In the 1980s a friend of mine from Ontario came to Winnipeg on an extended visit.
He had never been out west before, and was impressed that the city was laid out with a system of back lanes behind every street. (I was raised in Winnipeg and was amazed to learn that every city didn’t have back lanes.)
He was particularly impressed that the city’s founders had the foresight to install a parallel road system for surreptitiously driving your car home from the bar.
Of course that’s not what back lanes are for. They were built to allow utility access and garbage collection. They provided for backyard parking. All of these things leave a bit more space for people on neighbourhood streets.
I was still a child when Winnipeg paved all its back lanes. They used real concrete, not asphalt. The lanes were built to drain into the middle, and there was a central gutter taking rain and meltwater out to the street.
In spring, this was perfect for building slush dams. I learned many lessons about flow dynamics and the power of moving water. Mostly I just had fun splashing in the puddles.
We visited my grandmother in Regina every summer, and the lanes in her old neighbourhood weren’t paved. I think I liked them better.
A walk down the street takes you past the rows of houses with their lawns, flowers, and shrubs—all very nice, and all what the residents invite you to see. The paved street and sidewalks are perfectly orderly, the cars parked in a row along the street. Lovely, urban, and predictable.
But it was a more daring exploration to walk down the back lanes. Not dangerous back then by any stretch (Ontarians commuting from the bar notwithstanding); but it gave a different glimpse into the neighbourhood.
It was slightly more natural, if that’s the right word: birds in the trees and on the fences, bugs in the puddles, and the smells of the different weeds and wildflowers that grew along the back fences. You might surprise the occasional housecat searching for food scraps amid the dented galvanized-metal garbage cans or hunting for mice in the tall grass.
Fences were functional, not ornamental. Some were newly-painted, some were five or ten years overdue. It didn’t matter.
It was quieter and lazier; there were no other people walking there, you could hardly hear the nearby street.
And as a prairie kid, my most enduring memories are of dirt or gravel roads on hot summer days—either in small Saskatchewan farm villages or behind my grandmother’s Regina street.
I get a little rush of nostalgia walking the back lanes of my neighbourhood these days. There are some tree branches forming shady arches over the lane, and some exposed sunny stretches. Some people keep the space behind their back fence neatly trimmed, others (like me) let it grow wild. It’s always a pleasure to find wild roses, raspberries, and sunflowers that have escaped the confines of the backyards to grow wild in the lane.
I like the old garages you’ll find in the back lane, sometimes with old cars visible through the entrance where there used to be a garage door. I like occasionally being able to see a swing set over a fence, and maybe a friendly dog. (More usually the backyard dogs bark—a lot—to alert the homeowner of my presence. Which is fine. We all have jobs to do.)
And urban(-ish) dweller that I still am, I like having a dirt road to walk right outside my back gate. It’s a bit less familiar than the front street, so it gives a sense of exploration. It has a softer surface than the pavement, there’s interesting things to see, and it brings back pleasant memories.
For mind, body, and soul, it’s hard to think of finer recreation.