Monday, February 20, 2012

I Once Met a Man from Bogotá

What kind of city do you want to live in?
If Birmingham's population loss is any indicator then we do not have a city that many people want to live in. We have pollution issues, education issues, transportation issues... in short, social equity issues. We don't have a city where people feel that they can prosper and improve themselves in. So we have to ask ourselves, what will it take to make Birmingham the city people want to live in?
To answer this question we would do well to look to the rest of the world for examples of cities that people want to live in. (I'll exclude some large cities as they benefit, in population numbers, from being located in areas of the world with severely undeveloped regions surrounding them which means they are the only available option for the people nearby to live urbanly.) So among the multicultural, successful melting-pots of the developed world what features tend to be commonalities? I believe this can be summed up quickly in saying that the successful and prospering cities of the world make it easy and enjoyable for people to connect, communicate, and collaborate* with one another. This means having mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-ideological environments where peoples' ideas collide together to produce the creative fusion that drives innovation.
This mixing is the key to fixing the issues. A frequently discussed problem in America today is the echo-chambers that we've segregated ourselves into. It's Disneyfication; we've gone and separated ourselves into Adventureland, Frontierland, and (for most of the suburbs) Fantasyland. (I think it's kind of telling that Tomorrowland features a Möbius strip of an highway, reflective of the endless rat-race of a maze that is suburbia.**) People of different backgrounds and ideas don't often cross one-another. Is it any wonder that the political system has become polarized? Is it any wonder that we can't agree on what direction to go in as a country? We are profoundly divided. "United We Stand" has become more epideictic rhetoric than practice.
So if we are to begin to heal the fractures in our society we must rethink what we mean when we say "that all Men are created equal". Former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Penalosa, spoke on his challenges and successes as mayor at UAB's inaugural Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium last Thursday. Chief among his points was how our cities have now become designed for cars (and the successful who can afford them) at the expense of people. He made a wonderful case for becoming hostile to cars in our approach at urban redesign favoring instead policies and infrastructure that empower every citizen. Now, lest that sound too terribly socialist, let me put it in his words: "we need cities where the $30 bicycle is just as important as the $30,000 car." It's not advocating that everyone ride a bike or that everyone receive a car, it's advocating that everyone be treated fairly under the law (which includes government policy and funding).
Right now suburban living is a subsidized fantasy. From highways to low-density water and sewer systems, home mortgage deductions to Fanny and Freddie, government has distorted the market of cities with subsidy. Even your gas is subsidized. And it's a fantasy that's about to come crashing down around you. 2008 was the death-knell. Housing finally porked out to its bloated maximum and then exploded. Derivatives were merely the wafer-thin mint at the end. Life support is being attempted right now by the Fed but oil cost is about to smother America like a murderous pillow.
All this brings us back to the question at hand. What is to become of Birmingham? What shall we mold it into? I propose that we have to build a Birmingham for people. A city where not only are ideas welcomed, they are nourished and cherished. A place where everyone can both contribute and reap the fruits of creativity. We need collaborative spaces, relaxing plazas, and gardens both literal and ideological.
And we can do this. We need only believe that we can.

*Yes, it's totally IBIB's tagline.
**Commute to work, work to commute. That's good ol' 1950's thinking right there.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Tale of Two Stadiums

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
The warm morning air on 1st Ave South was filled with the sounds of jazz and the excited voices of people who had gathered to witness something momentous. Down the street in the UAB Alumni building another gathering had commenced yet was noticeably more subdued than the first. The groundbreaking for the new Barons stadium downtown was filled with smiling people, bright balloons, and delicious food. The UA System Board of Trustees meeting was filled with dour-looking UAT grads (plus two UAB alumni), FreeUAB signs, and questionable finger sandwiches. The contrast between the two was undeniable. In the first case you had an entire community coming together to celebrate a big step forward in the revitalization of their city. In the latter you had a somber assembly of self-important, self-appointed dictators lounging in their cushy chairs ruling a $4 Billion empire by fiat. (I admit my biased opinion of the Trustees as both a pro-Birmingham activist and a UAB alumni)
But perhaps the story really begins and ends with home rule. Due to a (probably unintended) law, cities in Alabama enjoy fairly broad home rule. They can set (most of) their tax rates, conduct business, engage in capital projects, and run things as they see fit.* Contrast this with the way the University of Alabama System is run. All campuses are ultimately subject to the whims of the Board of Trustees.** UAB and UAH have both been the recipients of Board decisions that have either limited their potential or negatively impacted them. Meanwhile, the favored child in Tuscaloosa is blessed and doted upon.
The FreeUAB movement has been building steam and pushing hard to get their message out about the viability of an on-campus stadium and the potential beneficial impact it would have on the Birmingham community. Populating midtown with a series of attractive entertainment and cultural elements would surely go far in assisting the city in unlocking its promise and potential and the UAB stadium can play a major part in that. For the Board to dismiss it as they did is nothing less than a slap in Birmingham's face as I see it. And it should be answered.
But while UAB may have stuck out in Mudville (for now), the Barons will surely hit more than few balls out of the park and into a burgeoning midtown district which is due to see the development of many new businesses, residences, and other urban amenities in the years to come. If I have any advice for the good people working at FreeUAB it might be this: drop UA and become a #FreeBirmingham.***

