In Praise of Green Alleys

City life can be hard on a body. The tyranny of the urgent makes us forget the urgency of the deeper need, the cacophany of enterprise, engine, and emergency distracting us from the kind of healing we find so easily in the natural world.

This is why parks are so vital to city life, the scarcity of them a signal of a decadent apathy (as both source and outcome). We can’t always walk through parks to get to our destinations, but in Montreal, at least, we can nearly always find a shortcut through an alley, and when denizens take the time to plant, water, and prune the modest plots they’ve been granted, a walk down the lane is like a stroll in the country, and nearly as uplifting.

Montreal’s Ruelle Vert (Green Alleys) movement began to sprout in the sixties
but really blossomed (sorry!) in the last twenty years, with nearly a hundred official green alleys (and many more unofficial) having been formed since 1997. Local eco-districts provide assistance in the form of advice and financial aid, but it’s volunteer residents who put in the toil.

The best alleys are found in neighborhoods inhabited by immigrants, mostly peoples from the Mediterranean countries, who deserve hearty bravos for successfully transferring their sunny-clime gardening practices to cold and rainy Montreal. I’ve been staggered to find, in cramped little spaces hedged in with asphalt and brick walls, lush branches heavy with pears, apples, and plums, and vines sagging with grapes. I’ve even seen the odd fire escape transformed into a mini greenhouse, wrapped in plastic to protect hanging baskets of tomatoes, herbs, and peppers.

And it’s not just the green stuff. The playful sense of joie de vivre spills into colourful painted hopsotch grids, murals, and metal sculptures.

The experience is further enhanced by the fact that encounters with humans are far different here than in the streets—warmer, gentler, more relaxed. There’s an understanding that the green alley is slightly more sacred than the “ungreened” spaces, and it changes how people relate to each other.

To anyone who has ever planted, decorated, or tidied a Montreal alley, thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. You’ve done a very good thing.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.