ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Matthew Hamilton. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
The American flag has been a symbol of our nation’s identity, strength, and unity for more than 200 years.
Our flag often elicits some of our deepest emotions—making us feel passion and pride.
Did you know that most major cities – including Birmingham – also have their own flag? But have you ever felt pride for our city because of our flag?
Or did you even realize we have a flag in Birmingham? If you didn’t, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many people in other cities don’t know they have flags either, and sadly even if they did, they would learn they likely have a bad flag.
To understand what makes a flag good versus bad, it’s useful to know a little about vexillology, the “scientific study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags.” I was introduced to vexillology a couple months ago by Roman Mars, a speaker at this year’s TED Conference. (Quick sidebar – if you aren’t familiar with what TED is, just go to TED.com to find out firsthand.)
Mars, creator and host of the podcast 99% Invisible, gave an entertaining talk about the principles of good design, using vexillology as a case study. He asserted that cities and states generally are “a scourge of bad flags.”
I’ll admit, I wasn’t even aware we had a city flag of Birmingham. Almost everyone I’ve talked to in the two months since returning from TED wasn’t either. Roman Mars sold me on the importance of having a good flag, and when I looked up our flag after his talk, I found it somewhat lacking. Consequently, I think it’s about time that our city decide to adopt a new one.
I can already anticipate some of the comments online.
“We have more important things to worry about than a city flag.” I couldn’t agree more. But compared to some of our other big challenges that need to be tackled – education reform, public transportation, poverty, and more – the difficulty and cost in making the decision to redesign the flag is rather inconsequential. So why worry about it? Symbolically, a flag well-designed – and utilized – can give us a banner to rally beneath – literally – to face and tackle those bigger issues.
“Our flag isn’t that bad.” Again, I completely agree. Compared to some other cities’ flags, ours definitely isn’t the worst (Look at the flags of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or Pocatello, Idaho for example, deemed the worst city flag in North America). However, our current flag also isn’t the best. The North American Vexillological Association ranks Birmingham’s flag 39th out of 150 cities. Not bad, right? Our score, however, was more telling: only a 4.97 out of 10. The only reason we ranked as high as we did is because so many other cities simply have horrible flags; the bar just isn’t set very high. When evaluating the quality of our flag – or anything else about our city – do we want to judge based upon how good or bad something is in its own right, or simply relative to other cities’ mediocrity?
And my favorite…
“Why scrap an almost 100 year old flag?” This kind of question almost always comes at some point in any change initiative. The status quo is a powerful force. But that viewpoint essentially amounts to “we should continue doing something mediocre because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” That, as anyone with sound business acumen will tell you, is horrible advice.
So what’s to be gained? Redesigning our flag is an opportunity to contribute to our identity as a city and region. “We can control the branding and graphical imagery of our cities with a good flag,” Mars said, “but instead by having bad flags we don’t use, we cede that territory to sports teams, chambers of commerce, and tourism boards.”
Other cities that have well-designed flags – Chicago and Washington, D.C. for example – find that they become a ubiquitous element of the community’s culture. In Chicago, it’s common for families of fallen police and firefighters to choose to drape their loved ones casket in the Chicago flag, as opposed to the US flag. Around the Windy City, the Chicago flag can be seen everywhere – not just on things like t-shirts, hats, and coffee cups, but even tattooed on citizens’ arms.
The influx of young professionals to Chicago in the 90’s is often attributed as a reason their flag gained such prominence, as they sought connection and identity in their newly adopted city. Over the past few years, the conversation in Birmingham has often been around the rise in urban living and influx of millennials. Why wouldn’t we want to have a standard they can identify with?
I’m no designer, so harbor no illusions that I could redesign our city’s flag. But I also know we have no shortage of extremely talented creative folks in town who could design innumerably better options than what we currently have. I’d like to see a dialogue started, and maybe even a contest to design us a better flag.
“A great city flag is something that represents a city to its people, and its people to the world at large” Mars said. Adopting a better flag that can help bring together our more than 35 municipalities under one banner – if only symbolically – is at least a start to giving us a shared identity inside Birmingham and beyond.
Note from David Sher: You’re cheating yourself if you don’t watch Roman Mars TED Talk. It’s fun, interesting, and will help you understand why Matt (and now me) are enthusiastic about the possibilities of a new Birmingham flag.
Matthew Hamilton is a West Point and MIT graduate and served as a Captain in the U.S. Army before moving to Birmingham. He is the volunteer co-organizer of TEDxBirmingham, an independent TEDx event operated under license from TED.
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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12, a division of Intermark Group, and co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).