* We shall reserve discussion of the lack of county home rule for later in the Legislative season...
** OK, we're discussing it now. Sensing an Alabama pattern here? The operation of the Board is just about equivalent to the Legislature. It's hostile to Birmingham, filled with people whose authority is disproportional to their contribution, and it fights against change and progress unless it benefits them or their pet projects.
*** Advocates for county home rule, public transit, metro government, constitutional reform/replacement, and other civic efforts are more than welcome to adopt this for a rally cry. Considering that The Machine is out of Tuscaloosa I think the logic is more than applicable.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Past, Future, and the Connections

Last week I attended a talk hosted by the Regional Planning Commission on Walkable Urbanism and it's effect on planning and development in the 21st century. What was most interesting from the presentation was the acknowledgement from a developer that the paradigm shift has already started and urbanism is back. Today's youth want to be connected in every way possible. We have already embraced the internet, social media, texting, IM, and other electronic connections but we really value our IRL (in real life) encounters very deeply despite what the Boomer-oriented media wants to portray about us. We like having experiences more than things and living in a dynamic urban space gives us those experiences regularly.
The speakers at the talk focused on how carefully crafted transportation options can enhance not only development but the social fabric as well. This confluence of transportation, development, and social experience was an integral part of city planning prior to WWII and it produced cities that were not only convenient, but bustling. The rise of industrialization ended up polluting many of the core cities which contributed to their decline but the combination of cheap energy, affordable automobiles, and government policy (like road subsidization) did far more damage. Now that many industries have either cleaned up or gone overseas core cities have a chance to reinvent (or most times rebrand) themselves as attractive options for living. The combination of convenience and energy-efficiency holds a lot of attraction for the Millennials.
Birmingham went through this same transition as many American cities did. The 'burbs expanded and the core emptied. But one of the chief advantages for the future of Birmingham is how the bones for a well-designed city are still here. Elements like the street grid, the commercial centers like 5 Points (S & W), Avondale, Woodlawn, etc, and many of the well-planned neighborhoods are still intact and waiting to be reconnected and re-energized. In concert with that we have many beautiful and solid historic structures within the city that make serious contributions to its identity and serve as a living connection to our past. Examining how we can repurpose these structures and transform them into facilitating structures for a 21st century Birmingham will be key to moving forward while holding on to what makes us Birmingham.
The emerging debate about Elyton School is a case in point. Here we have the second oldest school in the city (the oldest partially burned, if you remember, mainly due to neglect) potentially facing demolition simply because it's old and it might be a little more expensive to adapt it versus building a very boring, cheap suburban-style structure. The failure of city leadership to preserve our heritage is not a new tale unfortunately. We have lost many a structure to either neglect, misguidance, or outright deception. And when the dust settles the losers are the citizens now and in the future.
So in grand summation I submit to you that the connections between past and future are not only necessary for preserving its unique character it is critical to developing Birmingham's promise. Our past can give us the clues to unlocking our future if we can make the connections in our minds. The prosperous and developing areas of the city need to be bridged to give them the lifeblood they need to grow and thrive. Our historic structures can be the homes of our future successes. By connecting more of Birmingham together we can make serious strides in overcoming the inequities in our community and fostering the dialogues we need to move forward. By embracing the knowledge and experience of our past, bad and good alike, we can forge a new Birmingham, a better Birmingham, a Birmingham we can not only believe in but one that we can hold before the world in pride.

A New Day in the Magic City

There have been dark days in Birmingham's past. Some of these linger in our hearts and minds while others have faded from memory through time. But as the old saying goes the night is always darkest before the dawn and after each of our dark days we have picked ourselves up and moved forward into a new day. Following a rocky decade in Birmingham I believe we have begun our new day. At perhaps no other time in our history have we had the opportunity to shape our own destiny and seize our potential. From the public-shaped Comprehensive Plan to the business community's Blueprint Birmingham, there is a fledgling spirit of optimism that is manifested in our desire to plan for a better future. While we still have many challenges to overcome that is exactly why you plan because if you fail to plan then you plan to fail. I personally feel that the struggles of the city over the last few decades can be traced to the lack of a real plan for addressing the changing needs of the community. But as we begin the 15th decade of the city we have a renewed sense of the possible and a desire to realize it. So the challenge now is growing that spirit and nurturing the budding optimism. We have the tools, talents, and resources to transform our community into a world-class city. The question will be: can we rise to the occasion? I believe we can because I believe in Birmingham.