Green alley in Villeray (Montreal)

Photo: Valérie Vincent

Cities, Climate, Inequalities

Montreal’s green alleyways: Spatial disparities and variations

December 2022

Thi-Thanh-Hiên Pham, professor in urban studies (UQAM); Ugo Lachapelle, professor in urban studies (UQAM); Basile Mangiante, bachelor’s student (McGill); Alexandre Rocheleau, master’s student in urban studies (UQAM)


The creation of green alleyways has been a common feature of municipal government sustainability programs for some time (Brazeau-Béliveau and Cloutier, 2021; Newell et al., 2013). Revisited as green infrastructure, alleyways are now emerging as adaptations to climate change, solving a number of environmental problems (heat islands, sewer overflows, air pollution) and improving public health, safety and urban social life (Bowler et al., 2010; Seymour et al., 2010; Sidebottom et al., 2018).

Research on the location and physical characteristics of green alleyways is lacking in North America. The few existing studies show that alleyway design, use and perception vary by city and intervention group (Newell et al., 2013; Reeves-Latour, 2017; Seymour et al., 2010). Assessing the spatial distribution, diversity and number of physical features of green alleyways (alleyway morphology, greening, water management, road safety, etc.) will allow us to understand local variations in this practice of greening.

The case of Montreal (Canada) is interesting because of the great diversity and quantity of green alleyways and because the city was a forerunner in the field, with the first green alleyway—ruelle verte, in French—officially recognized in 1995 (REQ, 2018). We define the following research questions:

What is the spatial distribution of green alleyways in Montreal, and how does it vary according to a borough and neighbourhood’s socio-demographic characteristics?

What determines the number of green alleyway features?

State of the art in literature

Conceptualizing alleyway greening programs in North America

There are no studies inventorying green alleyways and their definitions for the United States, although Newel et al. (2013) report on eight U.S. cities with green alleyway programs. In Quebec, three cities have such programs, and Trois-Rivières runs a program encompassing around 50 green alleyways. In Quebec City, some 15 green alleyways are managed by Nature Québec (Brazeau-Béliveau and Cloutier, 2021). Finally, the City of Montréal’s Ruelles vertes program oversees some 500 green alleyways as of 2021.

Our study draws on a body of literature and a set of concepts related to green alleyway programs in North America, such as green infrastructure and urban revitalization, as well as active citizenship and other forms of partnerships. We also include literature on the uneven urban distribution of green spaces and greening projects.

First, alleyway greening programs are part of urban greening, which aims to transform alleyways into green infrastructure and ensure the provision of ecosystem services (Sadeghi et al., 2019; Wolch et al., 2010). Preferred ecosystem services in green alleyway programs include heat island reduction, stormwater management and biodiversity enhancement (Ellis et al., 2013; Seymour et al., 2010).

Second, most alleyway programs also aim to revitalize neighbourhoods through improving walkability and road safety as well as creating spaces for children (Sidebottom et al., 2018; Zhao, 2013). However, levels of revitalization vary from city to city; among the cities documented by Newell et al. (2013), there are few municipal programs aimed at improving public health, social life and beautification. This could be due to the location of alleyways and the needs of residents.

Third, green alleyway programs in North America are mostly developed through partnerships between the local population and municipal staff (Newell et al., 2013; Wolch et al., 2010), and occasionally surrounding businesses and members of the academic community (Ellis et al., 2013). This means that they do not necessarily benefit from municipal financial support for neighbourhood organizations. This type of governance is increasingly common in green infrastructure projects, whose core principles are ecological interventions and local commitments, individual or community development and maintenance, and responses to local needs (Jerome et al., 2017).


Uneven distribution of urban green spaces and greening practices

The distribution, design and management of green alleyways are determined not only by the city’s built environment but also by a range of social factors. As green alleyway programs are greening programs, we examined the literature on this subject to understand the distribution, layout and quality of Montreal’s green alleyways. Numerous studies show that urban green spaces are unevenly distributed, to the detriment of neighbourhoods with low economic status or a strong presence of minority groups, which raises important concerns around environmental justice, particularly in North American cities (Boone et al., 2009; Grove et al., 2014; Heynen, 2006; Pham et al., 2012). Multiple factors contribute to these unequal distributions, from urban form (population density, housing types, presence of sidewalks, etc.) and socioeconomic and demographic profile, to neighbourhood mobilization and public policies (Conway et al., 2011; Landry and Pu, 2010; Pham et al., 2013, 2017).

