Friday, June 10, 2011

More Garages and Alleys

I received so many thoughtful comments on the last alleyway post that I thought I might contribute a few more examples from modern American suburbia.  In the comments, several people noted that the Orlando example I chose was poorly designed (I can't disagree), and that better examples of street-and-alley configurations exist.  After doing a few Google maps "fly-bys" of a number of cities, however, if better examples do exist they are not abundant or easy to find.  More typical is this example from Raleigh, NC at right: in this neo-traditionalist neighborhood, homes are painstaking replicas of Craftsman bungalows and foursquares on small lots.  Unlike the Orlando example, however, the developer has incorporated green space in the form of generous median strips, resulting in the streetscape shown at right (the central circle contains a white gazebo which, as far as I can tell, is purely decorative, as it appears to have no entrances).
When it comes to the rear alley, though, a familiar sight is seen: the attached garage and impervious paved driveway occupying the entire backyard.  In the aerial shot it appears that every single property conforms to this design, even where there is clearly sufficient space for a backyard between garage and house (even accounting for mandatory rear setback).

And here's a New Urbanist example.  There are some efforts to create small backyard spaces behind detached houses and rowhouses, but overall the vast majority of the land behind homes is occupied by garages and pavement (this is Kentlands, MD Lakelands, MD).

Here is Kentlands, showing considerably more attention to backyard spaces (thanks for catching my mistake, Laurence):

This is a New Urbanist-inspired development not far from Kentlands, showing clearly the presence of a decorative fringe of front and side yards, with rear spaces reserved almost exclusively for vehicle access.  The ratio of pavement to inhabitable built footprint appears to exceed 1:1.
Not only suburban greenfield development but also urban infill  follows this format.  This is a block of new townhouses in southeast Washington DC, built in a traditional architectural style.  The planner has provided a small common area within the block, but again there is no private outdoor space except for a few rooftop patios.
By contrast, here are a couple blocks in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, just north of the infill townhouses in the previous image, featuring both fronting streets, backyards and alleys: 

If anyone is aware of better examples of street-and-alley neighborhoods in modern developments, please let me know!


  1. Wow, what a horror! I am continually amazed at Americans' ability to invent incredibly bad solutions to the single-family-detached-with-parking format. Given the rather large plot sizes, it shouldn't be too hard to come up with something nice.

    Here is a row of townhouses, once again in West Tokyo. Not the most inviting streetfront as it is a row of garages, but not a bad way to fit a house with a garage on a plot of about 20x60. Note the nice porches built over the garage, with lots of plants.

    For a very small plot such as this, I think the best way to avoid the "big garage door" look is to simply have outside parking. It is much less oppressive that way.

  2. Whoops, here's the first link.

    Like I said, it's ugly, but note that, unlike having outdoor parking, the owner gains a rather nice front porch area. In effect ZERO PERCENT of the land area is given over to parking. (No onstreet parking, and offstreet parking has a yard built over it so the owner can use the space.)

  3. Stapleton, in Denver, is a New Urbanist inspired brownfield redevelopment. This link shows a mix of alleyway and non-alleyway single family homes designed to be dense enough to support neighborhood retail but essentially suburban. They were huge, around 3000 sq ft when I toured a few.

    They mostly had nice but small side yards and back yards with prefunctory front yards whose purpose was unclear to me. As usual for New Urbanism, they made me ache for San Francisco or Mexico City development instead.

  4. Okay, bad link. Try this one,

  5. Okay, Google Maps is a mess, link-wise.,-104.89171&sspn=0.008017,0.009334&ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=39.755987,-104.897112&spn=0.004009,0.004667&z=18

  6. Actually the photo you've shown is Lakelands, not Kentlands. Kentlands is somewhat better in terms of backyard space. But your point is well taken. Many developments have sacrificed yard space for garage space. It's true of many new urbanism developments, but is certainly not limited to those, and is true of more conventional suburban developments.

    It's a fairly common pattern in the Washington DC area. Although you and I might dislike it, the homes sell well. Many people prefer a giant two-SUV garage and no yard to take care of. Without the hulking garages and wide driveways, many lots would have perfectly reasonable backyard space.

    One problem with the Tokyo pattern that Nathan shows is there's no on-street parking for visitors. It's difficult to host guests, parties, or events. And that's true of other front-loaded configurations that eliminate on-street parking, like the standard US suburban townhouse pattern.

  7. Laurence, Pedestrian Observations was just talking about that. I would imagine Japan has something similar to Italy's trattoria culture...that is, most social activities (guest hosting, parties, events, etc.) take place outside the home, and the home itself is only shared with the most intimate of friends.

    Charlie, there can be no question the alleyway ideal was done better before, especially when the Foursquare and Arts and Crafts styles were dominant. I think it's perfectly possible to create a 1500 sf home with ~50% lot coverage in the rear-alley style on a 50x100 if we eliminate front setbacks and minimize side setbacks, and change the garage to a more open carport design.

