Railroad Park—2012 Urban Open Space Award Winner
October 18, 2012
About Railroad Park
Location: Birmingham, Alabama
Owned by: City of Birmingham and the Railroad Park Foundation
Designed by: Tom Leader Studio with Macknally Land Design, KVA, GA Architecture, HKW Associates, Khafra and Walter Schoel Engineering.
Why Railroad Park?
Urban open space is increasingly the embodiment of our common urban fabric. In a world where over 75 percent of the population is projected to live in cities by 2050, the economic well-being and the sustainable models of thriving communities worldwide will largely pivot on the interaction of these spaces with the communities they serve. Railroad Park is one of those spaces: a model of integration, participation, and urban regeneration that will reward generations.
Railroad Park occupies the historical seam created by a rail viaduct that bisects downtown Birmingham. The new topography integrates the train experience with a variety of new open-space activities that help organize and stimulate growth in the southern part of downtown while promoting connections north of the railroad.
The park is the culmination of a long process of consultation and participation, including a 2002 ULI Advisory Services panel considering the entire downtown, followed by a new downtown master plan that identified key initiatives for growth and improvement. A major downtown park emerged as a consensus for the site’s use that would help support development and much-needed connectivity in adjoining neighborhoods.
Early in the process, it was recognized that Birmingham owes its existence in part to the still active railroad lines that bisect the city center from east to west. Those lines—and the underdeveloped land that surrounded them—-offered a critical opportunity to provide a catalyst park for the city’s citizens. The park is a segment of what was known as the “Railroad Reservation”—a zone of rail sidings and warehouses attached to the 11-track rail corridor that served the steel-making industry. The site adjoins a 15-foot-high rail viaduct with active tracks, which provide the inspiration for the park’s name. City residents often look fondly on the rail as something positive and worth preserving as part of their culture. Its integration as part of the park experience offers that cultural recognition. Long lines of railcars rumble through town on this elevated platform at a slow speed, creating a 24-hour ambience similar to that of waves of rushing water. Often bridges over the rail corridor are lined with train spotters. In response, the park embraces the rail, not as a thematic element, but as a direct experience for park visitors.
Owned by the city of Birmingham and managed by the nonprofit Railroad Park Foundation, the park opened in the fall of 2010. During the park’s inauguration ceremonies, Will French, the foundation’s board president, described the park as a tangible example of the success that is possible when the public and private sectors work in partnership, in turn offering a beautiful park that will be enjoyed for years to come by the people of the city of Birmingham and the greater Birmingham region. Indeed, Railroad Park has coalesced since its inception as a place for the community to play, rest, and refresh itself. As a gathering place, it has become an iconic cultural reference facilitating community celebrations, festivals, and markets. Its presence is providing not only a cultural healing to the perceived fracture of downtown, but also a physical regeneration with a unique development environment in which new neighborhoods, both residential and commercial, can be created along its northern and southern boundaries.
The park’s designers, Tom Leader Studio, faced several challenges in a site that was the lowest-elevation area in the city, originally home to a marsh that was filled in for warehouses and railroad track sidings. Topography became the central means of accomplishing the integration of tracks, function, and landscape organization. The south side was excavated for a new lake, which functions as an irrigation reservoir and a stream system that biofilters runoff. The lake creates a major reservoir on site for irrigation needs and brings a cooling, recreational presence to downtown, complete with canoes and paddleboats. The fringes of the lake filter water as it passes through the park to a flood-storage low point at the west end. Each major pathway the stream encounters generates a check dam, weir, and wetland pond storage that gently descend the length of the park. The excavated material from the lake was used to create a series of large knolls on the north side of the park next to the rail, thus allowing views of the trains, music festivals, and the platform and exercise circuit. The rail trail connects these knolls with a series of bridges to create a continuous elevated train-watching platform.
The design highlights the critical role that landscape architecture plays in the creation of reinvigorating open urban spaces, a practice that harmoniously engages art and social service. The park has become the most diversely used space by all area communities. Its establishment as a heavily used iconic space in the city and its beneficial engagement with surrounding areas by generating development reflect Railroad Park’s success as an integral driver of urban living.
- Health: Health programs hosted five nights a week during the warmer months, funded by BCBS Alabama.
- Economic Generator: The Park gave rise to site acquisition and design of a minor league ballpark at the west end.
- Urban Planning: The University of Alabama has updated the campus master plan to encourage new growth of the campus north to Railroad Park, recognizing the new ballpark. A green corridor from the campus to the park is envisioned.
- Education: Railroad Park is the site of educational tours and has received a Cahaba River Society Sustainability award for storm water treatment.
- Cultural Events: The Park is the location of numerous arts events including the Alabama Symphony, Relax by the Tracks Jazz concerts, and Sunset Cinema outdoor movie nights. Prize2theFuture launched an online contest to transform one city block next to the park.