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Cross to Sloss: Re-stitching the Magic City

Cross to Sloss cocer

Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, was given the appellation ‘Magic City’ in consequence of its rapid population growth during the height of the industrial boom early last century. At this time Birmingham was a dense, vibrant city nestled in the Jones valley with an economy largely fueled by the iron and steel industries. An extensive railroad system facilitated population growth and industrial development. The latter part of the twentieth century saw the economy diversify and with this also came shifts in population. Starting most noticeably in the 1960s the city commenced spreading beyond the confines of the central valley over the largest ridges and into smaller adjacent valleys and rural areas. As suburbanization took hold the central city lost much of its population and associated investment, throwing the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods into decline.

Recently, however, Birmingham is experiencing a rebirth. Investment has started to flow back into the downtown area and demand for lofts and condominiums has increased. There are expanded dining, retail and entertainment options along with a considerable new investment in parks (most notably Railroad Park), and sports facilities such as the Crossplex and the new baseball stadium. Another key initiative is the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System. This massive network of bike lanes, sidewalks and greenways aims to re-stitch Jefferson County back together while promoting healthy heart communities.

Auburn University's Master of Landscape Architecture first year students took up the challenge to design a portion this trail system. Students investigated potentials for a part of the trail we fondly named ‘Cross to Sloss’ - the section of the trail system that runs from the Crossplex, located in Birmingham’s Five Points West, past Railroad Park and the Sloss Furnaces, through Avondale into Avondale Park. This part of the trail travels through a wide range of situations including struggling neighborhoods, long stretches of abandoned structures and decaying infrastructure. It also, however, runs close to the Princeton Baptist Medical Centre, thriving parks, historical landmarks and neighborhoods that are rapidly revitalizing.

Students used one of two design methodologies; the first we call Generative Cartography, a method where by design is generated through the creation and interrogation of maps, and the second, Assemblage, a technique which re-combines components of complex systems to create new conditions. These approaches were used to examine the diverse conditions that play out in the urban fabric of Birmingham in order to develop a set of design interventions along the proposed trail. Social, ecological, historical, geographical and infrastructural conditions were examined. The deep understanding of the city students developed enabled them to identify opportunities and provide inventive, relevant design proposals to help propel Birmingham’s revitalization efforts.

The students explored ways of designing intensive, strategic landscape interventions that anchor and focus specific points along the trail and act as a mechanism for facilitating change. These designs aim to provoke new thinking about strategies to re-link areas of the city which have become disconnected by ongoing population movement, and to explore ways to leverage the recently secured Tiger Grant investment in communities by not only promoting healthy heart activities but by also creating economic catalyst opportunities along the trail.

Gallery of Student Images