Vancouver, British Columbia

Photo Credit: HCMA Architecture + Design


Initial Research by: Vincent Rara

Edited by: Samantha Miller & Nicole Brekelmans

Case study compiled in 2019



Project: Alley-Oop

Type of Urban StrategySmart Cities 

Type of ProjectAlleyway Renewal 

LocationVancouver, British Columbia

Date Designed/Planned: 2015

Construction Completed 2016

DesignerHCMA Architecture + Design


Alley-Oop is a joint venture started by DVBIA (Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association) who were looking to transform underutilized spaces throughout the downtown core. Property owners, businesses and tenants were asked to provide ideas of how the downtown could evolve. A common theme emerged after interviews, and the results highlighted that people want a network of unique pedestrian-friendly spaces. HCMA established the guidelines for future alleyway redevelopment. Alleyways were re-imagined not as thoroughfares, but as destination points that would link pedestrians to businesses at street level. Today, the impact of Alley-Oop is both measurable and ongoing. Deliveries and garbage pickup coexist with popup events and photo-ops. Foot traffic has increased, and more women than men now utilize the space.



Downtown Vancouver’s central business district is a 90-block area that consists of 8,000 businesses with 140,000 employees. Downtown’s economic growth and power led to the establishment of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA). Downtown property owners and businesses are required to pay a levy on their commercial property taxes, which helps to fund the entity. DVBIA’s goal is to “create a world-class destination where everyone feels welcome and wants to be” (Dtvan, 2018). The downtown core’s street grid is over 200 blocks that are bisected with lanes (Dtvan, 2018). Alley-Oop is one of three laneways identified as an underutilized space that could instead be transformed to contribute to the social well-being of Vancouver’s population. The location of Alley-Oop is south of West Hastings Street between Seymour Street and Granville Street. The next site is east of Granville Street between Smith Street and Robson Street, and the third is south of Alberni Street between Burrard Street and Bute Street (Robinson, 2016). Transforming back alleyways is not a new idea. Canadian cities such as Montreal have had ‘ruelles vertes,’ green alleyways, for more than 15 years (Marotte, 2018). Naturalizing the space was the initial intention of the project, but this did not resonate with the property owners who ultimately wanted a space designed around entertainment (Dtvan, 2018). This suggested a concept that was more in line with Melbourne’s lanes that consist of street art, al fresco eateries and Chicago’s Loop Alliance of pop-up urban experiences (Dtvan, 2018).


Alley-Oop was the first of three alleyways selected for redevelopment. The DVBIA and property owners, private or owned by the City of Vancouver or Province of British Columbia, established a strong partnership. The retail district committees set the budget, and funds were allocated according to the construction plan of the project (Dtvan, 2018). This circumstance meant that costs varied from needing only essential maintenance and cleaning to larger transformations that would make up a large portion of the cost. While construction cost is a primary consideration, other significant factors relate to permits, concept design, public relations, promotions, the purchase of furniture, and ongoing maintenance. Contingencies provided delays including things like bad weather that stopped construction, and unexpected repairs. This meant that the project, as these types of projects usually do, went over the projected budget (Dtvan, 2018). Initially, the DVBIA contributed $100,000 for the three alley projects with the City of Vancouver, matching the amount of a grant that was received (Robinson, 2016).


Alley-Oop is located in the laneway between Hastings and Pender at Granville and Seymour in downtown Vancouver (Great Places in Canada, n.d). DVBIA conducted a study in July 2016 to see if the perceived usage of the alleyway was indeed hundreds of vehicles and little to no pedestrians. A student intern determined on average, 6 vehicles and 30 pedestrians per hour passed through the site. Vehicles were either parking illegally or using the alleyway as a short cut. These findings impacted the future design of the potential shared space that was catered to both pedestrians and vehicles. These measurements were taken by standing in the lane for 1.5 hours in the morning, afternoon, and evening, over three days. A 24-hour time-lapse video was also created, which determined the majority of service vehicles used the site between 6:00 am and 4:00 pm, meaning the alleyway was free for use throughout the evening (Dtvan, n.d.). Once the project was completed, one of the basketball hoops was relocated. An old heritage building facing Alley-Oop had a counselling office for a tenant who were impacted by noise, because the building lacked soundproofing on the windows. One other tenant had a leaking air conditioning issue, and this caused issues when the road was being painted (Dtvan, n.d.).


In 2015 DVBIA created the Reimagine Downtown Vancouver consultation process to understand what people wanted Vancouver to look, feel, taste and smell like in 2040 (Dtvan, n.d.). The following timeline highlights important events:

-18 months before completion: Research and measurement

-1 year before completion: Develop the concept, present the concept to essential stakeholders, and start approaching potential partners and engage the neighbourhood

-9 months before completion: Finalize the design, create construction drawings and secure funding

-6 months before completion: Secure necessary permits and contractors

-2 months before completion: Implement the plan and begin construction

-One month before completion: Plan launch event and engage the media

-Complete project in 2016 and launch the program

(Dtvan, 2018).


Vancouver is a highly urbanized city that evokes a feeling of isolation due to a lack of public spaces (Dtvan, 2018). Alleyways are not the typical destination when exploring a city as these spaces are often seen in a negative light (Torres, 2018). The reality for Vancouver was that alleyways are a part of its urban fabric. Similarly, to many North American cities, Vancouver’s downtown consists of a grid of streets and alleyways. These alleyways are reimagined as tucked away spaces where people informally gather, but they must still “serve a crucial function for businesses, including deliveries, waste collection and loading zones” (Dtvan, 2018). As such, each alleyway intervention is heavily dependent on its context and needs to be designed with enough adaptability as businesses, and their patrons will change over time.


