Anyone who has ever been lost down the alleys of Paris, the labyrinthine streets of Florence or Venice, or the blackened byways and peculiar passages of London, will understand the pleasure of wandering through laneways that were laid out long before the motor car became a reality.

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. Many cities – both in Australia and around the world – are now seeing the potential of their local laneways as something more than loading docks.

Melbourne has become famous for transforming its Gold Rush slums into glistening gems of retail and restaurants, art and architecture. Lively laneways wind haphazardly between the wide, well-designed streets where bullock carts once hauled goods in the Victorian era. Visitors bustle past one-off boutiques or linger at pocket bars or cafés, and enjoy an atmosphere that is anything but mainstream.

Laneways are becoming venues for pop-up diners, music festivals, concerts and other cultural events. In Detroit, a block-long outdoor art gallery spans fences, garages and other surfaces. In London, five laneways have been converted into a community garden. In Sydney, permanent and temporary art, streetscape sculptures and murals give emerging artists a platform to showcase their work.

Inspired by London’s evocative laneway names – Pudding and Petticoat among them – a writer and artist in Minneapolis developed an alleyway atlas, and encouraged locals to bestow the 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.

Activating laneways does require consideration of practical issues such as safety, cleanliness and shared services. Enhancements must not inhibit a laneway’s practical purpose, something being addressed in many cities by regulating when delivery and garbage trucks can enter the spaces.

In Cincinnati, the transformation of Five Point Alley started with community clean-up days, followed by a pop-up garden that made the most of a once-overgrown green space.

In Chicago, more than 100 laneways have gained permeable pavers and gardens to address drainage, as well as lighting upgrades that improve safety, sustainability and aesthetic appeal.

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 activate street frontages, micro businesses and alfresco areas that interact with lanes, introducing wi-fi hotspots and fitness tracks and enhancing blank walls with artwork and vertical gardens.

The possibilities for other Australian cities are just as exciting. Imagine turning the our buildings inside-out to reveal laneways lined with restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars. Imagine the central spines of our shopping precincts dotted with carts selling books, art and antiques. Imagine graffiti-decorated walls transformed by Banksy’s art and a bohemian vibe. Let’s bring our laneways into the light.