Saturday, June 4, 2011

Suburban Follies: The Rear Alleyway

For a few years running James Kunstler has had on his website an "Eyesore of the Month" feature, which catalogs various failures in architecture and urban design.  In a similar vein, every now and then I'd like to focus on some more mundane poor design decisions, beginning with one that's been mentioned here before: rear access alleys, with reference to a new subdivision in Orlando that's typical of the type:

Unlike the typical late 20th century suburb of detached houses on large lots with front-facing garages (the much-derided "snout house" typology), this suburb clumps houses together in batches of six, and, in a presumably New Urbanist gesture, places the garages in the rear of the homes along ten-foot lanes, as can be seen above.  From the fronting street, the result looks like this:

The street is only about 20-25 feet wide, but ponder in this case: what is this street actually for?  On-street parking is unneeded due to the ample garage and driveway parking in the rear, and from the street layout it appears that the most of the fronting streets are duplicative and unnecessary in providing access to the rear alleys.  If the intention were to create a more pedestrian-friendly street, it matters little since, in this large single-use neighborhood ringed by wide arterials, there is nowhere to walk to.  And as for private outdoor space:

The garages and driveways in the rear have destroyed that greatest of suburban attractions: the grassy private backyard.  And this in mild Florida, where a backyard is a year-round amenity.  The house is now an island surrounded by pavement on all sides, except for the ornamental front and side yards.  Remove the garage, driveway and alley, bring the property line to the midpoint of the alley, and a spacious backyard is created at the sole cost of having to park one's car on the street.

This design idea appears to have caught on in recent years.  While visiting a friend in a very similar development in Birmingham, I was told that the local homeowners association actually prohibited parking on fronting streets altogether!  This officially reduces fronting streets themselves to expensive ornamentation, as symbolic access roads to the functional access roads in the rear.

I'm not entirely sure how to account for this.  Did the ugliness of garage-fronted streets finally become so intolerable that buyers became willing to sacrifice even their backyards for the illusion of a car-free environment in the front?  I don't know and would be interested to hear anyone's thoughts, but for now, one more shot from Orlando:

This is the village of Hogsmeade from the new attraction The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando's Universal Studios, a replica of the movie version of a fictional medieval town from J.K. Rowling's series.  Apparently this one traditional city street and its associated rides have revived the theme park's fortunes, sending attendance soaring by 68% and turning a $35 million quarterly loss into a $45 million profit.  One could argue this success is purely due to the books and movies, but why were those such a runaway success?  Nathan Lewis can tell you.


  1. It's not only that the roadways and alleys and driveways in that plan make up half the land area. You might notice that the garages themselves seem to be taking up about 40% of the inside area of the buildings.

    That is a neighborhood where cars live and people are allowed to stay in the guest quarters to service them more effectively.

    Not that anyplace in America built in the last 80 years is doing better.

  2. Agreed with Newt.

    The site planning, when viewed from the air, is essentially an unholy melding of ca. 1920 airlite designs and ca. 1950 suburban designs. Airlites (the later form of a rowhome with a basement garage and service alleys at the rear) were the standard new-construction residential paradigm until the Levitt brothers prefabbed their way into history.

    Airlites are, however, still essentially urban in form, with small living and garage spaces. The alley was thought of as the play-yard, and extra space was available in the neighborhood park (where available). This is what makes this new design so ironically funny, as the OP noted: it gives up the functional for the ornamental. There is no cause for front or side yards in suburban areas--just the back yard. But that we're willing to give it up to create a car-free illusion...perhaps that says something about an addiction to them more than anything else.

  3. I'll bet you $5 that the batches of six are an artifact of the local fire code, probably requiring a firebreak for every 150 linear feet of wood-framed construction. The same pattern shows up in recent rowhouse development in Oakland, CA (some with the garage entrances in front, some with them in back).

  4. If the lots were designed as standard snout houses, the frontage of the street would be entirely covered by paved driveways. So this developer has essentially sacrificed generous backyards for small front yards. Their purpose is largely decorative, true, but they do make safer play spaces for small children compared to the snout house driveway streetscape.

    A major problem is the ridiculously large rear setback. That is probably mandated by local zoning or fire codes, but it eats up all space that other developments use as the rear yard. Move the garages back to the alley, or better yet just install a simple gravel parking pad along the alley, and there would be space for a small but usable rear yard.

    Another layout would widen the alley to accommodate emergency vehicles, and eliminate the street, making the front yards a carfree community green. A few developments have used that pattern but it remains uncommon.

