Anybody familiar with Toronto knows its laneways. They are the narrow roads that snake between houses on residential streets, allowing homeowners to access their garages from the back of their property. Far from playing a strictly functional role, the laneway is an overlooked gem, one that provides an aesthetic contrast to the rest of the city, as well as holding enormous potential for development. A curious question arises: who owns these laneways?
A dilemma presents itself: a stranger passing through feels such intimacy in these spaces that the sensation of trespassing is inevitable. Yet the homeowner rarely feels the sense of laneway ownership that would merit the stranger's guilt.
The city's role is evidently minimal in these spaces, as indicated by the packed dirt and cracked concrete surfaces. If they are indeed private space, then why have most homeowners not taken charge to tend and care for them? From this confusion, opportunity arises.
Imagine a walk through town. Tired of the loud, busy, traffic-clogged streets, you seek refuge by stepping into a laneway, a shortcut to your destination. You are grabbed immediately by the archway at the laneway's entrance. It is constructed of old telephone booths. How odd."
As you continue, you see etched into the pavement haikus about famous cars spanning the length of the laneway. To your left and right, every garage door you pass has a painting or decoration on it, with varying degrees of craftsmanship and artistic depth. While one door is emblazoned with apocalyptic lightning, the next is covered with large abstract geometric shapes. You take your time, pondering which pieces you like and which you don't.
Near the middle of the laneway, the space opens up. Four garages have been set back a couple of metres, creating a small open square. At the centre of it is a sculpture made of copper tubing. Benches have been set up in the nooks and corners of the space, and some passersby are enjoying the afternoon sun.
A small staircase leads to the rooftop of one of the garages, and people are sitting up there enjoying the view. You are used to laneways being desolate and empty, and are pleasantly surprised by way passersby here have adopted the same kind of languorous stroll one would normally see on a Sunday afternoon in High Park.
Further down the laneway, you pass a couple of young students in the process of painting a garage door. You inquire about their work. They tell you they were approached by the owners to paint the space. They were given virtually no restrictions. The exchange is simple. The owners get an interesting piece of art on their garage, and the artists get a canvas to build their portfolio with.
At the end of the laneway, you reach a plaque that tells you that the laneway project was a community-based initiative. You are invited to check out a website for more information, including a photo gallery showcasing how the space has changed over the past five years, the long-term plans for the space, as well as volunteer opportunities, donation requests and events.
You emerge from the laneway intrigued and inspired. It was a nice distraction from the daily grind, and you are proud of your fellow Torontonians who have embarked on such an ambitious and pleasant project. You wonder, how does such a project begin?
It all begins with a city block. It requires a handful of progressive-minded neighbours who decide that they want to imbue their laneway with a touch of art. As if they were tending to a communal garden, these neighbours agree to work together to improve the look of their portion of the laneway, first by small ad hoc acts like painting their garage doors or giving the space over to artists to paint, and then moving on to bigger projects.
The neighbours would form a group, meeting regularly to discuss issues related to the laneway. They would draft a plan for gradual change, identifying which areas could be painted, what resources they could pool and which artists or students or organizations they could contact.
In planning for the long-term development of the space, the group may consider different paving and brickwork, observation decks on garage tops, decorative arches and reconfigurations of the layout of garages to change the shape of the laneway. Under this new arrangement, the laneway is as long-term a project as the individual houses the residents own.
The laneway can and should act as a commons a space mutually shared and tended to by the residents who use it. In a city whose public realm seems to be constantly under threat of erosion, reclaiming the laneway system as public space would help buck this trend.
Excerpt from Project Laneway, by Brendan Cormier, Christopher Pandolfi and Pablo Torres, which appears in The State Of The Arts: Living With Culture In Toronto, V0l. 2, in the uTOpia Series, published by Coach House Books.