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Inventing Pratt: Urbanism in a New Key

Master of Landscape Architecture Students (MLA) in Adjunct Instructor Jacqueline Margetts Spring 2014 studio partnered with the City of Birmingham to explore options for tornado devastated Pratt City in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Located approximately six miles North West of Downtown Birmingham, Pratt, a historically African-American neighborhood, was already suffering economic decline before being ravaged by the April 2011 tornado. Although considerable effort has gone in to clearing the debris and securing funding to seed redevelopment, progress has been slow. This is due, in large part, to the fact that before the storm there was a significant lack of economic vitality, and the existing housing stock suffered from years of neglect and underinvestment. This absence of physical and economic resilience within the community  has exacerbated Pratt City’s struggle to recover from the tornado.

Given the extent of the damage current, it is unlikely that developer-led models of suburban development will occur. The challenge the MLA students were set was to explore alternative models that foster development that is equitable, sustainable and healthy, and improve the quality of life for residents.

Using a relatively new urban planning and design paradigm known as Landscape Urbanism, the students explored approaches that employed the urban landscape itself as the connective tissue that brings community, infrastructure, amenity and liveability together in a sustainable and adaptive way. Design scenarios were developed that promoted economic development opportunities at the intersections of environmental performativity, cultural capital and local entrepreneurship. Personal health through access to clean water, fresh air, fresh food, safe places to gather and walk were prime considerations in the design process, as was local and contextual ecosystem recovery.

The resulting designs ideas successfully addressed these challenges through interestingly diverse proposals including:

-a greenway linking key historical sites such as the old mine coke ovens;
-the harnessing of the productive capacity of the vacant lots for wine production;
-in organizing grid of pecan and other productive trees;
-the introduction of solar panels coupled with food production such as mushroom farms or goat rearing;
-the introduction of wind turbines to produce power and offer anchoring points to key community outdoor spaces;
-the re-centering of the community in the historic downtown area through the development of a water-cleansing plaza;
-the re-introduction of habitat strata;
-the prioritizing of pedestrian movement through the narrowing of roads and the introduction of sidewalks and pedestrian plazas;
-the provision of facilities for local small business entrepreneurs, research and education.

These proposals are currently being re-formatted by students into a publication and short video, both of which will be used by the City of Birmingham in their ongoing work with the Pratt community.