Region 2020 is a bold and daring vision for the future of the Central Alabama region…[A region] that protects, preserves, enhances and conserves its natural resources…that actively supports and promotes cultural diversity…that provides superior educational opportunities for all citizens…that has an affordable, accessible, safe and efficient public transportation network…that is rich in strong, diverse, beautiful and safe neighborhoods, town and cities…that provides enhanced employment opportunities for residents of all ages… that fosters cooperation, promotes efficiency, shares resources and engages in regional issues while maintaining local identity…that is recognized for its loving, respectful and responsible citizens who work for racial harmony.
— from The Book on Region 2020 (1998)
During the fall of 1997, a series of public meetings took place at locations throughout a 12-county region with Birmingham at its center.
Ultimately, more than 5,000 people participated in the process, which organizers called Region 2020 — as the name suggested, an effort intended to provide a citizen-driven vision for central Alabama in the first two decades of the 21st century.
The ideas generated by this collective, town-hall-style expression of the public interest covered 500 sheets of 24 x 30-inch paper. These were displayed successively at each of the local meetings, added to and expanded upon at every stop, comprising a living document in the truest sense of the term. This document, in turn, was synthesized over several months into 217 strategies for achieving the community agenda identified by citizens. These were presented at a “Vision Fair” where members of the public used colored stickers to “vote” on their priorities among the action items printed on poster boards.
Finally, in the fall of 1998, Region 2020 presented a report centered on eight key focus areas identified at the Vision Fair: Government, Environment, Places and Activities, Economy and Jobs, Learning, Moving Around, Quality of Life, and Neighborhoods. Encompassing and overlapping these areas were 30 goals, along with strategies for achieving each, including specific action steps and a list of organizations whose involvement would be needed to accomplish each goal. The Book on Region 2020 billed itself as “a roadmap for the Central Alabama region.”
That was an ambitious statement. But fledgling though it was, Region 2020 was an effort of unprecedented scope and magnitude in Birmingham. It was given weight and effect by the people who conceived and advanced it, a group of established civic leaders, high-level professionals and subject-matter experts who took it on themselves to do something previous generations of like-minded people had mostly failed to do: Unite business, government and citizens behind a shared vision for Birmingham’s progress.
With its people-powered process and the release of the resulting “roadmap” for Birmingham and central Alabama, Region 2020 was aimed at nothing less than changing the way a fragmented community thought about itself and its future. The slogan that accompanied the plan’s release was both rallying cry and admonition.
So, let’s do it!
So, then, arise a few reasonable questions. Fifteen years after the Region 2020 process began, what has been done? Where has the roadmap led us? If we look at the Region 2020 plan as a report card of progress over the past decade-and-a-half, how does Birmingham fare? [NOTE: See report card I’ve prepared at the end of this post below.]
As might be expected, results in meeting the 30 original goals are a mixed bag of incremental progress — with, admittedly, some of the increments representing substantial steps forward — and disappointing stasis. If, as will be seen below, there is only one unqualified success, some comfort can be taken in the fact that only in a single area has failure been so abject as to qualify as regression.
The citizens who participated in the Region 2020 process identified three items as top priorities for moving Birmingham forward: Parks and green space, education and mass transit. Leaving aside education — in metro Birmingham as elsewhere, as mixed a bag of success and failure as there is — the other two items constitute the extremes of this community’s pursuit of the overarching vision of Region 2020, as encapsulated in the passage from the plan that begins this article.
Start with parks and green space, the single unqualified success mentioned above. Region 2020 called for “a safe, multi-purpose system of trails, greenways, natural areas and high-quality parks…integrated with roads and waterways.” The intervening years have seen planning and implementation of several large projects — development of Red Mountain Park, Railroad Park and the Jefferson County Greenway program — along with a host of municipalities — Hoover, Tarrant, Fultondale, Trussville, Homewood, to name a few — that have made the establishment, preservation and maintenance of parks and green space an integral part of their approach to current and future growth and development.
“The whole dialogue in that area has changed,” says Ann Florie, who was the executive director of Region 2020 from the organization’s inception until the spring of 2004, when she assumed her current position as executive director of Leadership Birmingham. “Nobody was talking about parks and green space 15 years ago, especially in a regional context. Now, almost everybody sees the importance of it, both as a quality of life issue and an economic development tool.”
