Detroit community organizations are “activating” the city’s alleys, turning the often overgrown, underused strips of land into public art and gathering spaces. As the efforts have gained steam, funding has flowed toward them, with the city announcing in July that it will direct $3 million in American Rescue Plan dollars to neighborhood “arts alleys.”

Alley activation has also allowed communities to take the lead in building climate resilience in neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested in, researchers and community members told Smart Cities Dive, as climate change brings more frequent, severe flooding and extreme heat.

“We’re able to gain some bit of land sovereignty and water sovereignty to be able to ensure that we will no longer bear the brunt of climate issues,” said Andrew Buendia, a recent University of Michigan-Dearborn graduate who volunteered with community organizations working on Detroit alley activation.

These alleys were once used for trash collection and vehicle storage, but the city ceased maintaining them decades ago as it lost population and resources, said Paul Draus, a UM-Dearborn professor of sociology who has collaborated with organizations working on alley activation. Over the years, many of these alleys became neglected spaces associated with crime and illegal dumping.

The recent alley activation efforts can build local climate resilience by introducing features that better absorb stormwater and prevent flooding, such as rain barrels, rain gardens and intentional plantings, Draus said. Those efforts can transform the alleys into shade-providing community spaces that help offset the urban heat island effect and provide “locally accessible green spaces” in areas without high-quality parks, he said. Alleys can also be turned into sites for urban agriculture or composting.

Detroit isn’t the only city working to green its alleys. Draus points to efforts in Chicago, Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles as well. Each city’s alleys are unique, necessitating unique approaches, he said. In Los Angeles, for example, efforts have focused on adding plants and installing capital-intensive built infrastructure such as permeable pavement, Draus said. In Detroit, on the other hand, alleys have often have to be cleared because they are so overgrown.

Read the full article about climate resilience by Ysabelle Kempe at Smart Cities Dive.