In recent years laneways have assumed somewhat of a mythical status fuelled by CBD laneway activation programs around the world. Many of Perth’s CBD laneways have been transformed however use of the more humble suburban laneway is also changing. Laneways are a valuable opportunity for infill density becoming primary streetscapes for many. The extent of rear subdivision in our inner city suburban context presents an opportunity for the adaptive re-use of these spaces to keep up with community expectations, which are also shifting. To establish the conditions allowing them to succeed rear laneways require further definition within our planning framework.

The West Australian Planning Commission is introducing a Medium Density Code to generate higher quality ‘missing middle’ outcomes whilst increasing our urban density. Both our local council and state planning frameworks predominantly view rear laneways as a ‘service interface’. Local council policies often require properties with a rear laneway to take all vehicle access off the laneway. Narrow laneways are generally required to have a 1.5m setback on both sides progressively widening them over time with the long term aim of accommodating dual direction vehicle movement, rubbish collection vehicles and compliant turning circles into properties. Some short sighted local councils, predominantly in the western suburbs, have sold their rear laneways to adjoining property owners.

Many suburban laneways are dominated by nil setbacks, continuous garage roller doors, high impermeable fences, limited landscaping, inadequate lighting levels and minimal overlooking windows generating low levels of interactivity and passive surveillance. These are uncontrolled, un-curated spaces reflecting their historic use as a ‘service interface’. Most suburban laneways fail to live up to their mythical status but have unrealised potential for active use that is different to their utalitarian use in the past.

Our planning framework needs to respond to the changing use of suburban laneways as primary streetscapes for many. Laneways could become communal, active spaces supporting the growth of micro communities. This aligns with the changing expectation within many local communities. Our thinking in relation to laneways will shift towards viewing them as adaptive re-use opportunities for communal inhabitation. Both state and local council planning frameworks need to consider developing dedicated laneway policies defining and curating these spaces as a multi-purpose ‘community interface’ rather than a utilitarian ‘service interface’.

March 2021