How Birmingham can become a major player on the world stage

Brad Toland
Brad Toland

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Brad Toland.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

It’s no secret that Birmingham has radically undergone a change of identity over the last several years.  New developments are happening so quickly that it can be hard to keep up with them all.

However, just like the fifteen year old that decides to attempt personal reinvention over the summer, sometimes the changes aren’t necessarily for the best in the long run, and need to be carefully considered with a focus on long term impacts.

 I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the world, and along the way I’ve seen a few ideas, particularly in European countries, that could help Birmingham on its way to becoming a major player in the South and on the world stage.

Some of these concepts are, of course, big dreams that would require major economic investments, but others are simple and easier to implement.

Change Our Thinking

For at least the last forty years, Birmingham has been a fractured community.   As the Over The Mountain and Jefferson County communities have incorporated, increasing numbers of people have chosen to live outside of Birmingham, but still casually claim that they live “in Birmingham.”

People have a mindset that is both not of Birmingham and yet still part of Birmingham.  This has to change.  People must want to associate with the city.  As more things are developed in Birmingham, the city’s identity will be reborn and the messy politics of race and economics must be incorporated into a much larger, and hopefully more optimistic view of what the city is and what it can be.

Only when people in all the metro area communities begin to accept the fact that as Birmingham’s fortunes improve, so will theirs, will things actually begin to change.  Birmingham needs to reach out to the surrounding communities and partner with them in its endeavors.  The “us and them” mentalities have to stop.

Investment in Real Public Transportation

The city of Birmingham’s public transportation system is notoriously bad.  Bus routes are ineffective, and taxis are largely non-existent.  The city was once on the forefront of public transportation innovation in America.  It had miles and miles of streetcar tracks.

Today, the Birmingham metro area has over one million people, making it roughly the same size as Amsterdam.  In contrast to Amsterdam, though, Birmingham has very little transportation infrastructure.  Yes, it would cost a substantial amount of money, but the addition of streetcars that operate on a regular basis throughout the city (and even the suburbs) could substantially alter the identity of the city.

Imagine being able to get on a streetcar in Hoover to go to work downtown, at a quicker pace than could be driven in traffic.  It would also improve business downtown as more pedestrians require a greater number of stores and restaurants.  I know this is the pie in the sky/cost be damned/idealized attitude, but the city must dream big if it is ever going to begin to make the changes that need to be made.

If we ever consider an improvement in public transpiration, why not think really big?  For reasons that are beyond me, Alabama has largely resisted buying into the concept of high speed rail.

Having traveled all over parts of Asia and Europe on trains that blast along at speeds anywhere from 150-250 miles per hour, I can tell you that it’s an amazingly efficient way to travel.   Imagine a forty-five minute train ride to Atlanta? A person could ride over for a concert, shopping, or meetings and be back home that night in a shorter time than some people spend commuting daily to and from Shelby County.

Adding to this would be the ease and the improved economics that would come from people traveling from all points in between.  For example if the proposed line were to run from Atlanta to New Orleans, people from Anniston could theoretically work in Birmingham or even Tuscaloosa with a fraction of the commute time that they currently have.

Not only would this strengthen ties between Birmingham and other cities, but it opens the door for so much more economic development. Birmingham should be a leading voice for this kind of innovation in thinking about transportation and its role as a regional leader.

Bikes, Bikes, Bikes

Birmingham has come so far in the last two years of embracing bicyclists. Any conversation about transportation must include a continued focus on further development of bike lanes and pathways.  Every major road downtown needs to have specific lanes designated for bicyclists.

Simply put, the more people that are downtown, the more money and opportunity they will bring with them.  We need to take a page from not only Amsterdam, but also Paris, London, and Copenhagen in this respect.  These cities only embraced bicycles well after World War II and suddenly saw their city centers reborn and suburban sprawl sharply curtailed.

Get More People Outside

Let’s be honest, for most of the year the weather in Birmingham is pretty great, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a restaurant with outdoor seating that isn’t usually full.  The city needs more of these.  We need more outdoor cafes, restaurants, and bar seating.

People want to see other people.  Not only is this model good for business, but it’s good for promoting a sense of community.  All over Europe, meeting for a coffee, drink, or meal at such outdoor neighborhood cafes is part of life.  People seeing other people leads to more people which leads to……

More Retail

I understand this is a “Catch-22” situation.  More people on the streets will require more retail opportunities and more retail opportunities will require more people on the streets.  People need more reasons to go downtown and exploring ways to encourage small businesses and larger retail chains to return to the area can do this.  Tax breaks and financial incentives can drive this change.

The recently announced Pizitz food hall is a significant step towards this, but these opportunities must cater to more than those who work downtown.  They need to offer unique merchandise and shopping opportunities as well.

One possible suggestion: make one street in Birmingham a pedestrian only shopping destination. Any number of European cities have “no car” streets where independently owned shops stand next door to major retail chains and masses of people stroll the street with shopping bags in hand.

Get A Landmark

Birmingham is in desperate need of a symbol.  London has its bridge.  Paris has a tower.  Even Dublin has beer and four leaf clovers.  What does Birmingham have?  It has a giant statute of Vulcan, with his backside exposed.  It’s a statute that represents the industrial origins of the city, but was never meant to represent the city, per se, and isn’t recognizable to most people outside of Alabama.

Birmingham must find something that it can push to become the icon of the city.  It has to be instantly recognizable as a representation of the city; so much so that it will become THE destination for people to pose in front of regardless of if they are visitors or locals.

The newly returned Magic City sign is a huge step toward this. I do wish that the sign was more similar to that of the original, with “Birmingham” written at the top, but “Rotary Trail” will suffice.  This needs to be heavily pushed, and more than Alabama residents have to see it.  There have already been some amazing photographs and videos made that include the sign.

The good folks in the visitors’ bureaus should either be creating their own or checking out the images that are showing up on social media.  T-shirts, commercials, posters, and postcards need to push this with every opportunity and on every media platform.

Beautify the City

There are some truly beautiful areas in Birmingham.  Then there some areas that are, shall we call them “fixer uppers.”  It’s too inconsistent.  One block is lovely, and the next is decrepit.  Part of this is a result of decades of decline and neglect and the current gentrification efforts, but it is also partly the result of not properly passing laws to pull things together into a coherent vision for the city.

For the dawn of the new millennium, in 2000, Paris, for example, began to require the exterior of every building in the city limits to be cleaned once every decade.  The result is that Paris got a makeover.  No longer is it the gritty beauty of Europe, covered in centuries of soot and grime.   It gleams now.

Birmingham has to invest more not only in making sure roads are maintained and sidewalks are cleaned, but also that buildings are properly maintained.  A quick walk through downtown reveals beautiful architectural touches on buildings that sit empty with boarded over doors and windows.

Appearances are important, and those appearances are the foundation for the first impressions that people have on the city. Coco Chanel once said, “Dress shabbily and people notice the clothes.  Dress impeccably, and they notice the woman.”  This must be the city’s frame of reference in its decision making.

Brad Toland is a Birmingham area teacher, lawyer, and writer.  He operates the website

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David Sher is Co-Founder 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).

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