980 and 2010. Even if people don’t prefer it, the advantages to the municipality just might transcend an anachronistic development style.
So, if most evidence suggests that, across the vast majority of the country, people are indifferent or negative to back alleys, why would developers still build them? I’ll confess I’m not entirely sure on this, but I’d wager that the municipal subdivision/land development ordinances mandate it. Maybe I’m lazy for not wading through municipal code, primarily because even if tells me that yes, back alleys are required for certain residential developments in Carrollton, it is unlikely to explain entirely why. I’d rather infer from empirical observation; from that point, I’d guess it has something to do with creating a configuration that makes it easier to tuck the utilities out back, and they merely run the line parallel to the alleys. In the Carrollton examples, the electric cables are invisible, presumably buried underground, a feature most people prefer, since most people perceive huge swatches of visible overhead cables as unsightly, less safe, old-fashioned, and more prone to cuts in the circuit. Judging from the small puddling in these alleys during an otherwise dry season, they may also serve as the central stormwater management conduit. In an somewhat older development (circa 1970) from the City of Dallas, the homes feature back alleys, despite the fact that they also have driveways with ingress from the primary street and front yard. What gives? In these Dallas homes, the back alley serves no other purpose than as a patch of land by which the utility lines can run overhead, as evidenced here in a Street View of those same homes from the back. But why would this configuration live on in Dallas, when most of the country has uniformly repudiated them?
My suspicion is that certain municipalities in Texas—Dallas, San Antonio, and Carrolton among them—feature subdivision and land development ordinances that disproportionately favor this configuration, because it enables the doubling of a utility easement on a right-of-way, all in the back of the homes where they will be less conspicuous. Even if the power lines run above ground (the cheaper approach, for obvious reasons), they won’t be as conspicuous as if they ran in the front of the house, along the primary street. And, if the utility company ever saw enough reason to bury them, it would be far easier to do so if it’s already aligned with a subtle public right-of-way like a back alley. The Carrollton examples in the photo above clearly indicate buried cable, but elsewhere in the city, the cables are still intermittently above ground…but subtle. I could be wrong in the reasoning—there may be more going on than just trying to stack ugly utilities with back alleys—but it’s very likely that municipal code dictates this approach.
When it comes to back alleys in fairly recent (sometimes even brand new) housing developments, my response to the question “why” is complete conjecture, from a municipal land use perspective. But the “why” involves a second undercurrent that touches on the broader philosophy of planning for new settlement patterns, and I haven’t yet cracked that nut. My answer to that is pure opinion, and it increasingly challenges the prevailing school of thought. This CItyLab article (among many others) seeks a rediscovery of the back alley, not just because it was such a pivotal urban form up until the end of World War II (when most urban historians argue the suburban paradigm first spawned precipitous urban decline) but because of the “untapped potential” that back alleys provide at reinvigorating long-neglected public space in a setting where cars have no choice but to proceed slowly and with caution. Most of the solutions that Lynn Freehill-Maye proposes in her article involve varying degree of private or nonprofit sector stewardship without the back alley losing its function as a right-of-way. This makes sense from a public finance standpoint: public works departments must nearly always achieve buy in for some boutique project, and they’re far more likely to achieve it with primary roads than alleys. But it’s also very site-specific; solutions like Detroit’s Green Alley rarely show a reinvention of the functional purpose of back alleys that could reinvigorate an entire alley network.
I respect the reasoning behind the CityLab article; it reassesses a long-neglected element of urban development, which is precisely the sort of ethos I typically want to see rewarded. If these innovators can rebrand something—even a patch of real estate—and establish it once more as a relevant commodity, they not only have re-engaged the public with neglected land but they deserve to reap the financial rewards that can propel them to further innovations. But this particular initiative has more than one catch: a) as a right-of-way that often hosts utility easements, the back alley was never private; b) even when the back alley was a broadly accepted feature in the urban street grid, it was always kind of neglected. The back alley advocates are trying to showcase something that few people ever saw as anything other than a vaguely unpleasant utilitarian necessity.