  8. Laurence: thanks for catching that mistake. I've updated the post with the correct names and a shot of next-door Kentlands itself, which does appear to eliminate the rear setback in many instances to provide at least a courtyard-like space behind houses, at some cost to net density compared to Lakelands. The same issue is visible with many of the detached homes, however.

  9. ///One problem with the Tokyo pattern that Nathan shows is there's no on-street parking for visitors. It's difficult to host guests, parties, or events. And that's true of other front-loaded configurations that eliminate on-street parking, like the standard US suburban townhouse pattern.///

    People don't expect to be able to travel around to neighborhoods in cars except in places where minimum parking mandates ensure lots of free parking.

    I went to many large house parties in Mexico City and there was never more than one person with a car. We arrived mostly by the Metro and jitneys.

  10. Personally, I think on-street parking is a bad idea. The typical solution in the kind of Tokyo neighborhood shown is to have some sort of paid parking lot nearby. It doesn't have to be very big, maybe ten slots or so. These are privately owned, and thus people parking have to pay a market rate for their space. No public subsidy of parking. The typical rate is about $1 per hour. This is no big deal for a three hour dinner party.

  11. By the way, many of these houses have quite a lot of off-street parking. If you look closely, you might see space for three cars where the owner has only one. Also, even a single-car-width garage can often have space for two or even three cars stack-parked. Of course the best solution is to be close enough to a train station that people can visit without driving.

  12. Without any way to measure, it does look as though the older Washington DC neighborhood has more space per house than the newer ones. So the issue of yard vs. driveway is actually a sideshow to the question of how big the lots are.

  13. Cambias -- you're correct that lot sizes are larger in Capitol Hill: the same area there contains only about 35-40 rowhouses compared to more than 50 in the new block. Nonetheless, if the planner had wanted to, there was still room to include both building and backyard. The new townhouses still have a substantial setback, for example (25 feet from the curb), so a little rearranging could have achieved a similar result while maintaining the number of units per block. Capitol Hill was simply intended to show an alternative arrangement, not necessarily an ideal one (to make good on that, I'll post an image of something closer to what I have in mind, with the units/acre held constant).

    Brian and Nathan: Agree with you guys about parking. If the developers are required by city codes to provide parking on-site, there's no need for much if any on-street parking, and if on-street parking is readily available, the on-site requirements are redundant. Having both in abundance certainly is a huge hidden subsidy for driving.

  14. Don't forget, in Tokyo there's a rule that says you can't own a car unless you have an off-street parking spot for it. This creates a market for off-street parking, which doesn't exist elsewhere. (In New York, and most other transit cities, you park on the street if it's wide enough or 2 wheels on the street and 2 on the sidewalk if it isn't.)

    Another issue: those new urbanist developments are rarely TOD. In practice new urbanism is a way to build auto-oriented suburbs that are also walkable - i.e. have people walk to the supermarket, but drive to work. Transit is not part of this equation. If I build mid-rise residential buildings in Brooklyn next to the subway in the style of the 1910s, without parking, it's not new urbanism; it's urban infill.

  15. Thanks for that, Alon. There's relatively little English language literature out there on Japanese zoning and urban planning, but it's something I've been trying to learn more about.

    That is a good point about TOD, also. Kentlands simply isn't much denser than a contemporary subdivision, so I wonder to what extent regular and reliable transit options are even feasible there (although I do believe Kentlands at least has bus service).

  16. Actually, I think the city of Brookline, MA has a smaller scale version of the kind of zoning that Tokyo has. The city bans overnight street parking, and thus parking is provided by the city and by private off-street parking garages. The scale is very different though since Brookline is a small city of 50k people surrounded by Boston rather than a huge metropolis.

  17. This may not be what you're looking for, but Main St Bungalow Court in Minneapolis is a pretty elegant solution.

    Obviously it's unlike your examples because the garages are detached and the itty bitty yards are combined to make one slightly less itty bitty yard. I could see this development being replicated into 6 groups of six houses to form a 330x330 block, with each group of six having a small path between them.

  18. Alex -- that's an interesting way of increasing density on those large streetcar suburb lots without moving to multifamily buildings.

    As an alternative to the detached garages, you could instead 1) whittle the front setback down to 5-10 feet and eliminate the garages, 2) add a 7th and 8th house along the rear alley and 3) build a "really narrow street," or private driveway, along the side setbacks (from fronting street to alley). Owners could then park their cars in the setbacks between the houses.

    This would increase density and decrease cost per home without diminishing quality of life. If an owner did want a garage, it would probably be possible to shoehorn one in there, or simply build it as part of the house.

  19. Hi everyone, I really like the conversation going on here. Just thought I would mention something cool. I actually have been working on a community organizing project with Joe Alfandre's son James. Kentlands was Joe's dream, he hired Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (their firm) to make it a reality. Anyway, just wanted to send you a link to our project.

    If you're interested in creating walkable neighborhoods, you should check it out. This is not about donations or anything, just sharing some inspiring information about something that is happening right now in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am a planning student at the University there.

  20. The garages of the top F1 teams have been moved to the middle of the pit lane for the British GP, so that fans will be able to see them.

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