City of Ideas

Prize 2 The Future

Prize 2 The Future is just the start.

by André Natta

I enjoy thinking of Birmingham as a City of Ideas.

Many of these ideas have been acted on over the years with varying results, including the founding of the city itself, and the installation of Vulcan high atop Red Mountain to stand watch over The Magic City as the world’s tallest cast iron structure.

The city is currently enjoying the early stages of a renaissance partially due to embracing the energy that comes from the encouraging of idea development. A local organization is taking a slightly different approach on a tried and true method while looking to virtual connections to help raise the profile.

By the time you read this, the process of going through just under 1,000 of the more than 1,110 ideas submitted from more than 30 countries to the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham’s Prize2TheFuture competition will be well under way. The total number of teams and individuals that submitted were being confirmed as this piece was written. The response to this call was answered from far and wide.

The competition asked people to share their ideas for a piece of property one block in size that currently serves as a municipal parking lot that will “transform Birmingham into a cooler, more vibrant city.” It was an outgrowth of the CFGB’s Three Parks Initiative and the first use of the Community Catalyst Funds.

While idea competitions themselves are not new, the idea of using an idea competition that is not specifically tied to a design component in its early stages is—and something that may be looked to in the future to encourage true buy-in and ownership in the continuing transformation of our urban areas.

At least twenty-eight people will comprise the panel of judges that will review the entries, including civic leaders, developers, and urban design professionals. The group is led by Tom Leader—the award winning landscape architect who designed the city’s newest green space, Railroad Park. The 17-acres that make up the park’s first phase sit directly to the west of the contest site.

The park already makes it easy for mobile bohemians and everyday smartphone users alike to connect, with wireless access available throughout. It also provides a valuable escape for those who find themselves feeling almost too connected as the digital din continues to rise. That need to disconnect was the focus of several sessions at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference.

The website created for the competition by Idea Crossing allows for visitors to see exactly how much is going on in the city as well as what’s possible, hopefully inspiring those who participated in the process to extend their thoughts beyond how their suggestion would affect the park, instead calling on them to realize its impact on the greater downtown area.

All of the entries submitted were done through the site, serving as an opportunity to encourage those without dedicated online access to make the trek to their local library (or maybe even their neighbor’s house) to make sure that they could share their idea. People have also been pressed to share these ideas with each other on the competition’s fan page on Facebook and occasionally via Twitter using the hashtag #p2tf to ensure that others interested see their comments.

Karen Rolen, the foundation’s senior vice president for grants and initiatives was quoted in a recent statement: “This tremendous level of response illustrates the talent, creativity and commitment of our community. We can all be proud of the fact that so many people turned out for this first Prize2theFuture idea contest. This response inspires us all at the Community Foundation.”

The ten finalists and the winning entry are to be announced on May 5, quickly shaping up to be a busy day in this City of Ideas. That’s when the next scheduled Ignite Birmingham event takes place. This quarterly information exchange will celebrate its first anniversary that evening. One of the goals of these evenings of five-minute presentations is the ability to encourage the continued exploration of ideas in the communities where these events take place.

One hopes that as the ideas keep coming and as people continue to be made aware of them that the next step, making some of them a reality, is just as celebrated and encouraged in Jones Valley.

André Natta is the stationmaster for

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