Forty years ago this October, a dedicated group of neighborhood leaders banded together to preserve a small patch of land on the slope of Ruffner Mountain in east Birmingham.
Today, Ruffner Mountain has grown into one of the largest urban preserves in the United States – drawing visitors from across the region to hike, bird watch and enjoy nature in our city, which lies at the very foot of the Appalachian Mountain chain.
It was the beginning of Birmingham’s modern urban conservation and open space movement.
That movement has played a part in transforming what was one of the most industrialized cities in the South into a place that’s beginning to be recognized for something quite different: a place of amazing natural beauty and biological diversity. But it is in the last decade that one can truly see how parks, greenways and open spaces have changed the game in the Magic City.
Consider just a few of the many “green” developments in Jefferson County in just the last 10 years:
- Through the work of many committed organizations, nonprofits, foundations, public agencies, progressive companies and inspired individuals, we’ve witnessed the creation of Railroad Park, Red Mountain Park and the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve.
- We’ve seen the first phases completed of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail network, which is being coordinated through the Birmingham-based nonprofit Freshwater Land Trust. The Red Rock will eventually connect cities across the county with walking and bike paths and sidewalks.
- We’ve celebrated the completion of the Rotary Trail downtown and the opening of the High Ore Line, which will soon connect west Birmingham and Midfield to Red Mountain Park. (All part of the “Red Rock” network.)
- We’ve seen small cities like Tarrant and Center Point, Brookside, Gardendale and Fultondale make tremendous progress on their portions of the Five mile Creek Greenway in north Jefferson County, while Birmingham works to build portions of the Village Creek Greenway through multiple neighborhoods, from East Lake to Norwood to Ensley and farther west.
- Soon, we will see the extension of the Vulcan Trail to Greensprings Highway, where spanking new sidewalks provide a safer path to walk from Glen Iris and George Ward Park all the way to Homewood.
- A little farther south, the Shades Creek Greenway will soon connect to the Jemison Trail in Mountain Brook, with plans to extend it west toward Red Mountain Park, the Shannon-Oxmoor Valley and Ross Bridge.
Add to the list of accomplishments Birmingham’s ZYP bikeshare program, which in its first full year beat projections for the number of people paying for annual memberships.
Birmingham in the lead
Recently we’ve seen three additional, notable developments, which can help our region further capitalize on the multitude of benefits borne from parks and green spaces:
First is the designation of the new Civil Rights National Monument in downtown Birmingham, including historic Kelly Ingram Park. It is where our Civil Rights Trail starts and now extends all the way to Smithfield, and up “Dynamite Hill” to Enon Ridge.
Next is the launch of the “B Active Plan” by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. The goal: to create a truly regional pedestrian and bicycle transportation plan, encompassing all of Jefferson and Shelby counties as well as portions of Blount and St. Clair counties. You can learn more and participate in its creation by going to b-activeplan.com.
Third and not least, there’s a growing movement among all our major regional parks, preserves and outdoor attractions to work more closely together. They are finding ways to share resources and complement each other’s programming. And they are beginning to explore how all our parks and greenways can be funded in a more sustainable way, for generations to come.
Progress yet to come
Long-term funding is perhaps the greatest challenge in truly fulfilling the potential of our outdoor attractions and green spaces, considering the work that still lies ahead in creating a truly connected and unified regional park and greenway system.
But that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating the tremendous achievements so far. We should be proud how our community has used its ingenuity, its creativity and vision to make Birmingham a greener, healthier place.
Parks and preserves, trails and greenways are increasingly important to making our region attractive to young people, and to the entrepreneurs who are the lifeblood of urban growth. Our green places are also raising property values, and spurring quality development and redevelopment.
Parks and trails also can help reduce crime by putting more eyes on the street. Most important, they build pride for our communities, encouraging people from all across the region to gather, interact and exercise in our wonderful green spaces.
So, show your love for our growing green movement. Visit and support your favorite park or preserve, be it Ruffner Mountain or Turkey Creek, Red Mountain Park, the Birmingham Zoo, or Vulcan Park and Museum – or so many others that our community is blessed to have and enjoy. You can also help keep the green movement moving by supporting one of our local land conservation organizations. Together, we can continue to make the Birmingham region a greater, greener, healthier and more prosperous place.
Michael Sznajderman serves on the board of Ruffner Mountain and is a former board chair of the Freshwater Land Trust.