Since the day that David Hooks and I sat down over coffee to discuss a collaboration between Weld and the Edge of Chaos program David runs for the UAB School of Public Health, I have been excited to see it playing out in real time. I’m convinced that this partnership — six problem-solving sessions geared around Weld’s ongoing coverage of poverty in Birmingham — will prove to be beneficial to our readers and to the community at large.
My confidence in this process as it unfolds throughout the rest of this year and into 2015 is based in no small part on the approach to problem-solving that David has instituted at the Edge of Chaos with the support of UAB’s dean of public health, Dr. Max Michael. That approach centers on tackling our community’s “wicked problems” head-on. The term has its roots in sociology, referring to a problem that seems intractable because of the knot of long-lived issues and overlapping — and often conflicting — interests that lie at its heart.
Poverty is just such a problem. It is, in fact, the problem — in Birmingham, in much of the surrounding region and in Alabama as a whole. Poverty is so wicked that each installment of Weld’s series and the subsequent Edge of Chaos session that accompanies it treats a different area that affects, and is affected by, poverty — housing, education, employment, public health and wellness, for example — as a wicked problem in and of itself.
The subject of the current installment, which appears in this issue of our newspaper, is transportation. This is as critical a need and as thorny an issue as any in Birmingham, and has been so for decades, as reflected in the range of issues and perspectives that factor into this week’s transportation article. So great was the breadth and depth of those perspectives that I could not afford all of them proper attention even in the ample space allotted for the article.
For example, I left myself short of room to share some very pertinent comments from Stan Palla. The new executive director of one of my family’s favorite Birmingham destinations, Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, Stan also is an avid cyclist and outspoken advocate for bicycle-related issues and causes. Among those is Le Tour de Ham, a weekly Tuesday night “social” ride for bikers of all ages and abilities that takes in a revolving selection of local color and scenery. Lately, the ride has begun attracting as many as 100 or more participants.
And while there is no better spokesperson for the benefit of all things outdoors than the Freshwater Land Trust’s Wendy Jackson, Stan’s passion for cycling gives special meaning to his thoughts about bikes as a vital cog in a comprehensive regional transportation system. Talking about expanding bike share programs and the efforts underway through organizations like Bici Coop and Redemptive Cycles to do things like provide bicycles to homeless people and conduct classes in low-cost options for bike maintenance and repair, his excitement is apparent.
“I think the bicycle community needs to do more of that,” Stan told me. “It’s economic development in the most basic sense. For people in low-income areas, cycling is an empowerment opportunity. You can ride a lot of places in Birmingham.
“Bike lanes, bike shares, places to lock bikes — if we have these things in low-income areas, people in those areas are going to start riding,” Stan added. “It needs to be part of the design process for anything new. Birmingham has these nice, wide streets all over town, so there’s the opportunity to easily create more bike lanes just about anywhere we want to. And it’s cheaper to do it all at once than to go back and retrofit.”
Of course, the truly critical element in bringing a comprehensive transportation system to fruition also is funding — an area barely touched on in the current article. In our interview for the piece, Scott Douglas of Greater Birmingham Ministries offered a highly astute assessment of the Gordian nature of the perennial funding knot.
“The problem, ultimately, is the state of Alabama,” Scott said. “It’s hard to be a Nashville, Tennessee, or even a Chattanooga, let alone a Charlotte, North Carolina, when you’re located in Alabama.”
Scott’s point is that our state’s antiquated constitution mandates that gasoline taxes — of which Birmingham and Jefferson County send a disproportionate share to Montgomery — can be used only to build and maintain roads and bridges, and not to fund mass transit projects. In that way, our community subsidizes policies that work counter to both the immediate and long-term interests of Birmingham and the state’s other urban areas — an outgrowth of what Scott called “Alabama’s congenital birth defect” of allowing the state legislature to micromanage urban affairs.
“In other communities across the country,” said Scott, “public transportation is the linchpin of urban infrastructure. When it comes to giving people a range of options for getting from one place to another, our choice should not be ‘either/or,’ but ‘both/and.’ If the transportation infrastructure includes low-cost alternatives that are accessible to all users, then all types of users are going to access them.
“Our progress is inhibited by the state in which we reside,” Scott concluded. “Not just in transportation, but also in housing, education, public health. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make progress locally. We just have to work harder at it.”
Sounds about right. It’s not fancy, it’s not pretty, and it’s not all sunshine and roses. But in the end, instilling the dedication to do the hard work of citizenship — that of conceiving, planning and executing a vision for the future of Birmingham that is meaningful to every single citizen of our community — is the only and unavoidable recipe for solving Birmingham’s most wicked problems.
The next Weld/Edge of Chaos “Wicked Problem” session — on poverty and transportation — will take place at the Edge of Chaos facility, on the 4th floor of UAB’s Lister Hill Library. More details will be provided in this space next week.