Right across our region people are taking initiative and improving neglected corners of their neighbourhoods, reclaiming them as community assets. Today we’re taking a quick look at the world of ‘alley greening’.

Alleys (sometimes called back lanes, passageways, ginnels, snickets, closes) are those service roads, common between rows of terraced housing. Once well used by residents, over recent decades they became bleak; associated with crime and dirt, somewhere to dump your rubbish bags on bin day and generally somewhere to avoid. Alley greening is an attempt to transform those spaces into little urban gardens, often with colourful murals, pallet planters and simple outdoor furniture.

Central Middlesbrough has been a hotbed of this kind of community-led regeneration for a while now. Like many post-industrial areas our town has faced huge challenges, such as rising inequality, urban decay and breakdown in community connection. Council budgets have been slashed but these cracks in our community often leave space for natural creativity and resourcefulness to rise. By the time I got into community work I had fantastic role models from ordinary radicals. One of my inspirations was Jean Cartmail. In the early ’90s she began putting up hanging baskets in Kildare Street. Now it’s commonplace. One person making a difference can change the feel of a street and make it much easier for others to step-up.

When alley gates were installed in Middlesbrough to help reduce crime, it created a safer space that was ideal for community regeneration. One of the examples many of us still look to is Mavis Arnold, who was quick to plan a transformation of the alley behind Longford Street back in 2004. Along with a group of neighbours she secured funding, permission to permanently relocate the bins and got to it. It’s now a beautiful oasis of colour and community. She wasn’t alone. Others have done similar work, from flowerbeds to murals, benches to mini libraries. Boro has become a bit of a beacon, with dozens of alleys being transformed and a rich ecosystem of local charities offering practical support to eager residents.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a resurgence of projects like this, right across Middlesbrough and the rest of the Tees Valley. Alley summer parties added a festival flavour and 60-minute-makeovers meant high-impact work could be done in one morning. Public Living Rooms have popped-up, making it easier for neighbours to support each other. In March 2017 a group of us linked-up to improve several alleys together. Mutual support is invaluable and this clustered work helped give rise to several dedicated alley-greening networks. Urban Rebirth and Alley Pals formed from previous incarnations by the end of the year and others have evolved independently since. Linthorpe, North Ormesby, Stockton, Redcar and Hartlepool all have fine teams working together. There will be others. Even in this bizarre year of 2020, new alley regenerations are getting started.

Adversity can challenge the fabric of a community. It can bury the good things, obscure the potential. But it can also provoke the best in us. With councils becoming more supportive of these ideas and fresh need for our communities to reconnect, this is a good time to get involved.

So why not find a few neighbours and see what you can do together? It isn’t always easy but something special can often start with one small change. Luckily, in all corners of our resilient region, you’ll find great examples to encourage you. In the coming weeks we’ll point out some of the places you can join in, find support, learn from others and get connected.


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