We returned today from a trip to Australia, where we spent 6 days in Sydney and a weekend in Melbourne.

Something that struck me again and again during the course of the trip is how intentionally these cities make use of hard-to-use space. We visited a literal alley into which a street food market had been built, and an alley dedicated to urban street art, but it was an afternoon spent finding and wandering around in Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden that really got me thinking.

The story of the garden is that after Wendy’s husband died, in her grief, she began clearing out the New South Wales Railway land between her house and Sydney Harbour. Like a lot of neglected public lands, it had been used for illegal dumping and was covered with junk and assorted underbrush. So without asking permission, she started a garden there, and over the course of years, it’s become this rare jewel- dotted with tables and chairs and benches, with winding paths and found-object art, and with a stunning view of the harbor.

Visiting it feels a bit like stepping into Narnia, even in winter, and I loved how this neglected, dis-used public space has been turned into a free public asset.

But now the wheels are turning- there’s a stub of an alley behind my house that the District government has never paved or maintained- it ends at my neighbor’s yard, and we just store our trash bins in it. It erodes a little bit more with each good rainstorm we get. We’ve been grumbling for years that the city should either do something with it or just divide it up between the surrounding neighbors, but neither outcome seems likely.

So the way Wendy Whiteley turned neglected land into a public oasis without waiting for permission has inspired me to think about ways to use this stub as something for our neighborhood.

Read more about Wendy Whitely.