The largest single “win” of all in the area of green space is one that happened just two weeks prior to this writing. On June 19, the city of Birmingham learned that it had been awarded a $10 million grant from the United States Department of Transportation. The grant will help repair tornado-damaged roads in Birmingham’s Pratt City neighborhood and significantly advance implementation of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley System, a 33.6-mile regional greenway and trail network spanning Jefferson County. The funds were awarded from the DOT’s discretionary TIGER program, with Birmingham among 47 communities nationwide to receive grants for this funding cycle, out of more than 700 that applied.
In terms of both the money itself and the cross-sector, multi-jurisdictional coalition that made it possible — three other municipal governments in addition to Birmingham supported the grant application, along with nine public, private and nonprofit entities — the immediate and potential impacts of the grant are substantial. According to another former director of Region 2020, the DOT grant rates as further validation of the citizen-driven process.
“The vision and process behind the TIGER grant traces directly back to Region 2020,” Guin Robinson declares. Now director of development for Jefferson State Community College, Robinson — also a former two-term mayor of Pell City — ran Region 2020 for 14 months that ended in December 2005. Robinson says the momentum generated by the process and sustained for roughly a decade by the organization “moved the ball” on parks and green space, and that “Region 2020 got that one absolutely right.”
At the other end of the spectrum is mass transit. Chief among the Region 2020 goals grouped under the plan’s “Moving Around” category was the call for “an affordable, accessible, safe and efficient public transportation network that includes dedicated highway lanes, light rail, buses and bike lanes and that is attractive, environmentally friendly and reliable.”
Fifteen years later, buses ply an ever-shrinking number of routes, serving an ever-shrinking number of riders. Bike lanes on urban streets and roadways are scattered few and far between, as are highway lanes that encourage carpooling and facilitate mass transit options. There is nothing that resembles a “public transportation network,” and all efforts to create one have fallen victim to the same vicious cycle of political turf battles, legislative lethargy, lack of interest from the corporate community and the absence of organized public demand for improvements.
I will not attempt to quantify this assertion here, but I am certain that it is a demonstrable fact that Birmingham has in fact regressed in the area of transit. That regression has been so severe, in fact, that any hope for substantial improvements in the near future — say, between now and 2020 — is but a glimmer.
“I don’t know how any of us could feel good about transit,” Robinson laments, speaking from firsthand experience garnered from six frustrating years as a member of the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority. His term on the board expired last fall, and Robinson does not attempt to hide his disappointment at being unable to prevent the continued decline of a cash-strapped system overseen by a dysfunctional board divided largely by race and the clash of urban and suburban political interests.
“We haven’t been able to do much about those divisions in the community,” Robinson says. “That one’s on all of us — especially those in leadership roles — and we can’t be the community we want to be until we solve it.”
What’s worse for the future of transit in Birmingham, the same vaguely despairing tone sounded by Robinson comes from other community leaders as well. Kate Nielsen is president of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the region’s largest grant-maker. Picking up the torch in the top priority areas identified by Region 2020, the foundation is supporting major initiatives in both parks and green space — including the TIGER grant — and education, where it works through the Birmingham Education Foundation to provide enrichment programs in the Birmingham City Schools.
Speaking to Nielsen, the sense emerges that the Community Foundation would like to take a similar role in addressing the transit issue. The challenge is in assembling the necessary coalition of public and private partners to make it work — and that’s before beginning to seek passage in the Alabama Legislature of all measures necessary to change the current system, including the makeup of the transit authority board. And then there’s the matter of funding.
“The problem isn’t transit,” Nielsen says. “Everybody wants it, or at least understands the benefits of it. The question is how you fund it. But to get at that, you have to address these overarching problems that have always made transit tough to deal with. And it touches on so many issues. Air quality. Access to jobs and healthcare. Strategies for addressing poverty.”
Florie readily acknowledges “missed opportunities” on transit as “my biggest disappointment” from Region 2020. But she contends that progress is possible as long as lines of communication remain open and parties remain willing to work together to find solutions. She shares Nielsen’s opinion that money is the primary obstacle to regional mass transit.
“It really is a funding source issue for the most part,” Florie says. “I think it’s important, the fact that now we can’t talk about transit without talking about education, health and fitness and so on. People are seeing the connections. The key is to keep them at the table, keep the conversation going.”
The Community Voice
Keeping the conversation going — “moving the conversation,” in another favored term of Florie’s — is what Region 2020, the organization, did best. Note the use of the past tense. Region 2020 no longer exists as an organization, having been folded into the Birmingham Business Alliance in 2009, when the BBA was created in the merger of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Development Board.