    Best suggestion is the one you made: park in the street, eliminate the alleys and garages. Quite a few townhouse neighborhoods dating from late 19th and early 20th centuries use that layout. It can produce attractive, pedestrian friendly frontages, and rear yards can be real oases of quiet and greenery. In some neighborhoods it is the most valuable real estate (for example, Park Slope in Brooklyn NY), but the thinking today is suburban home buyers absolutely must have a 2-car garage. Also, there is so much utility related paraphernalia in today's developments that it's difficult to create an attractive front yard that's not strewn with metal boxes, meters, poles and access hatches.

  5. The wonderful thing about these "rear alleyways" is that they show exactly how much roadway is ACTUALLY necessary to accommodate cars in the suburban subdivision! This is very important, because it represents not only established precedent but real-world experimentation.

    The "rear alleyway" in your Orlando example is in fact very close to a Really Narrow Street, about 12 feet wide. No sidewalks. No onstreet parking. Of course, there is a huge setback and then a big garage. The point is, instead of getting rid of the rear alleyway, I would suggest getting rid of the "front street" with onstreet parking sidewalks, grassy space, etc.

    As for how to accommodate off-street parking: I was in the Easy Bay/Oakland area, where my brother and sister live in some suburban SF-detached developments probably from the 1920s. They resolved the off-street parking issue very nicely with:

    One-car-width garage, with house built over, and a driveway capable of parking an additional car. Also, the space between houses (side setback), of about ten feet house-to-house, was not just useless grass, it was also potential parking for about three more cars end-to-end. Thus, we have parking for five or even six (two cars in garage parked end-to-end) cars per house, with about a 45-foot wide plot. The overall effect was very nice.

    So, I would suggest perhaps this one-lane "alleyway" plus something of that sort.

    for example:

  6. Thanks for the great comments everyone. Steve, have added you to the blog list, and thanks for linking me on yours.

    Eric: A phone call to the code office might be necessary to settle that bet. I have a feeling you're right.

    Laurence: The Orange County, FL zoning code seems to require a 25' front setback and a 15' rear setback even where there is a rear entry garage. In lots like these that are about 110' feet deep you're therefore left with only 70' in which to place a detached garage, house and backyard, which isn't really going to work. The lots could be made even deeper, but that may have been cost-prohibitive.

    As for front yards, the homeowner's association restrictive covenants I've seen for places like this generally try to prohibit any kind of recreational activity on or functional changes to the front lawn, in keeping with the ornamental purpose. Here's some typical covenant language from a near-identical development:

    "The following shall be maintained only at the rear of, or behind, a dwelling: wood piles, children's toys, jungle gyms, trampolines and other outdoor recreational equipment … [including] furniture. Barbecue grills … shall be located only at the rear of a dwelling and shall not be visible from any public street."


    "Each owner shall be prohibited from making any changes to the landscaping on any lot, it being understood that all dwellings and landscaping are designed to blend harmoniously with each other."

    Nathan: Good points as always about the narrowness of the alleys. In the original post I was hinting at your solution by suggesting that the wide front streets were mostly redundant since, except for a few small stretches, they're not necessary for alley access – instead they duplicate the alleys by running parallel to them, minus the functional purpose (parking).

  7. The more traditional rear yard alley design has detached rather than attached garages, with little if any setback off of the alley right of way. I live in such a neighborhood circa 1900. I have a small front yard and very generous backyard, about 60' by 40'. The blocks are arranged so that the lots are three times deeper than they are wide, and this extra depth allows lots of private space in a small footprint. Neighbors usually park one car on the street the other in the alley (or in the garage if they have one).

    One half of the rear portion of my yard, 15' x 22' nearest the alley, has the detached garage (admittedly only a one car garage) which is set back from the alley by only 5'. We have a vegetable garden space next to the garage and a small patio next to the house and still have 25' x 35' of grass and other landscaping. We barbeque a lot and the grandkids (formerly the kids) love playing in the small playhouse between the house and garage. Having both an alley and a street also defines private vs. more public space. When visitors come they park on the street and use the more public front door, and can park somewhere near the front of the house most days. The generous parking strip on the street has trees and protects the sidewalk as well so the front yards also get lots of use too, especially good for playing ball across three or so yards if the neighbors are sympatico.

    The alley used to be gravel but the powers that be decided it should be paved, I liked the gravel better – less impervious surface and better drainage. The alley does get all of the garbage pick up and utilities off the street which makes the street life more enjoyable.

    What I have described could all happen with only rear streets and a front mews, except for separating the utilities, but I personally like the more formal front yard and street layout. It certainly has worked in this neighborhood well for the last 110 years.

