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Walkable Alleys of Oak Park and Elsewhere – The Babuk Report

Walkable Alleys of Oak Park and Elsewhere

Arcade Place at LaSalle Street, Chicago
Arcade Place at LaSalle Street, Chicago

When Chicago was initially laid out in the mid 1800’s, it was surveyed with relatively shallow lots meant to support smaller, wood frame houses.  There were no alleys, since there were lots of streets around.  After the Great Fire, every second street was widened; the narrower streets came to be known as “addressable alleys”.  They still exist today; Arcade Place (at William Mundie’s former YMCA Association Building) and Couch Place are among my favourites.

Portland, Oregon is an interesting city.  It’s laid out on a series of “half blocks”, that make it very walkable. It also gives the impression of passing over multiple “thresholds” that lead to “transitions” between smaller, pocket neighbourhoods.

The New York City borough of Manhattan has short blocks running north and south up the island, with much longer blocks going east to west.  Because of all the streets, or thresholds that one crosses, it’s very easy to sense passage through different neighbourhoods.

On a much smaller scale, the length of downtown Calgary has long blocks.  The effect of shorter blocks defining many different boundaries between neighbourhoods cannot exist.  I often contemplated a project exploring a theory like that – growth patterns for downtown Calgary if the long vs. short blocks ran in directions opposite to actual – for my undergraduate thesis.

Though streets get to be known as passages, streets are important places in urban contexts. 

Fan Tan Alley, Victoria
Fan Tan Alley, Victoria









Victoria has “shortcut” streets known as Alleys – too narrow for vehicular traffic – that connect busier streets, they provide a more intimate street setting and endless possibilities for more street frontage – important to support retail frontage.

Oak Park has a few examples of alleys, which exhibit great potential. 

Alley, Medical Arts Building, Oak Park
Alley, Medical Arts Building, Oak Park

The owners of the Medical Arts Building recognized this long ago, as the alley behind their building was a convenient shortcut for pedestrians, even if it backed onto a parking garage.  Simply by decorating their alley wall by opening storefronts onto it, the amount of retail frontage has been doubled: a leftover space in a sideyard between buildings has become a pleasant environment for conversation over coffee.

Hunter Court, Oak Park
Hunter Court, Oak Park

Hunter Court, running parallel to and in between Lake Street and North Boulevard has the opportunities of frontages on both walls.  Although it’s quite well developed over two blocks; both of those blocks only have one side truly developed.  Oddly, it’s the north wall east of Oak Park Avenue (a restaurant), and the south wall (art gallery and accountant’s office) west of the Avenue, though Scoville Square does have a doorway on the north wall.  The right of way for Hunter Court continues almost as far as Kenilworth, though it dead ends prior to that street.  If developed further, Hunter Court could provide important retail frontage and a very pleasant pedestrian environment.

The Accountants' at Hunter Court, Oak Park
The Accountants' office at Hunter Court, Oak Park