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Toronto The Laneway Project: How one small idea could bring new life to Toronto’s back alleys

A group of neighbours gathered in my dining room on Wednesday evening to talk about how to improve the laneway that runs behind our houses. Across a table set with tea, wine, cheese and bread, ideas began to fly.

How about painting the garage doors bright colours? Why not get muralists or kids from the street to illustrate garage walls? What about setting up benches for people to sit on as they watch their kids play? Or all-weather tables for chess? Why not build a living wall, one of those vertical gardens? And couldn't we have neighbourhood barbecues there?

One neighbour's bright-eyed young daughter piped up with an idea of her own: "Can we get a zip line?"

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The meeting was the product of a smart initiative called The Laneway Project. Its organizers, a trio of Toronto planners and urban designers, are working with city officials and community groups to find ways to green, beautify and enliven Toronto's back lanes, turning them into places where people want to spend time instead of simply pass through.

As a pilot project, the group announced it was going to choose two laneways for a makeover – one commercial, one residential – and asked for nominations. No less than 28 came in.

Our group nominated the lane out back of our tightly packed Victorian houses near Dundas and Dufferin. It's an unusual U-shaped version that wraps around a long-term-care home in the centre of the block. Suggestions and offers of help poured in.

E-mailed whoops went around when the proposal got the nod.

Wednesday's meeting overflowed with proposals for action. The group has already set up a Tumblr page and designed a flyer about the project. It is being handed out this weekend, translated into Portuguese for neighbours not fluent in English. There are plans for Victoria Day fireworks party in the lane and another brainstorming session.

This sort of thing might not have happened in my neighbourhood a decade or two ago. But a new generation of Torontonians – engaged, creative, entranced with the variety and dynamism of cities – are pitching in to improve their communities. The Laneway Project is (sorry) right up their alley.

Its organizers have set out to change the city's relationship to its back lanes. That relationship has always been distant. Most people don't think much about the lanes out behind their garages or alongside their apartment buildings. As a result, back lanes usually have a neglected, shabby look that can discourage people from using them as anything but means of entry and exit.

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They could be much more. Chicago's Green Alley program used energy-saving lighting and permeable paving to make hundreds of lanes more environmentally friendly. Melbourne's Love Your Laneway initiative encouraged "laneway champions" to make them livelier and more welcoming.

Toronto has more than 2,400 laneways – 250 kilometres' worth. That translates to an area of more than 250 acres. "It's this huge untapped store of space, and as the city intensifies and densifies, we can't be lazy about outdoor space any more," says Michelle Senayah, an urban designer who teamed up with Ariana Cancelli and Mackenzie Keast to found the project last May, after a series of chance conversations on the topic.

One idea is to install laneway punctures, incisions in the road surface that would be planted with hardy plants to create a strip of green amidst the grey. The strip would absorb rainwater and runoff, reducing the flow into the drains and ultimately the lake. Another is to hold a laneway crawl, a kind of moving festival held in behind homes instead of at art galleries, parks or public squares.

The second laneway chosen for the pilot project, Reggae Lane at Eglinton and Oakwood, was nominated by a local business improvement area. Backers hope that they can transform the lane, which is named for the neighbourhood's music traditions, into a neighbourhood magnet. Ideas include creating a venue for public gatherings, installing some green space or even putting in restaurant patios.

If all goes well, the pilot projects will serve as models for laneway upgrades all over the city. A donation of $26,700 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation will get them going. The Laneway Project will help the neighbourhood groups put together plans, seek further funding and navigate city regulations.

If Wednesday's gathering at my place is anything to go by, getting people fired up won't be a problem. Fixing up back lanes may seem like a small thing when measured against all the city's needs. But this modest project has stirred up something bigger: love of neighbourhood and of city, and a thirst to make them better.

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