In the latest in our series on local architects and their favorite places, Liz Farkas takes a route less traveled. She shares the secret wilderness of Tucson’s back alleys.
Some of my favorite places in Tucson are not buildings. They’re not even really “places” in the traditional sense of the word, but the spaces between places. They are the alleyways that thread through the older neighborhoods in central Tucson, providing relatively car-free and often quite lush spaces, and a charming pedestrian experience for myself as a runner and for the other pedestrians and dog walkers I frequently encounter.
Certainly there is a utilitarian function for these alleys. They were created in the early days of Tucson’s development of subdivisions, in neighborhoods few think of as subdivisions now, to provide access to mid-block houses and for services, and they continue to provide those functions today.
However, I gravitate toward the alleys with charm in proportion to their functionality: the ones without too many garages, the ones whose fences are planted with cactus and shrubs, the ones with stretches of textured walls with a periodic opening allowing a glimpse to the yards and homes beyond. The variety of what each user chooses to do is amazing, providing inspiration from a nicely detailed addition or the way the light hits the side of that textured wall.
Part of the appeal for me of these alleyways comes from their human scale. The narrow alleyways allow a tree to shade the entire path, and they offer respite from the paved and hot expanse of the broad streets in many of these neighborhoods. Though perhaps once paved, the now gravel and dirt alley surfaces absorb rainwater and retain much less heat than the surrounding streets.
The benefits gleaned from a purely functional decision by Tucson’s early developers are perhaps an accident, but I appreciate the informal greenway that they created. Tucson’s alleyways provide a tiny piece of wildness in the middle of the city, connected to urban life but with a little bit of mystery.