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.