And there’s the rub: here we witness that uncomfortable interplay between private interests reasserting their claim on something historically public. These same competing forces lend credence to my assertion that the back alley, though not something we necessarily need to eliminate from our oldest neighborhoods, is rarely cause for celebration. Old city neighborhoods with street grids and back alleys have experienced a reawakening of interest from middle class investors; all over the country they are gentrifying. But most people like these areas in spite of the back alleys. Perhaps it’s those evocative, fanciful old Victorian homes; perhaps they reject the mammoth suburban lawns; perhaps it’s the proximity to a job downtown; perhaps it’s the walkable mixed-use character of everything nearby. Perhaps they’re perfectly fine with a detached garage in the back of the house along with an alley behind it. But the realtor sure isn’t those back alleys a selling point. The free market overwhelmingly rejected the back alley more than 50 years ago; it will only ever achieve a revival among a niche submarket: i.e. CityLab writers and their urbanophilic semblables.
The suburban push after World War II heralded the demise of the back alley for good reason. I stated that reason in my own comment to the aforementioned article, so I can paraphrase. Loathe as I am to cheer for the car’s impact on the great urban forms of yesteryear, we must remember that virtually no residential new construction, outside of those nostalgia-dependent New Urbanist experiments, has ever indicated that people are falling back in love with the American back alley. Even in gentrified old neighborhoods, they remain the most under-invested piece of the landscape. If we connect the dots in a path of thematic associations between back alleys and the inner city, crime is always the primary nexus. We can rant and rave about the lack of safety—the most common reason alleys have become bogeymen—but do we pretend that there’s no credence to the claim that alleys are less safe?
Urbanists can retort that this is association is unfair, exaggerated, and mostly bespeaks the crime rates of urban America at its nadir in the 70s and 80s. I’ll concede their point to a certain degree: alleys are not uniformly unsafe. A high-crime suburban neighborhood that lacks alleys is not necessarily any less dangerous than an urban one, but even in a safe, secure, affluent old neighborhood, the back alley remains the least desirable element—the area we most avoid. The area where we store our trash. With rats and tire ruts. And, if the cables aren’t buried, all those utility lines. And why are they so so uncommon in contemporary developments—except, apparently, in a few metros like Dallas? It’s not rocket science: they create fore and aft ROWs to a private residence, which exacerbates the sense of exposure that makes a place vulnerable to criminal activity. Back alleys were hardly the cause of decline for old urban areas, but they certainly abetted the plunging demand for homes built on an urban street grid in the mid 20th century.
But, that’s not all. Back alleys also a difficult public investment to justify. They impose a greater government burden: residential areas with back alleys require an additional right-of-way (or two) for resurfacing, snow removal, and unobstructed movement to support vehicular flow. Unless the we’re talking about a suburb with high residential density and even higher home prices, it seems hard to imagine the land values will ever be sufficient to support the additional public costs that alleys incur. And even in cities with high land values and lots of alleys (New York City comes to mind) it remains an added, unnecessary cost for the local Department of Public Works. Thus, even though alleys certainly aren’t always “the academic, geographic and social outcast of the built environment” (as Lynn in the CityLab article), they clearly are non-essential and have not yet re-emerged as a selling point.
With few exceptions, people still don’t covet back alleys. It is infrastructure we tolerate because of all the other advantages they confer. And cities would love to be done with them. They’re obsolete, and they never really were essential. Plenty of cities lack them. Take, for example, New Orleans, a city with one of the strongest urban fabrics in the south: eminently walkable, mixed uses with streetcar-defined commercial nodes, interesting grid patterns that routinely change; distinctive architecture steeped in supremely southern flora. With just a few exceptions in the French Quarter and CBD, the Big Easy has no back alleys. In the oldest New Orleans neighborhoods where buildings extend right to the lot line, the space within a single block that would typically accommodate a back alley often serves as an interior courtyard—a cherished feature that few New Orleanians would jettison simply for a bit more urban grit of an alley. And, as I’ve noted in the past, New Orleans has more than its fair share of patently visible utility lines. Then there’s a radically different city thousands of miles away: Portland, Oregon. Lacking much cultural affinity with New Orleans, the Rose City’s well-regarded urbanism does share a single physical characteristic: a relative scarcity of back alleys. Blocks in Portland are unusually small, and the city’s dependence on single-family detached (but fairly small lot) housing is aberrant among large cities. Though it has more alleys than New Orleans, most of these microgrids also preclude back alleys. While I wouldn’t claim Portland’s near-lack of alleys helped to explain a comparative absence of suburban out-migration during the low point of American cities (that anathematized mid 20th century), it has resulted in a city where even the close-in “inner city” neighborhoods still have the character of a walkable streetcar suburb.
