The 10-month-old Railroad Park in Birmingham, Alabama, doesn’t have the glamour or the scenery of America’s most famous railroad park, and it certainly doesn’t have the money, but it has two things the High Line will never have: trains and crunk fitness.
Once a week, the park transforms into an advertisement for America’s greatest cultural offerings — that is, crunk music and unabashedly wearing sweatpants in public — while just yonder, trains on any of 11 tracks might lumber by, creating the kind of urban scene that landscape architect Tom Leader describes poetically as “a beautiful, weird industrial ballet.”
Tom Leader describes the scene as “a beautiful, weird industrial ballet.”
Leader helmed a $17.5 million public-private initiative to convert an old warehouse and brick-making site on the city’s active railroads into 19 acres of grass, foliage, walking paths, ponds, a skate park, and plazas, among other features. The park is designed to knit together Birmingham’s divided north and south sides and, to that end, treats its copious train lines, which cut straight through the city, as an urban amenity the way San Antonio and St. Louis treat their riverfronts. A “Rail Trail” near the train lines provides plenty of choice perches for trainspotting (a sort of Birmingham equivalent of Sunday golf) and gently tributes the city’s rich history as a freight and industrial powerhouse. The park is part of a master plan to develop open space and assorted attractions along the railroad in the coming years. If the plan is realized, Birmingham will have more park acreage per capita than any city in the United States.
At a time when several American cities want to build their own High Line, Railroad Park is an object lesson in how a small metropolis can create an affordable, valuable public park by exploiting the stuff it’s got instead of mindlessly aping the particulars of west-side Manhattan. Building Railroad Park was no picnic, though. The project dragged on for five years, about two and a half years too long, plagued by land disputes, political in-fighting, fund-raising difficulties, and other problems. It didn’t help matters that Birmingham swept through five mayors in as many years. (That includes a guy who’s in the clink now serving a 15-year sentence for public corruption.) “A lot of people didn’t think they could do this,” Leader says. “Birmingham has an inferiority complex. It was a Civil Rights battleground and had a lot of inertia in terms of organization. … [The park] did take five years, but it’s been a real urban catalyst. That’s something we always talk about, and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case it did. It’s not just bullshit.?
Leader landed the Railroad Park commission after meeting William Gilchrist, Birmingham’s visionary former director of planning (who now works for Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans) at a mayors? symposium several years ago. Gilchrist wanted to draw more people to Birmingham, the population of which has steadily declined since the 1960s, and a park by the rail that could marry the city’s empty, urban north and booming, university-adjacent south was key to that goal. “You’ve got 11 lines all rumbling through the city on a big viaduct,” Leader says. ‘Our first thought was: Do you want to subdue the rail’ And they said, “No, we like it. We go out there on the weekends and do trainspotting.” They relate to it in a way that’s uncommon in other cities because they have no bay or lake. This rail is their regional element.?
“The park’s been a real urban catalyst. Sometimes it happens. It’s not just bullshit.”
So Leader — a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award finalist, whose landscape architecture firm, Tom Leader Studio, hails from Berkeley — set about making the rail the park’s centerpiece. The original idea was to build the park right up alongside the tracks for some front-row train sightseeing. Turned out, though, that Birmingham didn’t own the land; the rails did. After drawn-out property negotiations, the city agreed to push the park 90 feet away from the trains. But by building a series of bridge and walkway connections atop artificial knolls level with the rail, the landscape architects were able to create a Rail Trail that affords up-close views of the tracks without overstepping the property line. The trail also looks out over downtown Birmingham and the park itself.
Leader took pains to make the park self-sufficient. “It used to be that you’d come up with an idea then bring resources to it,” Leader says. “You don’t do that anymore. Now, you ask, how can you use the resources that are there, and store them to grow the landscape?” A large reservoir provides irrigation water that, during the summer, also discharges as a fountain for folks to cool off in. The soil dug out for the trainspotting knolls leaves ample room for floodwater storage, a necessity in this storm-prone part of the world. Through a complex water management system, rain water can be harvested and reused.
The real measure of a park’s success, of course, is whether people use it. Leader says they do, whether it’s for an outdoor movie, the Crawfish Boil, which attracts a throng of 30,000 each year, or crunk fitness. It’s even encouraging healthier lifestyles. “In Birmingham, they love barbecue; it’s a calorie-loving food culture,” Leader says. “But everybody is out there now, whatever size they are, hustling their butts around the walking circuits.”
Leader believes that the Rail Park cans be a teaching tool for other cities that want to build urban parks with limited resources. “The first reaction is always: How can we put a High Line in our city?” he says. The thing is, that’s totally unrealistic for a lot of places. The High Line, for all its sex appeal, was hardly cost-effective. It’s 6.73 acres and clocked in at more than $100 million in private funds. Contrast that to Birmingham’s Rail Park, which is 19 acres and cost just $17.5 million (also in private money). ‘It’s better to have a low budget,’ Leader says. “That way, smaller cities have to find ways to use what they have.”
[Images courtesy of Tom Leader Studio]