Montreal’s back alleys have for decades been an emblematic feature of the city with their jumble of old corrugated tin sheds, circular metal staircases, laundry strung along clotheslines and rambunctious kids playing ball hockey.
They were more often than not seldom-used spaces, serving as entry points for backyard parking or for services such as telephone line work and heating-oil delivery. But hundreds of Montreal’s lanes have also, over the past 15 or so years, been transformed into vibrant green spaces called ruelles vertes.
What began as a modest local initiative in a few pockets of the city has blossomed into a veritable movement that has put Montreal on the map as one of the globe’s top cities for green laneways.
Last year, there were 346 officially designated ruelles vertes, representing about 69 kilometres of laneway. By the end of this year, there should be more than 400 of them, said Simon Octeau, interim director of the Regroupement des éco-quartiers, the umbrella group for the city-sponsored environmental neighbourhood organizations.
The repurposed corridors have become much more than simply green spaces that help counter the urban heat-island effect, enhance biodiversity, reduce stormwater runoff, provide a safer place for kids to play and give aesthetic pleasure to residents, he said.
“Ruelles vertes mobilize people; they have a positive effect in the social sphere by creating bonds between neighbours,” he said.
Among social activities that have become a regular part of the ruelle verte experience are kids’ birthday parties, cocktail hours for the adults, block parties, film screenings and the sharing and exchange of books, tools, toys and garden vegetables, Mr. Octeau said.
Green alleys have also been singled out in various studies as effective tools to calm or restrict automobile traffic; help address the problem of climate change; encourage pollination and a greater diversity of insects and birds in the urban environment; and even raise a city’s score on the global livability index.
For Odette Voyer, a retired professional who lives in a second-floor condominium overlooking a ruelle verte in the Plateau-Mont-Royal – Canada’s most densely populated borough – the green space is like her adopted backyard. She helps on a regular basis watering the many different plants and flowers as well as weeding and keeping the alley clean. She planted clover in the gaps of the open-celled pavers that replaced the asphalt to help absorb stormwater.
“As a general rule, the greener an alley is the more people are careful,” she said.
Her laneway neighbour Christiane Corneau, who spearheaded the project, said: “Our alley became a symbol of pride for everyone. Many citizens now walk through our alley because they find it more enjoyable than the streets.”
City of Montreal spokeswoman Camille Bégin said the city’s boroughs are increasingly exchanging information and tips on innovative and creative ways to make the green lanes better. “There’s a real enthusiasm for this kind of project,” she said.
Indeed, demand for green laneways is so high that some boroughs have put citizens’ requests on waiting lists for the startup assistance and financing the city provides, Mr. Octeau said. Out of the city’s 19 boroughs, 12 now have at least one ruelle verte, he said.
The borough of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie leads the pack: Once an additional 10 ruelles vertes have been rolled out on its territory by the end of the summer, it will boast a total of 118.
Many Montreal alleyways also serve as “white” spaces in the winter, when they are transformed into skating rinks or – in the event of major snowfalls – giant slides.
For all the apparent harmony and goodwill, friction can sometimes arise between neighbours who don’t share the same values or notions about what back alleys should be used for.
Mélanie Cyr is pleased with the ruelle verte behind her home in the Villeray neighbourhood in the north-central part of Montreal. But five years ago, before it got its official green status, her family and a few others decided to lay down some sheets of ice so the kids could play hockey that winter; the corridor was not on the list of lanes to be kept open and cleared of snow by city workers.
In a surprising move, however, the city intervened, spreading crushed stone on the ice after getting a complaint from an irate neighbour who said residents could fall and hurt themselves on the slippery surface.
Ms. Cyr doesn’t hold a grudge against the concerned citizen who complained, but said there will always be some individuals who aren’t on the same page and it’s important to attempt to keep a dialogue going with those who don’t buy into the green- or white-alley concept.
“It’s not easy trying to do things that please people without irritating others,” she said.
The lack of buy-in on the part of some people – a simple 51-per-cent majority is required to get the ball rolling on a green-alley project – can also be viewed as a reflection of a gentrification dynamic at work.
Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne sees the green laneway as a potentially significant contributor to “great trust building” among residents.
“I really believe in it as a neighbourhood builder.”
The senior scientist in the Sustainability Science Lab at McGill University recalled her enthusiasm and idealism when she joined a ruelle verte project in her Plateau neighbourhood about five years ago. “I thought, ‘We’ll do this great thing and everyone will be happy.’ But some people were upset over the impact on access to their car spaces. Their values were not my values at all.”
There is a potential clash of cultures between those pushing for alternative urban spaces who are sometimes relatively new to the neighbourhood and those – often older, non-professional, long-term residents with more modest incomes – who are set in their ways, Ms. Raudsepp-Hearne said.
“You have to truly engage with the people who don’t agree with [the ruelle verte idea].”
Mr. Octeau said there can be instances where the citizens at the forefront of green-laneway initiatives fall into the professional, higher-income category. “There are challenges to the mobilization of people” in lower-income areas, such as Saint-Michel, Park Extension and Montreal North, he said.