The latest Grand Plan To Bring Us All Together, the city of Birmingham’s Comprehensive Plan, is still coming together. But the organizers say that the process for the plan is right on schedule – and that this one has a fighting chance to succeed.
Launched last year, shortly after the regionally focused Blueprint for Birmingham, the plan aims at marshaling the voices of city residents from across the social and political spectra to speak to the Magic City’s future. If this comprehensive plan succeeds it will “improve the quality of life for everyone who lives in the city and will attract new residents to become part of our community,” as hopefully stated in a brochure touting the year-long planning process.
After several well-attended public meetings held in venues throughout the city since November, organizers have drilled down to a draft plan, which they presented in another public meeting on Saturday, August 25th at the Birmingham Museum of Art. The shapers of the plan presented a draft offering “Ten Game-Changing Strategies for the City’s Future.”
The strategies, broken down into five basic areas, are:
· People – Prepare students and workers for 21st century jobs through high-quality career education and a coordinated and responsive workforce development system. Reinvigorate the citizen participation process.
· Prosperity – Cultivate innovation: strengthen and promote Birmingham’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Capitalize on the city’s economic drivers by targeting life science, advanced manufacturing, and entrepreneurship.
· Place – Create transit-ready urban villages through investment in strategic neighborhood areas to make a visible difference. Invest in quality of life: design excellence, complete streets, marked bicycle routes, well maintained parks. Create and implement a Downtown Connections Plan to link all the attractions and neighborhoods in downtown.
· Partnership – End working in “silos:” cooperate, coordinate and collaborate across municipalities, communities, constituencies, institutions, agencies, and departments.
· Performance – Accelerate revitalization through a city redevelopment authority and land bank and a comprehensive property information system. Prepare an annual public report on progress implementing the comprehensive plan.
In addition to presenting the draft plan, organizers wanted to engage discussion, said Larissa Brown of Goody Clancy, the primary outside consulting agency hired to implement the planning process. “We asked people, both individually and then in discussions among the groups at their tables, whether they supported the recommendations or had questions,” Brown said. “We wanted to make it a real dialogue and not just be presenting things.”
The recommendations in the draft plan point to what the assembled citizenry believe Birmingham needs, what Brown calls “ four long-term but difficult and absolutely essential things”: improvement to public education, public transportation, revitalization of neighborhoods (including repurposing vacant properties), and jobs.
While the state of education in Birmingham remains a hot topic, not the least because of the state takeover of the public school system, the plan’s emphasis on education relates more particularly to its role in building a better city. “Our plan is not in itself an education plan,” Brown said. “We’re not experts on pedagogy and that kind of thing, but where education really connects with this plan is on the issue of workforce development and creating the workforce of the future for Birmingham.”
Birmingham already has important aspects of the kind of “knowledge economy” cities will need in the 21st century, Brown said. “That’s where the jobs are expanding.” Citizens who came together favor a school system which uses career education to prepare Birmingham students to take their place in that new economy. “For the next generation, you really have to train people to have jobs in the knowledge economy and also help them become entrepreneurs because that is also something that cities are particularly good at,” Brown said.
Another primary focus fell on neighborhood revitalization and redevelopment. “We talked quite a bit about some of the issues that are key to bringing back neighborhoods,” she said. Those issues included what to do about tax-delinquent and abandoned properties, and widespread support for a citywide redevelopment authority with control over a land bank and the authority to sanction code violations. An agency with the power to do something positive with blighted properties could improve the quality of life of the people living in Birmingham neighborhoods, Brown noted.
What’s next for the plan? “We’re very close to finishing,” Brown said. Feedback on the draft plan will lead to a final draft sometime next month, which will be made available for public review until a public hearing in November, a year after the effort launched. During the review, the plan will be available on the web (www.birminghamcomprehensiveplan.com) and through libraries and city hall. And there will be opportunities for the public to leave their comments on the proposals.
From there, the plan goes to the Birmingham Planning Commission, with the goal being for the commission to adopt it, and present it to the city council for the endorsement of the city’s governing body.
Then what? Does the plan go the way of other plans before it – that is, seemingly into oblivion? If you listen to Brown, this plan — The Plan — has a strong chance of succeeding.
For one thing, keeping the plan alive – that’s actually part of The Plan. The final draft will include recommendations detailing strategies and a timeline to put the plan to work. For instance, organizers of the effort want the city to put together a conference on revitalizing neighborhoods as early as 2013, and “to bring to Birmingham experts and grassroots leaders and people from around the country who are dealing with the same kind of problems.”
Other cities which have begun enacting their own plans have gained some traction, and that gives Birmingham access to models that work, Brown said. “There are success stories. There are good things happening around the country. Birmingham doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Another hopeful sign, she said, is that this plan does not depend entirely on government to get it done. It requires “partnerships between citizens and neighborhood groups and non-profits and a whole range of important interests in the city of Birmingham,” she said. That the plan has wide support across Birmingham’s divergent constituencies can be seen from the crowds which have turned out for the public meetings, including the most recent.
“It was a spectrum,” Brown said. “What was really striking was that it was very diverse in age – young people, some college students, young adults, middle-age people, older people. Diverse in age, diverse in race… A lot of people who had not necessarily been following this in great detail, I think, were pleased that we got a good turnout–particularly on a Saturday morning.”
Keeping the people engaged will help prevent the plan from falling into obscurity, organizers believe. “We recommend that there be a citizen’s group to meet a couple of times a year to talk about what’s happening in the implementation of the plan,” Brown said. “There should be annual public hearings before the planning commission,” and every five years, public meetings to reevaluate the direction of the planning process. And then, a new plan every 20 years.
There are already signs that people are ready to move the city forward, Brown said, citing the recent federal TIGER grant – obtained by a joint effort between city and regional interests – to build a trail system, not to mention Railroad Park, the new baseball stadium, and so forth.
“I think sometimes people don’t give themselves enough credit for the fact that things are happening. It takes time for things to be implemented. Some of these things we’re talking about in this plan are hard to fix… You can’t make that disappear in a year. But there’s no better time than now to start making the change.”
Nick Patterson edits Weld. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.