Enhanced alleyways serve as communal spaces where people can gather or transitional spaces where people can safely explore, walk their dog or cycle (Torres, 2018). These alleyways are not only accessible by everyone, but they contribute to the livelihood of the city (Dtvan, n.d.). Whether used for recreational and commercial purposes, or as performance spaces, “a new type of fine grain activity…could develop into a robust network of interconnected lanes, each with its sense of place and continually evolving identity” (Dtvan, n.d.).


The 2015 Reimagine Downtown Vancouver report leveraged over 11,000 individuals who voiced how they wanted downtown Vancouver to evolve (Dtvan, 2018). People emphasized the creation of a walkable network that utilized existing laneways. DVBIA partnered with HCMA Architecture + Design to establish the pilot program ‘More Awesome Now,’ an experimental approach that looked to create the active, walkable spaces that the people of Vancouver wanted (Dtvan, 2018). Alley-Oop was the first of three alleyways selected. HCMA created a digital slide presentation of existing laneway examples to get the input of stakeholders about the potential future of these alleyways. The most appealing reason people would use the lane was to take photographs against Alley-Oop’s colourful backdrop, so even dumpsters were painted to make them more pleasant. Property owners had direct access to HCMA’s architects for specific questions related to their building to ensure deliveries and services from the lane would be accommodated. Property owners were regularly updated with the progress so they could collaborate and provide direct feedback when they wished (Dtvan, 2018).


DVBIA looked to HCMA Architecture + Design for their work in creating TILT Curiosity Labs. TILT is devoted to playful discovery in the public realm, which pushes the way architects contribute to the city” (Dtvan, 2018). A set of guiding principles were formed to ensure the project would remain faithful to the findings of DVBIA’s 2015 Reimagine Downtown Vancouver report.

The five guiding principles for the More Awesome Laneway Project are:

1. These installations will result in a new way of defining and seeing the laneway and its uses - a transformation of public perception/experience of the space.

2. These will be semi-permanent or permanent installations, ultimately contributing to the reinvention of Vancouver’s laneways, not just a temporary festival.

3. These new spaces will not only benefit the space and businesses on the other side of the wall but will also address the entire lane as a “micro-social precinct" resulting in meaningful new spaces for the public to use.

4. While these installations will enhance the sensory experience and create a clean and safe environment for everybody, they will not shy away from grit, risk, and juxtaposition.

5. These installations will remain in keeping with the Reimagine Downtown Vancouver report and become aspirational projects, unique to Vancouver that will inspire other cities to activate their lanes.

The DVBIA selected the locations and HCMA created the concept of juxtaposition: highlighting the real character and successes of the neighbourhoods by showcasing the opposite. The first lane is in the financial district, which is characterized by work, so the juxtaposition would be a laneway that celebrates play. Insular entertainment venues in the entertainment district characterize the second lane, so the juxtaposition is an exterior entertainment venue for the public to enjoy. The third lane is in the high fashion district, characterized by global international retailers, so the juxtaposition is local markets (Dtvan, 2018).


Known by locals as the “Pink Alley”, the space is one of the most popular location in the city for Instagram photos (Torres, 2018). The project is also considered an icon of progressiveness and diversity within the business district and has had a positive impact on the city (Great Places in Canada, n.d). It is an affordable solution that has increased foot traffic to the area, compared to the 2016 pedestrian usage, it has more than doubled (from 30 individuals an hour to 73 per hour). It is also a more welcoming space as men now represent only 58% of alley-goers (with past counts recording, 75% were men) (Dtvan, 2018).


In 2015 the DVBIA celebrated its 25th anniversary by developing a public engagement process known as Reimagine Downtown Vancouver. This initiative revealed how the public wanted more inclusive experiences and spaces over the next 25 years (Dtvan, 2018). Alley Oop was a seminal work that gave life to the city, the type of change the city wanted.


“Alley Oop.” Accessed March 12, 2019.

“Laneways.” Accessed March 12, 2019.

“A Vision for Downtown Vancouver: a look back at the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association’s Work since 2010.” Accessed March 12, 2019.

Marotte, Bertrand. “Montreal’s green laneway trend is paved with good intentions.” Published August 6, 2018.

“More Awesome Now Laneway Activations.” Accessed March 12, 2019.

“More Awesome Now Learning Guide.” Published 2018.

Robinson, Matt. “Three downtown Vancouver alleys to get extreme makeovers.” Published September 16, 2016.

Torres, Gabriela. “Top 5 Alleyways to Explore Vibrant Art in Vancouver.” Published January 11, 2018.


Walls and the street were painted in bright colours to change the atmosphere of the space. Areas became patio spaces, and the basketball hoop encouraged activity and play (Dtvan, 2018). DVBIA purchased movable furniture for the space, so that people could adapt and use the space as they wished (Dtvan, 2018).


Maintenance, programming, repairs, re-painting, etc., require ongoing funds and budget. DVBIA partnered with local businesses that manage the cleanliness around their designated seating areas (Dtvan, 2018). The street-level tenants are two coffee shops and a nightclub that activate the laneway daily and use the space to test and host retail, food, and beverage outlets. In exchange for their services, DVBIA purchased furniture and helped the businesses obtain the necessary permissions associated with ongoing programming changes.