Similarly, the distribution of greening and revitalization programs also varies across socioeconomic levels, with projects tending to be more concentrated in affluent, educated and white neighbourhoods (Anguelovski et al., 2020; Goodling and Herrington, 2015). Together, these factors make the results of greening programs highly uneven. As urban greening has become a growing necessity and field of practice in the last twenty years (Angelo, 2019), there is an urgent need to better understand the spatial dynamics of these programs, which is one of our aims here.

Cases, methods and data from the original research

The City of Montréal’s Ruelles vertes program pursues five objectives: to green; to promote socialization and inclusion; to promote the pooling and exchange of services and knowledge; to offer more sustainable mobility; and to reduce water runoff. A green alleyway project must originate from and be led by the island’s residents themselves, following four distinct stages (REQ, 2018). This can be restrictive for people with little available time and organizational skills.

Our analysis is based on the 341 green alleyways officially recognized by the City of Montréal in May 2020, when we commenced with the data collection.

An evaluation grid was constructed based on 1) literature and evidence documented elsewhere; 2) the characteristics of the Ruelles vertes program; 3) our initial field visits; and 4) the City’s regulation of alleyways. The 45 items in the grid were divided into seven categories: alleyway morphology, greening, water management, road safety, appropriation by the neighbourhood population, official signage, and the presence of residents at the time of observation.

To visualize the distribution of green alleyways, we superimposed three types of polygons onto maps of the census dissemination areas (DA). These indicate, as illustrated in the following image, the absence (grey) of at least one green alleyway and, for existing alleyways, their total number (red) and their length (green). We then ran a logistic regression using one indicator: the presence of a green alleyway in a dissemination area. Variables that can explain the probability of having a green alleyway include population density (quartile), median income (quartile), median age, percentage of university graduates, renters, recent immigrants, visible minorities and borough name.

Next, we identified the characteristics common to green alleyways, then assessed their quality using scores to identify overall variations in green alleyways. Finally, we used ordinary least squares regression to assess variations in the overall green alleyway score.


Spatial distribution and location determinants of green alleyways

Montreal’s 341 green alleyways are spread across eleven boroughs and concentrated mainly in the city centre. Descriptive statistics for two indicators (length and number of lanes per DA) reveal significant differences between boroughs. Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie has the highest number of green lanes (92), while Lachine and Saint-Léonard have the fewest (one each). Similar trends can be observed in the total length of green lanes. The median value for the number of green lanes is zero for all boroughs, suggesting that more than half of the catchment areas contain no green lanes at all.

Three factors may explain these substantial differences in the presence of green alleyways between boroughs. First, alleyways in Montreal only exist in certain urban forms developed between 1840 and 1950 (Robert, 2015). As a general rule, boroughs in central and southern Montreal, mostly built before the Second World War, tend to have more alleyways than more recent boroughs. Second, since 2002, boroughs have been governed by a complex political system comprising the city council, borough councils and borough halls (Anderson and McGregor, 2018). Depending on political allegiances, the management, planning and funding of local services vary considerably (Collin and Robertson, 2005). Finally, proposals for green lanes by Montreal’s residential population are handled according to three combinations of actors: solely by the borough concerned, through shared coordination between the borough and the local eco-neighborhood, or through a partnership between the borough and other funding programs. This diversity can lead to variations in project coordination and approval.
Next, we looked at the socio-demographic determinants of the presence of green alleyways in each DA using two models: the percentage of recent immigrants and the percentage of visible minorities. Both models give similar results; the second model, however, has a slightly higher R2.

Both regression models show that green alleyways are more frequently present in high-density areas. Yet, even after controlling for population density, some inequalities in access to green alleyways are observed in the regression. Middle-income areas and those with a greater number of university graduates tend to have a higher probability of obtaining a green alleyway. On the other hand, areas populated by recent immigrants and visible minorities tend to be less likely to have green alleyways. There may be three reasons for this.

