Getting lost (and found) in our laneways

Do you remember a time, long before Google maps, when you wandered through a city – one either familiar or foreign – only to take a wrong turn into a little-known laneway?


Perhaps you peered down the alleyway, or took a peak around the corner, hesitating to take the next step into the dark concrete shadows.


Today, depending on where you live or where you wander, that trepidation no longer exists.  Instead, cities around the world are embracing laneways as places of secrets and surprises - where hole-in-wall cafés and cool artworks rub shoulders with cosmopolitan boutiques and bars. And it’s time Canberra embraced the laneway culture too.


Some Australian cities undoubtedly have a head-start on enlivening their laneways. Melbourne, of course, is famous for its maze of laneways – and we have city planner Hoddle and his remarkable grid to thank for that. The city’s cross-hatch pattern of wide boulevards intersected by smaller streets dates back to the Victorian era, with laneways servicing horses and carts. Little Lonsdale Street still bears the hallmarks of its history as a gold rush era slum – although bearded bushrangers have been replaced by hairy hipsters, and opium dens have made way for cafés and clothing stores.


In Sydney, the main drags of George and Pitt streets were fronted by a freshwater stream, with a series of informal paths providing rear access to gardens, stables and storage areas. City builders understood that laneways were more than just alternate access points to property, but arteries into the beating heart of an expanding city.


Sydney City Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who is driving the cultural transformation of the CBD, sees reactivating laneways as an opportunity for “residents, workers and visitors to slow down and enjoy the city.” Over the last few years, the City of Sydney has invested in new paving and footpaths, lighting and art installations. Some sections of laneways have been closed to traffic, improving the experience for pedestrians and encouraging diners to linger longer. Public art has been particularly successful in recasting the once dark and dirty thoroughfares into vibrant and welcoming public spaces.


Further afield, Detroit now boasts an outdoor art gallery in a block-long laneway, while five alleys in London have been transformed into an edible garden. The people of Minneapolis decided the best way to bring their laneways to life was to rename them with evocative monikers such as Possum Trail and Pineapple Plant Alley. This captured the imaginations of the community, and spurred more investment into forgotten parts of the city.


In Canberra, our laneways don’t need to be the realm of garbage and garages. The success of Loading Zone in Odgers Lane, the street party in Tocumwal Lane and the narrow strip of cafes between Gus’s and Garema Place tell us that Canberrans are open to laneway culture.  


Imagine turning the Sydney and Melbourne buildings inside-out to reveal laneways lined with restaurants and retail offerings.  Picture the central spine of Manuka dotted with carts selling books, art and antiques. Consider Bunda Street’s graffitied walls transformed by Banksy’s art and a bohemian vibe. 


It’s time to get lost and found in our laneways.


Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia