First Salvo

We got our first bit of TV news coverage for Rethink 20/59 tonight. Fox 6 News came out to our meeting tonight and put us and our message on the 10 o’clock news. Since the news is all about pictures, I’m glad I had posted my “artist’s rendition” of downtown Birmingham without the elevated highway. (Actually a real artist drew one block and envisioned the rest of it an uncapped sunken highway. All I did was cut and paste other parks in other cities over the open blocks.) The news showed that picture twice to whomever was watching. I’m hoping images are what they’re made out to be and people sit up and think what downtown Birmingham could be.

I don’t know how long Fox 6 keeps their news stories online, but as of right now, here it is:

Grassroots group wants ALDOT to change I-20/59 plans.

And here’s that picture one more time.

RailroadParkNorth

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Is Mass Transit Really That Difficult To Realize?

Someday soon I hope we can figure out how to have a mass transit system that gives Birmingham drivers a run for their money. If we could assert some authority for the good of the public, we’d find we have most of the infrastructure for it already in place, in both the existing rail track and our system of streets and highways. Put commuter trains on the existing track, and where the trains don’t go (e.g., down 280), take out a couple lanes for dedicated bus lanes. Bogotá, Colombia, is the world leader in the latter. Their video at Streetfilms.org is an eye-opener:

http://www.streetfilms.org/bus-rapid-transit-bogota/

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How bad architecture wrecked cities—TED Talk by James Howard Kunstler

The author and social critic, James Howard Kunstler, is probably the single biggest reason that I became interested in urban design. It started when I stumbled across the TED Talk he gave in 2007. After that I looked him up and found his podcasts (http://kunstlercast.com/) and his books. The podcasts motivated me to figure out iTunes, which I now listen to more than the radio, and I’ve ended up paying too much in library fines reading his books. Kunstler doesn’t have the habit of waxing romantically about techno fixes that characterize TED Talkers, so it’s not surprising that he’s never been invited back. I like technology as much as anyone else does, but I also appreciate people who take off our rose-colored glasses, which Kunstler does with no apologies.

One thing Kunstler mentions in this talk that made me think of Birmingham is the trauma of urban life that motivated the move to the suburbs. White flight is a well-known phenomenon, but Birmingham also has an industrial legacy that I’m sure contributed to the exodus here. Long before I ever showed up, this city was an industrial wasteland. Some parts of it still are, and while our air quality is still towards the bottom of national rankings, at least we don’t see it or smell it, not most of the time, anyway, not where I live. Birmingham’s whole reason for being was industry—it didn’t even exist before the Industrial Revolution—but all that has changed. At least in the central city, there’s no reason we have to accept ugliness and despair in the places we inhabit. We need, as Kunstler says, “places worth caring about.”

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Rethink2059.com

Rethink2059.com. That’s the petition to get the Alabama Department of Alabama to rethink the eyesore through downtown Birmingham, the elevated I-20/59 expressway. If you’ve never been to Birmingham, it’s a typical American tragedy of a highway rammed like a stake through downtown’s heart back in the 70s when it seemed like a cool thing to do.

DowntownI-20-59

Birmingham News file photo

ALDOT actually has plans to tear it down. What? Enlightened minds at ALDOT? Recognition of the gross error of having built it in the first place. Not quite. The structure is nearing the end of its design life, so it anyway will have to come down, but instead of turning that into an opportunity to right that wrong, ALDOT wants to reinvigorate the wrong with this:

ImageThat’s not their rendition, it’s mine, which might look a little unfair, but the plan calls for 10 lanes—count ’em, 10—with no exits downtown. As is well known by now, traffic fills to whatever the capacity of the road, so I don’t think there’s anything unfair about this representation of the highway during Birmingham’s ever-lengthening gridlock hours.

As Wesley Vaughn mentions in “The downtown I-20/59 project deserves state interest,” the project fails what John Norquist of the Congress for the New Urbanism calls “‘the Postcard Test.’ If a structure can’t be put on a postcard, why build it in the first place?”

Here’s my rendition of the same area so as to pass the Postcard Test:

ImageI took an artist’s rendition of a just one block capped over a sunken I-20/59, and cut and pasted the other sections with other world-class parks (Tuileries Gardens in Paris, Central Park in New York) to give people permission to imagine a Birmingham that you could put on a postcard. This isn’t necessarily the best option for the reclaimed space (the lack of any bike lanes is a glaring omission), but something like this would make downtown a place people want to be, as opposed to the current structure, which scares people (read business) away, or ALDOT’s imaginary monstrosity, that would scare them further away. Their plan is entirely for the sake of getting motorists as quickly through Birmingham as possible, as though the city is just a hindrance to where they’re really going, as opposed to a magnet that gets people off the highway to enjoy themselves (read spend money) in what is actually an amazing city.

Sinking the expressway isn’t necessarily the best way of handling the traffic. The cost would be in the billions instead of the millions, for example. Another alternative is to relocate the expressway to another location (e.g., the Finley Blvd corridor). That would also be expensive, but neither sinking or relocating are as expensive as the proposed Northern Beltline, a 50-mile fantasy of extending suburban sprawl further north. As unrealistic and misguided as that plan is, that plan is moving forward. Take a fraction of that boondoggle and apply it to making Birmingham whole again.

To join the fight to turn downtown Birmingham into a place worth caring about, look up the grassroots citizens organization, I Believe In Birmingham, on Facebook. And sign the petition at Rethink2059.com. Thank you for believing in Birmingham.

UPDATE 1 – June 27, 2013

A new friend I made because of this issue (Leigh Lazer Collins, Director Development at Red Mountain Park) suggested putting all three pictures on the petition website, the current highway, ALDOT’s plan, and the park or boulevard plan. She said it was seeing all three pictures that grabbed her attention on this. Funny how pictures give you permission to imagine a better way. I’m not the person in charge of the petition—that would be Joseph Casper Baker, III, over at I Believe In Birmingham—but I anyway figured out how to make an animated GIF that would put all three pictures into one. Here that is:

Options for downtown BirminghamI sent that to Joseph, but he said the looping function didn’t work on the petition site, so I made a video instead:

Which option do you like better?

UPDATE 2 – June 27, 2013

In fairness to ALDOT, I thought I would post their rendition (on Slide #5 of their project presentation) of the 10-lane expressway they want to build.

ALDOTrenderingNote that through the area with the ramps to and from Red Mountain Expressway, it’s actually 12 lanes. Their drawing doesn’t put the cars in there, especially during the 5:00 rush, er, crawl, so this is as beautiful as it can possibly be. I wonder if to ALDOT officials, this actually is beautiful. That might indicate the fight we have on our hands.

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Livable Birmingham with cut and paste

I need to acknowledge the inspiration I’ve received from Andrew Price’s blog on urban environments. What makes it inspirational is the way he uses pictures to compare and contrast different places, or the same place the way it is and, through cutting and pasting, the way it could be. Using the idea of his post on human-scale streets, I went out and took some pictures of Birmingham streets and then cut out the middle of the streets to make them narrower, not quite as narrow as Cobb Lane in the banner, but narrow enough to make it easier for pedestrians and harder for cars. It’s not quite feasible to pick up one side of the street and move it closer to the other side, but the point of this little photo project is that if we were to develop some section of town that’s currently just sitting there in ugly blight, we wouldn’t necessarily need some elaborate architecture with foreign or bygone-era charm to make that space worth inhabiting. Of course it would be nice to be surrounded with lovely architecture, but even if we’re not talented enough to do that, we could simply built the type of stuff we’ve already built, just closer together, and it would feel a lot more human. So let’s take a look.

ImageHere’s Richard Arrington Jr Blvd looking towards downtown from 5th Ave South. A totally unremarkable picture. Let’s narrow the street.

Image

The businesses still look like they’re hermetically sealed off from the street, as they are in real life, but with this street width, pedestrians are much more likely to hang around here, especially if you control or eliminate cars. In that case, those businesses would be inclined to relax a little and open themselves up to pedestrian street traffic. You might end up with something like this:

Image

I just took a lively European street and pasted its activity over this dead Birmingham street that currently serves just one purpose at present: to get cars from Southside to Downtown as quickly as possible. To that end, you can’t have anything as irksome as foot traffic, no matter how vibrant it may be.

Birmingham has its own isolated districts like this that attract people as best they can to come and hang out there. One such place moderately popular with cool young hipsters is Lakeview.

Image This is 7th Ave South in Lakeview looking west from 29th St. On the left are restaurants and bars. On the right is a new apartment building. Activity happens on both sides of the street, but how much more activity would happen if it were more intimately defined, like this:

ImageSomething else besides street width is working against places like Lakeview, which is the fact that if you go a block away, you see this:

ImageNothing festive there. Besides the depressing buildings, the street just seems like lots of pavement for the sake of paving.

Birmingham has lots of areas like this, with cheap one-story buildings separated by empty space. Take this area, for example:

ImageThis is 23rd St South, between 7th Ave and University Blvd looking north towards Downtown, just a few blocks from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. What if we took underutilized space like this, walking distance from UAB and biking distance from Downtown, and turned it into a community? Not only would it turn this into a pleasant area where you’d enjoy hanging out, it would be an economic generator for the city. Additionally, the smaller streets cost less to construct, require less maintenance, and lie easier on the natural environment.

We often hear talk in Birmingham of people, particularly young people, who would like to move back into the city from the suburbs, but there really aren’t very many attractive options for such folks. And people are moving in anyway. How much greater that phenomenon would be if there were a whole neighborhood built on a human scale.

Birminghamians are quick to point out that their city is so much different now from the days of fire hoses and police dogs and church bombings. That is so true that I can hardly believe those awful things happened here. But of all the good things that have happened since then, none of them have been as spectacular as the events that made this city famous to the whole world. A livable neighborhood in the city would start to change that. It would turn Birmingham into a model of urban environment that could inspire the rest of the world how to build a city. That’s the city where I would like to live.

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Visual aids for your imagination

If you’ve never been to Birmingham, Alabama, you might look at the picture in the banner and think how lovely this city must be. That’s the power of photography, to create a whole world in your imagination just from a little snippet. The technical term is metonymy. The picture serves as a metonym by which you construct the rest of the story. Nestled between low mountains, this really is a nice spot for a city, but the street in the banner is just one block long, called Cobb Lane near Five Points South. You turn out onto the streets on either end and you’re just on ordinary streets.

Cobb Lane doesn’t have any particularly special architecture, but what gives it the charm that it has is that it’s made of cobblestone and it’s narrow, which means that it’s not very convenient for cars. You can drive a car down it if you want, but people feel more comfortable on this street than cars do. If you’re in a car, you wouldn’t use this street to get to somewhere else.

What if a whole chunk of Birmingham was like Cobb Lane? Like say somewhere near downtown that is filled with nondescript warehouses or boarded up stores. Take a few blocks and turn it into streets like this. Wouldn’t work? Not practical? Maybe more visuals will help. Let’s looks at other places.

Mackinac IslandThis is Mackinac Island (pronounced “Mackinaw”) in Lake Huron near where the two peninsulas of Michigan form the Straits of Mackinac. Since 1898, Mackinac Island has been free of motorized vehicles and the only way to get anywhere has been by foot, bike, or horse. Despite that inconvenience, this island with a permanent population of less than 500 people draws nearly a million tourists a year to experience this. I’m fortunate to have been one of them. I’ve been fantasizing about a car-free society ever since.

But Mackinac Island is just an island, you say? Can’t possibly be a model for a mid-sized American city? How about this mid-sized European city?

Ravenna, ItalyThis is a car-free zone in the old center of Ravenna, Italy, a city just a little smaller than Birmingham. There is nothing going on on this street that cars would improve. The people are here because the cars aren’t. Note the width of the street. For American sensibilities, this street is so narrow as to cause an anxiety attack. So why do Americans spend their hard-earned savings to travel to Europe just to walk down charming streets like this?

This phenomenon of human-scaled streets is found pretty much all over the rest of the world.

Naraijuku, JapanHere’s Naraijuku, a small town in the mountains of central Japan. After they banned cars, it became a tourist attraction.

Guanajuato, MexicoThis is Guanajuato, Mexico, much of the center of which is car-free. They were more or less forced into this because the city is so tightly squeezed in by mountains. Yea, mountains.

For someone who admittedly has a thing out for cars, I wouldn’t mind if every car just mysteriously quit working tomorrow morning. But having to share this world with people who think cars are pretty neat (at least for as long as gas is cheap and the climate hasn’t wiped us away), I offer these examples of human-scaled streets with cars that yield to the people who still rule the street.

Paris, FranceThis is rue Cadet in Paris at Christmas time. Note the one car to the many pedestrians and bicycles parked along the side of the street. The people own this street and that car knows it.

These examples are all fine and good, but that’s how foreigners live, that’s not how we live in America. Right? Well, what about this city just down the road from here?

New OrleansEveryone knows here. It’s another city with narrow streets, not exactly car-free, but if you’re in a car, these streets are sort of a nuisance. Again, from our ordinary everyday sensibilities, this place is all wrong. You can’t get anywhere very quickly, nobody has any yard space to speak of, and all the buildings are out of date. But if it’s so bad, why do we spend our vacations to go here and relax? Why do people spend a lot of money to live here? Why don’t you see people from the French Quarter spending their vacations in more convenient and practical places like this:

Hoover, ALUS 31, aka Montgomery Hwy in Hoover, or this:

US 280 beyond I-459US 280 past I-459 in the Birmingham suburbs? Why don’t we want to relax in these havens of practicality and convenience? Why not? Because they’re spiritually asphyxiating, that’s why. This is what we’ve spent our children’s inheritance to build in this country, places like this where no one in their right mind would want to be unless they had to.

Let’s rethink what we want in a community. Wouldn’t everything before the last two pictures be better than those pictures? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could walk down to our corner store, or pedal our bikes there, meet our neighbors, share some coffee with them on a sidewalk cafe, hop on a streetcar to go to work, proudly answer questions from all the tourists that flock here, and watch people light up when we say “I’m from Birmingham”? Fancying myself as a religious person, I can’t help but think “on earth as it is in heaven.”

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