  8. Hi Charlie,

    I've been thinking if it was possible to make an autos-only SF detached suburb with 12-foot streets. Would there be too much traffic? The other models along this line that I have seen in Europe and Asia usually have a train station nearby. However, the combo of 12-foot streets plus something like the 1920s East Bay houses I showed earlier (with garage and off street parking) -- many of them are on 0.06-0.07-acre lots -- looks eminently doable. Compared to the Orlando example, basically I would make the wide street into another 12-foot "alley", cut each house plot into two (plus the space regained from the wide street), and plug in one of those 1920s "craftsman" houses. Bingo!

    Seijo, western Tokyo.

    Typical house:

    typical street:

  9. BTW lots more Seijo pics. Plenty of good SF detached ideas here:

  10. Nathan -- I think that could work. If you take ten feet off the wide street you're left with 120' from street to street. Enough for two modest houses, ten-foot front and side setbacks (with a frontage around 40-50') and a small backyard for each. Parking could be in a single garage under the house or along the side setback, or both. This would increase the density in the example in the post without losing any parking, while gaining private outdoor space. For traffic reasons I assume streets would be one-way -- do you know if the ones in Seijo are?

  11. Nathan, could you say more about what it is that you think makes Ayala a street to emulate?

    I was just over there on Sunday, and my take is that it was a pretty good street for bicycling but was devoid of pedestrians (which I attribute to wide lots and a severed street grid), which disqualifies it as an example in my mind. But it worked for you?

  12. Why not simply eliminate the street in the "front" of the house? Then there's enough space for a nice wide "boulevard"-style sidewalk, and a functional (i.e., recreational) FRONT yard that's safe for the kids to play, because all the vehicle traffic runs through the "back" alley.

  13. Hi Charlie,

    You would gain a lot more than 10', more like 30' as you would also eliminate sidewalks and that green strip, so that's 140 feet street to street. With 40' of frontage it works out to 2100 ft. lots, about 0.05 acre and more than enough.

    The streets in Seijo are not one-way. In practice, two cars can pass each other slowly. The "alley" in that Orlando example doesn't seem to have a one-way designation either. However, in this case it would probably be better to make them one-way.

    You could have side setbacks usable as parking. People would want a rear setback as a yard. However, I don't think I would insist on a front setback. In practice, people would probably opt for a front setback anyway of the low-wall-plus-bushes sort, as you'll see in the Seijo pics.

    Anyway, like you say that would double the density, make more profits for developers (always a plus if you want to get things done), make things more "walkable", and cheaper for buyers (less land means less money). The overall density would approach that of Seijo or also Greenwich Village, both of which are compatible with walking/trains.

  14. Interesting blog, though I get the sense that its owner and most commenters are planners of some sort.

    I don't see anyone suggesting that developers be allowed to do just exactly as they wish in setting up a new area and enforcing their preferred restrictions with restrictive covenants registered against title.

    I'm a developer and I can tell you to the square inch and to the penny how much land is wasted by subdivisions with alleys, which I hate. I had always considered them a holdover from old estate areas of great wealth where tradesmen were consigned to the alleys.

    There are environmental implications too. Most of the alleys in my city are unpaved. Rainfall and snow melt result in literally thousands of tons of sediment being washed through storm sewers into the local riverine eco-system.

  15. Fred: thanks for reading and commenting. I'm no professional planner, far from it, but I'm flattered whenever I receive comments from them here. If you want to get a sense of my general feelings on zoning, minimum street widths, setbacks and the whole range of land use regulations, I suggest reading back through some previous posts. You won't find much written in support of them. Above all, there's a theme of opposition to "one size fits all" mandatory regulations, or incentives which create them.

    What Nathan and I are doing in some of these comments (speaking for myself, at least) is not suggesting "better" regulations but simply doing a rough, back-of-napkin calculus aimed at producing a type of neighborhood -- assuming that we're unconstrained by any planning laws and allowed to do whatever we want. I suspect that American cities would have many suburbs of the Japanese or European type were developers allowed to build as they wish, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that, since the developer's perspective isn't often represented here.

  16. How miserable would it be for a kid to live in a neighborhood with no trees?
    Even cities have parks.

  17. You have chosen a very poorly executed example of an alley loaded system to analyze. There are allot better alley examples to look at. Laurence Aurbach got it right when he wrote that the rear setback of the garages from the alley is the primary element from which the whole system breaks down.

    To do a proper alley system, those driveways in the rear would be eliminated, thus reducing impervious pavement, making the on-street parking more useful, tightening up the alleyway to a more attractive space, and creating a rear courtyard between the garage and the back of the house. The alley right of way can be about 20' with only a 12' paved center lane, and the streets can be skinny at only about 24' to 28' with overflow and guest parking both sides. With a 20' alley ROW, you need a 6' garage setback to allow turning radius into the garage. The front of the house can be pushed close up to the street ROW for a small front yard.

