Connecting the Dots


We’re probably all are oohing and ahhing over the renaissance happening along First Avenue South, but let’s not call it a miracle. Well over a decade ago, in 2002, a group of urban planning experts laid the groundwork for how this building boom would play out, and they’ve been proved remarkably prescient so far. Their recommendations were a pretty formulaic list of ifs: If Birmingham strengthens its anchor sites, and if Birmingham develops its corridors, and if it imbues those corridors with its own authentic character, people will come. 

The planners, known collectively as the Urban Land Institute, noted the special role of the city’s green spaces. The sites were, with one pivotal exception, capital ready to be leveraged, to give pedestrian friendliness a toehold. That exception, Railroad Park, was just an idea at the time, but it was a good one, the panel noted. The consensus was that Railroad would provide a cross-city system of parks and corridors with its keystone.

The panel also noted a challenge: connectivity, that is, the creation of viable paths that pedestrians and cyclists would be willing to strike out on. Even with strong anchor sites, there is no guarantee that people wouldn’t just stop by a site, hop in their cars, and head home. Pathways had to be developed, through bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly paint jobs, road diets designed to trim up wide streets and slow traffic, and perhaps most importantly, with stuff to do on along those corridors. You’re probably not going to walk from one anchor site to another if it feels like a stroll through a DMZ. 

Last August, the directors of several Birmingham area parks quietly began applying a modified version of this strategy to unite their sites into a connected system. Those directors represent some of the most recognizable names in area green spaces, places like Railroad Park, Vulcan, Tannehill, Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, and Sloss Furnaces. (Full disclosure: I’ve been engaged to write grants on behalf of the project.) Their method of connecting their sites in some cases entails using what you’d expect, namely, carving out corridors using existing sidewalks and bike lanes. Oftentimes, their method skips such physical assets altogether. 

Their nontraditional method is in fact a virtual one, known by its trade name, TravelStorys GPS. The virtual platform however shows great potential to supply pathways with exactly what the Urban Land Institute stipulated—authenticity. As its name suggests, TravelStorys GPS uses GPS technology to prompt storytelling. That storytelling might come through oral histories or scripted narration, but it can also include folk music, archival photos, documentary videos, and other media evocative of industrial era Birmingham. If you have the mobile app open as you’re walking or cycling from Railroad Park to Sloss along First Avenue South, you might hear an expert talking about the Birmingham transportation system, an architect discussing buildings along the way, or a family member discussing her father’s work in a Birmingham mine or mill. 

The project has as its working title the Birmingham Industrial Heritage Trail, and it already has a quite a few assets in its favor. First, the numbers are good. If you were tally up the total annual visitation to Railroad, Vulcan, Sloss, Ruffner, and Tannehill, you’d arrive at around 1.5 million. That’s solid support from a city the size of Birmingham. Just 2 to 3 percent of that total visitation downloading the mobile app would take usage to 30,000 to 45,000. That, too, is a sizable pool to direct along those corridors. It’s a numbers game, but given the strength of the anchor sites, organizers like the odds.

Also weighing in their favor is just how interesting the content stands to be. Documentarian Ken Burns’ go-to music guy, Bobby Horton, is on board to provide folk music. Gospel legends the Birmingham Sunlights and Lonnie Holley, who is channeling the spirit of Sun Ra these days, will also perform. A comprehensive oral history project will ensure that everyday stories are integrated into the trail system’s content. 

Finally, the Birmingham Industrial Heritage Trail is helped by how it advantageously piggybacks another system of trail corridors already well underway, the Red Rock Ridge and Valley system. The Freshwater Land Trust developed the Red Rock plan primarily out of environmental concerns, and the plan is already finding success in various parts of Jefferson County. That stretch of pedestrian friendliness along First Avenue South—it’s actually one piece of the Red Rock plan, the Jones Valley corridor. 

Organizers of the Birmingham Industrial Heritage Trail are focused here, on the Jones Valley corridor. Besides walkable portions, there will be bike-friendly versions of the trail content and, as an indication of the project’s pragmatism, portions best, for now, attempted by car. The rollout of the new virtual trail happens in about a year, in a city that will likely be a different one than it is now.

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