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A Park-ner-ship for the Future

04.24.2008 by André Natta · → 3 Comments

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Much has been said about Birmingham’s ample green space. And it is ample – more than, in fact. To put it simply, we love parks. Parks are a big deal here, and likely to get bigger when we start connecting them all, one to another. But that’s jumping ahead.

Birmingham is a very green city and region – literally. We are doing better these days in the environmental sense of the word also, but for just pure color, green is it in Birmingham. You couldn’t count the shades of green I can see out of my living room or office window. We are blessed with green trees (many of them pines), green shrubery, green-coated mountains and valleys, the underbrush is green (especially in the kudzu growing season), we’re blessed with acres and acres of green grass, green foliage. We even adore fried “green” tomatoes. Face it – we’re green!

Our tradition of dedicating parks to preserve all that green space dates back to the 1920s to the city’s decision to create a Birmingham Park and Recreation Board and to hire the noted Olmstead landscaping firm to create a plan for preserving and enhancing our many parks and open spaces. The firm had a notable track record even then, having developed plans for park space in cities such as Boston and Baltimore. Their recommendation was comprehensive and highly detailed, and you may read about the vision set forth in the Olmstead report in “The Olmstead Vision: Parks for Birmingham,” published by the Birmingham Historical Society in 2006.

At the core of the Olmstead vision was the idea of preserving green space along the streams that flowed through our valleys. In fact, the ridge and valley topography of the Birmingham region lent itself to this concept and is today why there is at least some park space preserved along the Shades Creek Greenway adjacent to Lakeshore Drive in Homewood. Similar plans are in place for greenways along Village Creek and Valley Creek and the preservation of land in the Turkey Creek watershed is continuing. The Olmstead report envisioned the set-aside of land around the creeks and the preservation of that land (and, thus, the preservation of the quality of the water as well).

The creation of some entirely new parks also has gained the public’s attention in recent years, stepped up dramatically in 2006 when United States Steel announced its largest corporate philanthropic gift ever. The steel company agreed to sell more than 2,000 acres of wooded land along the ridge of Red Mountain to a non-profit trust – and offered it at roughly a 50% discount to the appraised value of the land. In addition, U. S. Steel stroked a check in the amount of $1 million to help the park planners get started with their operations. Imagine park space larger than New York City’s Central Park connecting Birmingham to Bessemer along the ridge of Red Mountain where iron ore mines once fed the mills of Jones Valley.

In the city center, just south of the Morris Avenue railroad tracks, a smaller but equally strategic space has been dedicated as a park and preparation for construction is under way there. The Railroad Reservation Park will extend along the south side of the tracks at Morris Avenue two blocks to 2nd Avenue South and east-west between 18th and 14th streets. This park will feature grassy areas, a lake with paddle boats, walking paths and a pedestrian overpass from the park to the soon-to-be-built intermodal transit center on Morris Avenue.

In East Birmingham, the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve sits astride Ruffner Mountain – 1,100 acress of woodlands and trails criss-crossing the ridge of the mountain and connecting old mining sites. A new nature center is being constructed with federal funds and park supporters are raising additional funds to add a new 500-acre tract to the park’s holdings.

South of Birmingham is the large Oak Mountain State park, and to our West is Tannehill State Park. Dotted across our landscape are literally hundreds of smaller municipal and “pocket” parks.

In Pittsburgh a couple of years ago, some of us had an opportunity to learn about that city’s parks program and the “string of pearls” concept – an idea that’s also being implemented here. The idea is that parks exist to be enjoyed, and that perhaps linking the park or green spaces can amplify that enjoyment. Thus, a series of walking, hiking, biking trails has been developed (a la the Shades Creek Greenway) to connect the parks – as a string is used to connect pearls. A day can easily be envisioned when one could (if one wished) walk, run or hike from Tannehill State Park on the Tuscaloosa County line through the Red Mountain Park, along greenways to the Railroad Reservation Park, continuing on rail rights-of-way to Ruffner Mountain and, ultimately, on to Cheaha Mountain and the Appalachian Trail.

And why, exactly, is this important? Aside from the enjoyment a park offers, the enhancement of quality of life, the preservation of land and water quality and the general benefits to our health and well-being, setting aside parks and green spaces say something to us about the future. Taking these actions in the 1920s was a way for our forefathers to ensure the sustainability of the city and region while staking a claim to the economic growth that followed. Want a better economy? Build a park and improve people’s lives. Seems to me that the same equation works today, and as we preserve and enjoy the new spaces, we’re making a positive statement about the future we all hope to share in this really green place.

Barry Copeland is executive vice president of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. Check out his blog over at Positively 20th Street, where this entry was originally posted on April 21.

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Filed under: environmental · positively 20th street


Actually, city fathers fought much of the Olmsted plan. The Olmsteds wanted a meadow in George Ward Park; the city wanted a golf course. :) Linn Park nearly got a building plopped in the middle of it. So that's why nothing happened with the plan after M.P. Phillips (the guy on the park board who was the main link to the Olmsteds) died. Most of the proposed park land was built up with housing, and the park board started building swimming pools and recreational facilities. If there was a tradition of preserving creek valleys and mountaintops, it was one with a 70-year gap. Also, so that people don't get confused, I think it's important to emphasize that the specific 1920s Olmsted plan is not being implemented now in B'ham. (If that were the case, we'd now be removing the airport and Brookwood Mall for green space.) Various greenway projects physically overlap with some of the proposed Olmsted parks, but that's about it. Some of the plan's overriding concepts (and spirit, as I mentioned above), such as preserving mountaintops, are being realized in Red Mountain Park and Ruffner Mountain, but those were never in the Olmsted plan. Nothing wrong with that--parks are amenities wherever they're built--but I think it's a point to keep in mind.


I'd like to point out that most of the projects proposed by the Olmsted brothers across the country were never completed as originally designed or envisioned (if at all). In some cases, as was the case in Birmingham, the city fathers chose to implement only what they thought was important and necessary for the bottom line, whether from the Olmsteds' plan or the original plan by Warren Manning. We at least took some suggestions from the proposals, leading to the tradition that Barry speaks of (including the parks along Highland Avenue). Many of the cities that hired the Olmsted brothers never even did that. So I'd have to say that Birmingham does indeed have a tradition that allows us to install the plan nowadays, even though the reasons for our ability to do so may not be so thrilling to look back on.


"Our tradition of dedicating parks to preserve all that green space dates back to the 1920s to the city’s decision to create a Birmingham Park and Recreation Board and to hire the noted Olmstead landscaping firm to create a plan for preserving and enhancing our many parks and open spaces." I don't know that I would call it a "tradition," since the park board never acted on most of the Olmsted plan for Birmingham in the 1920s; the very few pieces of it that did come to pass were the result of private development. The "tradition" is only about 10-15 years old, when the greenway projects came into being. The beautiful thing is that many of the current park/greenway projects will help bring about many aspects of the Olmsted plan--not always in the same spaces they marked off, but in the same spirit for sure.