    Using these dimension you can easily fit a 34' deep house, and 8' deep front porch, a 4' front setback, a 22' deep garage, and a 6' garage setback off the alley on a 100' deep lot, and still get a 26' deep back yard between the garage and house. If the lot is wide enough and the garage is narrow enough, you also get more back yard to the side of the garage. The narrow alley is attractive, enforces slow driving, and is a great place to play basket ball and other fun.

    Other options is to create small sections of streetless greenways with alleys providing the only auto access, but careful not to create to many of these street-frontless conditions.

    Or, just eliminate on-site parking all together, like in allot of older east coast cities. Portland Oregon now allows new development with NO on-site parking, as long as it's in a strong transit or bike district.

  18. Oh, and one more comment to Fred Z. Granted there are some planners and architects with fairly distorted ideas about planning (or let's call them neighborhoods for arguments sake.)

    But there are allot more developers working systematically and methodically at screwing up America with mass produced suburban sprawl. It's unhealthy for it's residents and the larger environment, costly to our entire economic system, wasteful, and just plane ugly. And people buy it because it's the only alternative that merchant home builders supply. Compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods are the future....and they are selling! Sprawl developers are dinosaurs. If you don't believe it, take a look at DH Horton's newest project in Portland:

  19. Laurence: thanks for your comments. I agree that this is a poorly executed example and certainly not the type of alley configuration that New Urbanism and the Smart Code propose or envision. Nonetheless it is an extremely common design type. I could show dozens of similar examples from cities around the country, many with explicit neo-traditionalist trappings (e.g. Craftsman architecture and front porches). If the New Urbanist design format has not been followed, even though it appears to offer more amenities at the same (or less) cost in land and materials, I'm interested to learn why. Maybe mandatory rear setbacks are the culprit, but if such setbacks do exist (and they appear to in some places) that should tilt the design formula strongly in favor of front-facing garages.

    Thanks also for the link to the "micro homes" project. That's something which has also been prohibited by minimum size limitations for detached single family homes, and is also dependent upon eliminating minimum lot sizes, street frontages, etc. Once those barriers are down I'll bet an idea like this would quickly catch on.

  20. Laurence wrote "If you don't believe it, take a look at DH Horton's newest project in Portland".

    That location, 43rd and Division, is at the east edge of a great neighborhood for walking, and has a good school district, and is only a short bike or bus trip to Downtown.

    I'm glad to see that Portland is allowing new development of small houses and apartments, without off-street parking. And $185,000 for a 2 bedroom isn't bad, for this area. If this place offered 3 bedrooms, I would seriously consider moving there.

    It looks like they will be able to fit 29 units and 1 bike parking garage (for 22 bikes) on the space of 3 standard lots with 2 to 3 story buildings on about 15,000 square feet of land. There appear to be about 50 bedrooms, so I would expect about 50 to 60 people to live there. That's a density of over 50,000 people per square mile (assuming 40% of the surrounding land is used for streets, parks et), if the whole neighborhood was build the same way.

  21. I'm over a year late to this conversation, but wanted to add a couple observations. I am a New Urbanist developer in Florida, so I'm very familiar with the forces that shape this sort of development.

    1) Google Streetview photos make it look worse than it is. The street and front setbacks look wider than they are. There are street trees, which are small because they're new. Eventually they'll make the street much more attractive, as will age in general.

    2) On-street parking is necessary for visitors, extra cars (i.e. multi-generation households), and convenience; getting rid of it entirely isn't practical, and would essentially create the Radburn plan, which quickly became the snout-house-lined cul-de-sac. Mews are wonderful, but can't be very long and they interrupt the circulation network. Great on occasion, but not a model for entire neighborhoods.

    3) The alley setbacks may be required, but it's more likely the production home builder wanted the garages to be attached to the houses to save on construction costs, and keep the holy garage-kitchen relationship. This may be based on dated conceptions of feminine domesticity, but it's still builder orthodoxy and drives many house/lot design decisions. IOW, the garages aren't pushed away from the alley, but sucked up to the house, stretching out the driveways and killing the back yard.

    4) Builders don't think of yards/gardens as "living" space unless it's a screened pool enclosure. So, they don't budget for anything other than turf grass and code-minimum shrubbery.

    When I look at this, I think the planners had in mind all the good lot-design attributes mentioned above (small detached garages close to the alley, enclosing charming private courtyards) and it all fell apart when it came down to "product design."

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