First, affluent, educated households with higher social capital may be more interested in projects that increase ecosystem services in their neighbourhoods, and are therefore more easily mobilized for a green alleyway project. Second, given that such a project must emanate from a citizen movement, these same households are more likely to know how to develop a proposal and get it accepted, which corroborates the findings of Brazeau-Béliveau and Cloutier (2021) for the Ruelles vertes program in Quebec City. Third, as green alleyways in Montreal are promoted as a positive element of local quality of life by the media, the administration and city policies, it is possible that their presence increases the value of housing in neighbourhoods over the long term, which then becomes less accessible for low-income populations. There is thus a two-way relationship between the presence of green alleyways and housing values.

Green alleyway scores and their determinants

Most green alleyways are surrounded by two- and three-storey buildings (91.5%), with the remainder located behind high-rise buildings (6.2%) or single-family homes (2.3%). The most common features (88%) are bushes and climbing plants in the alleyway, trees in the surrounding backyards, a sewage disposal well and planters. Overall, greenery features are more common than features aimed at water management, road safety or appropriation. Surprisingly, these last three features are not the most commonly observed in our study, even though they are sponsored and implemented by the City and also a main condition for obtaining official green alleyway status. This is particularly true of water management, especially with permeable zones. In this sense, our results contrast with Newell et al.’s (2013) study of green alleyway programs in the United States, where water management was the most important feature.


Examples of green alleyways in the City of Montréal’s Ruelle Verte program with contrasting features

Photos: Alexandre Rocheleau

Almost all boroughs have significantly lower scores than the reference borough (Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie). Our regression shows that alleyway morphology is indeed significant, as highlighted in a previous study (Seymour, Reynolds and Wolch, 2010). The fact that a green alleyway received a second phase of improvement displays a strong positive relationship with the alleyway feature score. This underlines the importance of the city-subsidized maintenance procedure, particularly in older alleyways, which are sometimes left unmaintained due to loss of interest or turnover of the resident population.

In addition, alleyways that are I-shaped or that flank larger buildings are associated with lower overall scores, while those adjacent to deeper backyards have higher scores. Alleyways alongside buildings with four or more stories also have lower scores than those flanking single-family homes. Finally, having more permeable areas and benches is associated with a higher score, while having more backyard parking is associated with a lower score.

Greening projects: the risk of “green gentrification”?

The considerable lack of green alleyways in low-income neighbourhoods raises concerns about the lack of quality green spaces accessible to disadvantaged populations. Previous research in Canada and the United States has shown similar disparities, particularly concerning tree planting (Conway et al., 2011) or the creation of vegetated swales (Goodling and Herrington, 2015). This suggests that community or citizen programs can exacerbate environmental inequalities on a local scale. Furthermore, there is growing evidence of the negative impacts of greening on marginalized or vulnerable populations in post-industrialized cities, so-called “green gentrification” (Gould and Lewis, 2017). When housing access concerns are ignored, greening projects can result in the physical displacement of traditional businesses and low-income households (Goossens et al., 2020) and also undermine the sense of belonging of long-time resident households (McClintock, 2018). While it is currently too early to know whether Montreal’s green alleyway program is a form of green gentrification, efforts should be made to ensure that greening policies (Stehlin and Tarr, 2017) avoid unintended rent increases and the displacement of disadvantaged households. The greening of low-income neighbourhoods must thus take place in concert with other public policies, such as protecting access to public and affordable housing.


In conclusion, our analysis shows that middle- and high-income boroughs, with younger populations and higher levels of education, tend to have more green alleyways. Conversely, areas with more recent immigrants, visible minorities and families tend to have fewer green alleyways. These disparities are perceptible even after taking population density into account. Strategic planning of green alleyways is needed to ensure the connectivity of these green infrastructures, increase the provision of ecosystem services and meet social needs (Buijs et al., 2019).

Qualitative studies of the process leading up to the development of green alleyways, including interviews with residents, city officials and program managers, could help clarify some of our findings. Future research will be needed to understand the perception, use and involvement in maintenance of green alleyways by the people who live there. As part of our larger project, we plan to survey residents with green alleyways to address these issues.

While green alleyway projects have been multiplying rapidly since the start of the pandemic (Ouellette-Vézina (La Presse), 2020), it is urgent to consider the gaps in their socio-spatial distribution and quality. Considering urban greening in its ecological and political dimensions seems justified to enable a green and just city.

To cite this article

Pham, TTH., Lachapelle, U., Mangiante, B., Rocheleau, A. (2022). Montreal’s green alleyways: Spatial disparities and variations. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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