While the BBA has adopted some key elements of the Region 2020 plan — increased intergovernmental cooperation, educational improvements, workforce development, expanded cultural and recreational amenities — into its “Blueprint Birmingham” economic development program, there is not the grassroots engagement that Region 2020 brought to specific issues. The real question, Florie suggests, is whether progress is being made on the goals. Region 2020, she adds, was created to facilitate, not implement.
“Region 2020 was never intended to be a permanent structure,” she says. “Implementation takes a lot of resources. As a ‘visioning’ organization, all you can do is get the consensus from the community and create an atmosphere for advancing those priorities. You’re supposed to get things to a certain point, then hope that people with the wherewithal to implement them will pick them up.”
Both Florie and Robinson point to Blueprint Birmingham as an example of an organization “picking up” portions of Region 2020. Freely admitting their bias as onetime directors of the organization, they see the BBA blueprint as a validation of the whole process — a business organization adopting goals generated through the direct engagement of the region’s people.
Likewise, the Community Foundation has reoriented its grantmaking criteria into four key focus areas that Nielsen describes as “all linked in some way to the Region 2020 vision.” She says the ways in which the Region 2020 plan has evolved into initiatives undertaken by other organizations “validates the process” and proves that the work of Region 2020 “isn’t sitting on the shelf.”
“If what Region 2020 was supposed to accomplish was making the community voice heard, then it has been a huge success,” Nielsen says. “To the extent that we are listening to the public, collecting their desires and acting on them, then we have a very bright future. That to me is a legacy like no other.”
A Better Direction
So, where are we? What has and hasn’t been accomplished in 15 years? Was Region 2020 a success? A failure? Or, as the “scorecard” accompanying this article suggests, something in between, and hopefully still a work in progress?
“You have to look at things on a continuum,” Florie says. “The long-term nature of these issues is frustrating to people. Progress doesn’t just happen. It’s a process, and Region 2020 moved the needle.”
Guin Robinson is quick to tout the successes of Region 2020 and to point out how the organization’s work continues to influence progress in numerous areas, including neighborhood revitalization efforts, enhanced communications between elected officials, and even construction of the new Birmingham Barons ballpark adjacent to Railroad Park. But Robinson also agonizes over the missed opportunities and outright failures. Among others, he notes that one of the things citizens said they wanted in 1998 was less government — and that the region has more cities and more school systems now than it did then. In his view that means, “we’ve failed there somewhere as a region.”
“If we’re being honest,” Robinson says, “there’s no way to look back at the Region 2020 plan and say the results haven’t been mixed. But I think we’re headed in a better direction. We have some major problems that we can’t keep pushing down the road, but they are solvable. And in terms of a process for addressing those things, as well as the opportunities we have, Region 2020 provided the model.
“One of the things we don’t do very well as a community is celebrate our successes. We’ve got a ways to go, but this region is a better place today because of Region 2020. Maybe that’s something to celebrate as we move forward.”
The Report Card on Region 2020
The publication of The Book on Region 2020 in 1998 culminated a process that began the previous year. The objective of that process was the creation of a citizen-driven agenda for Birmingham’s future — a “roadmap for the Central Alabama region.”
Fifteen years after the Region 2020 process began, how does Birmingham measure up? How much progress has been made on the 30 goals set forth in the Region 2020 plan?
The “report card” below is based on my highly subjective review of each goal and the attendant action items for each.
Regional governance D +
Preservation of natural resources B –
Greenbelts, parks and trails A
Clean air and water C
Waste management C –
Places and Activities
Downtowns B +
Arts and culture B
Events and progress B
Economy and Jobs
Economic development C
Mentoring and training C
Jobs C –
Professional development in education C –
Educational curriculum D +
Technology and facilities for education B –
Mass transit F
Transportation infrastructure and facilities C –
Alternative modes of transportation D +
Quality of Life
Human and race relations B –
Health and wellness B –
Law enforcement, crime and safety B
Social services C
Family and parenting C –
Seniors B –
Youth C +
Neighborhood/town/city planning and design B
Housing C +
Leadership D –
Citizen involvement C +
CUMULATIVE GRADE: C +
As the overall grade suggests, Birmingham has made some significant, if rarely dramatic, strides forward since Region 2020 began in 1997. At the same time, our community continues to be held back by the same issues and obstacles that have crippled its progress for generations. There is much to celebrate and great cause for optimism, but also a tremendous amount of work to be done — particularly in those areas where little or no progress has been made to date.
The real question: Is Birmingham — a city traditionally resistant to transformational change — content with a C +, or do we have it in us to go for the A?