Today’s guest columnist is Thomas Spencer
I’ve run into a conflict of interest. Though, I think it’s better described as a confluence of interests.
As a public policy researcher in my professional life and as a hiker, biker, runner, history buff, and nature nut, I like public parks.
I like parks, trails, and greenspace because I enjoy using them. And I like them because they are good policy.
Need for expansion and sustainability of Jefferson County parks
In Jefferson County, we’ve made significant strides over the past two decades when it comes to establishing and expanding parks and greenways, but we need to take an additional step.
We need to make sure they are sustainably supported, and that future expansions are strategically planned and developed with sustainability in mind. I’m talking here about regional, large-scale parks, like Red Mountain Park, Ruffner Mountain, and Turkey Creek.
In 2017, on a research mission sponsored by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, I visited four cities that had taken different approaches to working cooperatively for the greater good of their communities. In all four communities, a regional approach to developing and maintaining parks was a cornerstone strategy for improving quality of life.
Charlotte, Louisville, Denver, Pittsburgh
In Charlotte, the director of the Mecklenburg County Parks Department showed off a GIS mapped inventory of existing parks and a strategic plan for improving existing parks and strategically developing new parkland where growth or redevelopment was occurring.
In Louisville, the Metro government was building the Louisville Loop, a greenway system connecting their existing Olmsted Parks with major new parks that serve as the centerpiece of new housing developments.
The City and County of Denver not only manages and strategically expands parks in Denver but also cares for a network of parklands bought and preserved in nearby mountain ranges.
Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, manages ten regional scale parks and works with non-profits and municipalities to maintain and expand regional trails and greenways.
Closer to home, Shelby County has made park development a centerpiece of its quality-of-life strategy. The County has 13 county-developed parks, ranging from community playgrounds and walking tracks in rural areas to large-scale nature parks.
Partnering with the state’s Forever Wild to acquire a total of 1,838 acres on the banks of the Cahaba River, the Shelby County Commission led the development of, and continues to maintain, Cahaba River Park near Helena, which has bathhouses, mountain biking trails, and river access points open to the public.
The Commission is also currently developing a 750-acre nature park, Double Oak Park, on the ridge of Double Oak Mountain off Dunnavant Valley Road. And Shelby County will also benefit from the Forever Wild 1,644-acre expansion to Oak Mountain State Park, the state’s largest park.
Check out Shelby County’s comprehensive planning process, and you’ll see that the county’s residents strongly support parks and outdoor recreation. The most popular form of desired future development was parks, trails, and recreational amenities, picked by 63% of survey respondents.
To support and maintain parks, the County uses lodging tax to support outdoor projects expected to draw visitors from outside the county, while devoting general fund money to support more local parks. According to County Manager Chad Scroggins, the county partners with municipalities and the state to help improve parks.
The Shelby County website and its tourism website, Discover Shelby, often feature shots of mountain bikes or wooded landscapes, advertising a lifestyle that draws visitors and new residents. Shelby County has added over 30,000 new residents since 2010. Jefferson County has experienced a net loss of about 10,000 since 2010.
Local support for parks
In the absence of a regional public support system for parks in Jefferson County, cities have stepped up, particularly Birmingham. Under Mayor Randall Woodfin and the current City Council, Birmingham has increased support for Red Mountain Park and Ruffner Mountain.
Homewood has partnered to contribute a significant share to support Red Mountain Park, while Irondale is contributing to Ruffner Mountain. Pinson partners with Birmingham-Southern College’s Environmental Center to help operate Turkey Creek in Pinson. In a nod to the importance of cooperating around these attractions that serve all the county’s residents, the Jefferson County Mayor’s Association recently contributed $5,000 to each of the three regional parks.
Over time, the various members of the Jefferson County delegation of the Alabama Legislature have contributed. In recent years, Sen. Jabo Waggoner and Rep. David Faulkner have obtained and increased support from the state General Fund budget for Red Mountain Park, which is a state-owned land and is significant in state history as the birthplace of Birmingham’s iron and steel industry.
Parks struggle for funding
In recent years, all three parks have struggled to pay for basic operations. Each relies on donors and member contributions, but it’s not feasible to fundraise for basic maintenance, security, and the administrative costs needed to keep parks open, safe, and attractive.
The three regional parks have developed a collaborative relationship and share resources and expertise, but the coalition needs a stable, reliable base of funding from committed public partners. Leadership from parks and supporters have been discussing how to structure and pay for that joint support system. They hope to start a broader conversation with political and civic leaders in the near future.
We need these shared outdoor spaces. We’ve always been good at exploiting our natural resources in Jefferson County.
We must appreciate how these restored natural landscapes can be cornerstones for a new century, improving our health, quality of life, and attractiveness for new residents and economic development.
Thomas Spencer is a senior research associate at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and serves on the Red Mountain Park Commission. He is also the author of Five Star Trails: Birmingham, a guidebook to hiking in Central Alabama.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. 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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