Lastly, one final city that has predominantly repudiated the back alley may rank as the most loved for its finely-wrought urbanism: San Francisco, whose relentless grid across demanding topography no doubt made back alleys seem particularly inconvenient for service (and horse-drawn) vehicles. The steep slopes that the San Francisco grid engenders would render travel on any blocks impossible if San Francisco faced icy winters. Though the city lacks many alleys, nearly all homes—attached, semi-attached, and fully detached—feature at least a one-car garage, which is out front, facing the main street, with the rest of the home stacked atop in San Francisco’s archetypal tiny parcels. The end result is a streetscape of first-floor garages and relentless curb cuts on the sidewalks. Pedestrians must face down a small driveway every twenty feet! For the average San Franciscan, the front yard is nothing more than a driveway. Yet few would malign the urban form of San Francisco.
Returning to Dallas and Carrollton, the preponderance of back alleys leaves me scratching my head. I see nothing in the design of the back alley here in Texas that would help stave off the steep drop in demand that most cities faced during the height of America’s urban crisis. They only look newer. The pavement to these alleys remains in good shape—for now—but it seems to force everyone to include thick-slatted, wooded privacy fences in their back yards. As a Midwesterner who grew up in homes built in the 1960s and 1980s, the idea of impeded vision in a back yard is foreign. Even if we or the neighbors had fences, they were mostly to restrict movement, often in the interest of safety (e.g., neighborhood regulation mandated that homes with swimming pools must have wrought iron fences). If people wanted visual privacy, shrubbery was the answer, not a big wooden fence. And I could never imagine such an expanse of new high-end housing with alleys getting built anywhere in Indianapolis or Columbus or St. Louis or Cincinnati—maybe not even Illinois or Michigan, though many older Chicago and Detroit suburbs still have alleys. Unless its a niche experiment in neo-traditionalism, one simply does not encounter new housing construction with alleys in the Midwest.
Yet I’ll concede that these alleys don’t seem to stem the appeal of the Dallas Metroplex. The city is growing considerably faster than any of the other cities I have listed in this long analysis. And I can at least admit that there is an aesthetic appeal to a verdant front yard uninterrupted with driveways and curb cuts. In Golden Gate Heights, the rare San Francisco neighborhood to host an occasional back alley, the difference is stark between one side of the street and the other. The appeal of a beautiful front yard may offset the drawbacks of the back alley. And I’d be the first to recognize that devastated, depopulated old urban neighborhoods across the country—including the Midwest—are facing no shortage of prospective home buyers who either fix up the old victorians or construct anew on an old lot with an alley out back. Freehill-Maye’s CityLab article cites a 1961 Community Planners’ handbook with a line-in-the-sand assertion: “Alleys are no longer desirable nor considered necessary. Their disappearance is one of the advances which has been made in land planning during the motor age.” I wouldn’t go that far. But most city’s need a compelling case to justify all that duplicative right-of-way, which may in fact be a far greater disincentive than the potentiality for crime (which can face an uptick anywhere). I may regret my comparative skepticism for alleys, but at this point, the aggregate cost-benefit financial just don’t usually favor them. Perhaps in twenty years I’ll eat my words and settle in some four bedroom home with a thickly walled back yard, separating me from lush, inviting, reactivated back alley…where all the community gets together to play cornhole or bocce. Because in the end, if I liked a home and its neighborhood enough and the price point was reasonable, I’d tolerate a back alley too.