Land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained. It must not be squandered. That's one of Strong Towns' core principles. It manifests as building only as big as you need, with only as much parking as your business truly requires. It means not building overly-wide roads when narrow ones are safer and will move just as much traffic. It means prioritizing active parks over empty greenspace.

This principle is about putting every inch of space in our towns to good use. Now that doesn't mean all cities must become concrete jungles full of skyscrapers. You may decide that a tree or a garden is the best use of space, for instance. Rather, this principle is about intentionality.

One way I've observed my neighborhood putting land to good use is in the spaces between buildings. I'm talking about the alleys and crevices that separate buildings on the main commercial street near my house in Milwaukee, WI.

Of course, there are the typical utilitarian uses like garbage can and utility storage:

or passage for cars:

But there are also plenty of simple, practical, and even creative ways to make use of that sliver of space between two buildings.

For example, the left photo below is the front entrance to a new restaurant in my neighborhood. On the right is the accessible entrance tucked next to the building. The restaurant also uses a small chunk of space along the side of the building to store outdoor chairs and tables when it's raining.

Several businesses in my neighborhood also use the space in between their buildings for outdoor seating:

A few tables, chairs, plants and lighting are an incredibly cheap way to double customer seating space and make your restaurant a more attractive place to spend time on a beautiful day, all while keeping the sidewalk free for people walking by. As a bonus, the space between buildings is naturally shaded for most of the day so it stays cool and sunburn-free.

One cluster of businesses has even given their little alley a playful street name:

Even if you're not using your alley as a public area, you can still make it attractive to passersby. This painted gate is between two gift shops near my house:

Even something as simple as a loading area works really well in an alley. Here's the delivery dock for a local bakery. (Look behind the garbage bins and you'll see pallets where loaves of bread are stacked several times a week.)

One business even turned their alley into a mini bar to make some extra money on warm summer days (and, let's be honest, any day that's above 40 gets people drinking outside in Wisconsin):

Not only do these examples make creative use of alley space, they also locate these uses out of the main pedestrian, bike and car thoroughfares in a high traffic area. Instead of filling our sidewalks with garbage cans or tables which can make it hard for people to get through on a narrower stretch of sidewalk, these uses are located in naturally shaded areas that are still close at hand for passersby.

And these are just a few examples on a single street of the many things you can do with an alley. Alleys are also used for everything from informal activities like kids playing ball to actual home addresses

How does your town make good use of its alleys and the spaces between buildings?

(All photos by Rachel Quednau)

Related stories