How to make dark alleys safer: invite everyone in by throwing parties

“If you treat it as a place where nobody goes, then you’re inviting illicit activity and you’re inviting people not to respect it,” as Todd Vogel, the director of the International Sustainability Institute (ISI) explained to Yes! Magazine. Conversely, treat a place like a welcoming neighborhood gathering spot—and the thriving bustle will follow.

That’s the insight behind a creative new strategy in Seattle to transform dark alleyways into vibrant community spaces. And so far, it’s succeeding to the benefit of residents, local artists and civic organizations, businesses, and public safety officials. ISI’s Alley Network Project is so promising that it won an innovation prize last year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As HUD explains:

Seven years ago, Pioneer Square businesses were stung by the recession. Retailers fled the neighborhood. Office workers left the area after work. The neighborhood felt empty, and the alleys reflected the pain. Drugs, prostitution, and garbage made them off-limits to most. Residents of one alley even kept a log of the calls they made to the police about illegal activity in their alley.

The biggest hurdle was that no one had yet imagined the alleys as anything but a place for garbage and crime. ISI set out to redefine the space. Its method: fill the alleys with people. The first alley party on a rainy October in 2008 drew a small crowd of neighbors, office workers and passersby. The next party drew still more. Soon, residents along other alleys wanted to have their own events. Panels to hold revolving art exhibits went up, a glass-blowing shop on the alley created a sculpture, and increased healthy activity in the spaces led residents to begin naming their alleys and dreaming up ways to improve the spaces even more. Buildings tore the plywood off their back windows and residents put out hanging flower baskets. People increasingly turn the corner to walk down these passageways and discover history, art, and small shops.

Similar efforts to rethink and repurpose—rather than abandon—blighted spaces and vacant lots into urban paradises, open to all and serving all in the neighborhood, are popping up elsewhere as well. In Detroit, as another example, one determined woman is leading a project to convert a part of her crumbling city into an “eco-village” community hub. As she told the Huffington Post reporter, her driving aspiration is also about empowerment: “All I care about is how we, as our community, how we are going to uplift ourselves and empower ourselves.”

What others can do to help is financially support the leaders spearheading these innovative urban transformation projects, spread the word, and even initiate them in their own communities. For more information, see the International Sustainability Institute‘s website; “How Seattle Made Dark Alleys Safer—By Throwing Parties In Them,” Yes! Magazine (2015); and “In A Broke And Crumbling City, This Woman Is Building An Urban Paradise,” Huffington Post (2016).