If you’ve ever been lost down the alleys of Paris, the labyrinthine streets of Florence or Venice, or the blackened byways and peculiar passages of London, you’ll understand the pleasure of wandering through laneways that were laid out long before the motor car.

Laneways haven’t always been places for garbage and garages.  In fact, they all started as public spaces and passages for people to move from place to place.  And many cities are seeing the potential of their local laneways as something more than loading docks. 

Melbourne has become famous for transforming its Gold Rush slums into hidden gems of retail and restaurants, art and architecture.  Lively laneways wind haphazardly between the wide, well-designed streets and visitors bustle past one-off boutiques or linger at pocket bars or cafés, enjoying an atmosphere that is anything but mainstream.

Laneways are becoming venues for pop-up dinners, music festivals and community gardens.  In Detroit, a block-long outdoor art gallery spans fences, garages and other surfaces.  In London, five laneways are now an edible garden.  In Sydney, permanent and temporary art, streetscape sculptures and murals showcase emerging artists.

Inspired by London’s evocative laneway names – Pudding and Petticoat among them –the people of Minneapolis bestowed their hidden spaces with colourful names like Possum Trail and Pineapple Plant Alley.  This captured the imaginations of the community, and spurred more investment into forgotten parts of the city.

Closer to home, the City of Geelong has recognised that activating laneways at night is a simplest way to improve safety and cultivate a vibrant nightlight.  The Laneways and Linkages Project is encouraging micro businesses and alfresco areas that interact with lanes, introducing wifi hotspots and fitness tracks and enhancing blank walls with artwork and vertical gardens.

The possibilities in Canberra are just as exciting.  Imagine turning the Sydney and Melbourne buildings inside-out to reveal laneways lined with restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars.  Imagine the central spine of Manuka dotted with carts selling books, art and antiques.  Imagine Bunda Street’s graffitied walls transformed by Banksy’s art and a bohemian vibe.  Let’s bring our laneways into the light.

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