In 1969, Oklahoma-born Phillip Morris arrived in Birmingham to write about architecture and design for Southern Living magazine. Morris laughingly remembers one of his first encounters with a native Birminghamian, who characterized the city as a place where “We have a King, two mayors, and a parade every day.”
The “King” was Martin Luther King. One “mayor” was Bull Connor, the police commissioner who ruled the city by means of a goon squad armed with German Shepherds and fire hoses. The other the actual mayor, who was trying to get rid of Connor. And the “parades” were the civil rights demonstrations.
Since the ’60s, Birmingham has risen phoenix-like from the ashes of fire bombs and infamy. The last white mayor, David Vann, and his successor Richard Arrington Jr., the first black mayor and at present the city’s chief, have worked with an aggressive group of civic activists to transform a divided city into a community. These concerned citizens have used apparently unlikely toolsurban planning and designto advance their social objectives. What was once a stark portrait in black-and-white is now painted in shades of green.
Birmingham is crazy for landscaping. It’s as if a group of fanatical gardeners had got together and decided to design a city.
The downtown lunch crowd strolls along 20th Street, the main north-south avenue, lined with trees and luxuriously landscaped medians and office towers. Visitors walk from the front door of the Tutwiler Hotel and cross the street to the extensively renovated Linn Park. Broad diamond-patterned paths bisect the shady park, leading past reflecting pools and gazebo-covered tables to a large fountain from which tumbles a water cascade. It is the civic heart that Nashville lacks.
Even the major suburban arterial, Route 280, is heavily buffered by trees and shrubs that soften and conceal the business at the road’s edges. Imagine a CoolSprings Galleria barely visible beyond the treetops.
In Birmingham, the term “office park” is not an oxymoron. Forget Middle Tennessee’s minimal concessions to greenstuffBradford pear trees and beds of liriope. Birmingham’s Metrocenters and Maryland Farms are real parksforested tracts dotted with lakes and trails. Planned as amenities for workers, these office parks have become magnets for people who work elsewhere. Weekends and evenings see whole families arriving by the carloads to power-walk and bike at Riverchase and Meadow Brook.
There is little about this city that suggests the old agrarian South, because Birmingham was not founded until 1871. The city began as a series of squares at the junction of two rail lines in a broad stretch of Jones Valley, a location close to large mineral deposits that provided the essential ingredients for making steel.
Vulcan the metal worker is Birmingham’s presiding deity. A 56-foot-tall statue of the god sculpted by Giuseppe Morettiwho also designed Nashville’s monument to Peace, better known as the Battle of Nashville monumentthrusts the tools of his trade into the sky over Red Mountain to the south.
By the turn of the century, Birmingham’s downtown grid was relaxing into garden suburbs carved into the surrounding hills, ridges, and mountains. Nationally noted landscape architects and land planners designed these suburbs with parkways, boulevards, vistas, overlooks, and naturally wooded parks. Their clients were enlightened local developers with large land holdings who wanted an Old English countryside look, coupled with the latest in subdivision technology: sewers, asphalt-paved streets, sidewalks, curbs and gutters, and street lighting.
It is only since the 1960s that the city of Birmingham has become active in civic landscape design. Following the civil rights debacle, city officials decided to analyze how, with limited resources, they could alter the city’s physical image and, at the same time, improve its public image. Birmingham didn’t plop down big boxes like an arena, because the money wasn’t there. Instead the city focused on redefining existing civic space. The result, in 1972, was a master plan known as “Birmingham Green.”
Birmingham paid for landscaping its major avenues and used its investment as leverage to encourage the private sector to expand and improve existing civic institutions, such as the Birmingham Museum of Art, and to create new ones like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“It was before my time,” says William Gilchrist, director of Birmingham’s Department of Planning and Engineering, “but in retrospect it seems that the upheavals of the ’60s caused the citizens of Birmingham to step back and take a good hard look at their city. There was a sense that the city must be careful and thoughtful with any new investments, coming off such a black eye.”
That hard look led Birmingham to see that a good streetscape requires more than a few trees planted along the streets. “The city realized that its historic architecture was a great resource,” says Gilchrist. “So we preserved a lot more of our old buildings than Atlanta or Charlotte.” Or Nashville.
Today fine examples of the Gothic, Eastlake, Romanesque, Classical, Italian Renaissance, and Art Deco styles are scattered throughout downtown, a concrete history of American architecture in the years since Birmingham began. The old pseudo-Moorish movie palace, the Alabama Theater, proclaims itself “The Home of the Mighty Wurlitzer” and advertises a regular TPAC-like schedule of performances.
According to Gilchrist, the city’s urban planning reached a “real milestone” in the mid-’70s. That’s when the Rural and Urban Design Assistance Team (RUDAT) of the American Institute of Architects conducted a planning study of the city.
Gilchrist says the team, led by the nationally recognized urban designer Stanton Ekstut, focused on the physical aspects of planningwhat the city could and should look like in three dimensions. The process also used planning methods that required intense citizen input, and Gilchrist is proud that all planning in Birmingham still feeds off a citizen-participation program that the Brookings Institute has recognized as one of the top five in the nation.
Birmingham has a mind-boggling 99 autonomous neighborhood associations that routinely make requests and are consulted on basic planning issues such as zoning, land use, capital projects, preservation, and infrastructure. The 99 neighborhood groups are organized under 23 community associations, which are represented by a community advisory board. “The citizens have only advisory power,” says Gilchrist, “but many elected officials have come up through the neighborhood process, and the politicians tend to listen to what the citizens have to say.”
Birmingham has come a long way since it was the poster child of racism 30 years ago. But like Nashville and all other American urban areas, Birmingham grapples with problems. Race remains an issue in any city with a sizable black population. Birmingham commuters drive even more miles on an average day than Nashville commuters do. A current proposal to make eight miles of Route 280 into a double-decker highway is being fought by Birmingham’s environmentalists and urbanists.
Fine-tuned urban design is what distinguishes Birmingham from Nashville, but perhaps progressive planning in the “Pittsburgh of the South” is an accident of history. Like Chattanoogaand unlike NashvilleBirmingham has been down and out. Chattanooga was once a de-industrialized wasteland. Birmingham was once the incarnation of protest and repression. Both cities have used their respective sufferings as the impetus to transform themselves into national models of urban planning.
On the other hand, Nashville’s economy simply chugs along. When it booms, we build an arena or a stadium and let it go at that. Our planning officials have never had to renew a whole city. Our grassroots planning process is rudimentary because we have never had a crisis that forced us to come up with anything more sophisticated.
But Nashville is hearing rumblings of discontent. Free-floating anxiety about growing too far too fast periodically erupts into battles over Krogers and Wal-Marts, a Franklin Corridor, or an 840. Maybe when the battles turn to all-out war, Nashville will put in a call to Birmingham.
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