The dogwood trees are in in full bloom now. And so, it would seem, is the city in which they have taken root. As the Magic City revival continues, many wonder is it sustainable? What can be done to keep the momentum going in a responsible manner and with an eye fixed towards future horizons?
On a rainy Friday afternoon, Mayor William Bell addressed a crowd of about 100 people at the Abroms-Engel Institute for Visual Arts on the UAB campus. The crowd had gathered to hear the mayor’s vision for a sustainable Birmingham.
During the meeting, Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating (STAR) Communities presented Birmingham with a 3-star rating for the sustainability efforts that have taken place here. The national non-profit that works to evaluate, improve and certify sustainable communities has recognized only 26 other cities in the country.
“When we think of sustainability, we think in terms of silos and things of that nature,” Bell said. “But the true goal of sustainability is to get it to seamlessly mesh within the planning process of the city — how we grow our cities, how we grow our communities so that, really, sustainability becomes almost invisible.”
But what exactly is sustainability and why is it important?
“Sustainability is a big word and it can mean a lot of things and it can be kind of complicated,” Hilari Varnadore, the executive director of STAR, said during Friday’s meeting.
The idea behind STAR, Varnadore explained, was to set up a national standard for sustainability that could be measured in cities and used to track progress being made.
“We knew there was a need for a common framework for sustainability and a need for standardized metrics,” Varnadore said, gesturing to a slide on the screen behind her.
STAR uses seven main objectives to measure the sustainability of a community: Built Environment; Climate and Energy; Economy and Jobs; Education Arts and Community; Equity and Empowerment; Health and Safety; and Natural Systems.
Varnadore indicated that sustainability can mean many things, but, perhaps most importantly, she continued, it means maintaining the health and well-being of a community for generations to come. Birmingham, she said, is well on its way to being a model community for the future. However, issues over environmental conservation and city planning are ever-present and, according to the report, the city will need to be careful if it is to become truly sustainable.
Rhythms of the river
Mitch Reid has dedicated his life to the rivers of Alabama. As program director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA), he believes rivers are the lifeblood of progress. Without access to clean, drinkable water, he explained, progress will come to a screeching halt.
“We work on statewide policies that protect the rivers and work on long-term sustainability,” Reid said. “[On] the other side of the house we connect people who care about and use the rivers in various watersheds so that we have a common voice, particularly if we are working on policies down in Montgomery.”
It may come as a surprise that roughly 14 percent of the fresh water that flows out of the United States comes through Alabama and the Mobile water system. It may also come as a surprise that Alabama does not have any statewide water management plan or regulatory bodies to control the flow of water in Alabama Rivers.
“The biggest priority for the [ARA] is getting Alabama to adopt a statewide sustainable water management plan,” Reid said. “We don’t currently have a system in place that manages the way that we use our water. In other words, if you want to take water out of a river or dam a river for water use it’s basically a first-come, first-serve system.”
The only prohibition in place, Reid explained, is a law that says you can’t “reasonably hurt someone downstream by damming the river.” But it can often involve confusing litigation and legal proceedings to determine what constitutes reasonable harm. It is without a doubt, he added, a very dated system of maintaining the river systems in Alabama.
“Also if you don’t have property that touches the river, you don’t have a lawful right to that water,” Reid continued. “That has huge implications for the city of Birmingham.
“Currently the city of Birmingham has several water supply reservoirs that they take water out of…the Black Warrior River and the Cahaba to name a few,” Reid said. “But by taking that water and selling it to a customer, that technically becomes an unlawful use of water and that use is not protected. Frankly, the water use of the citizens in the largest city in the state is not protected.”
Basically Alabama is operating with an old horse and buggy set of laws made when people could not contemplate using all the water in the river, Reid continued.
The idea of having a sustainable river system is relatively new, at least here in Alabama.
Putting a dam in a river and holding the water so you can have something to drink during a time of drought will kill a river, Reid explained.
During the early 1900s, this was the mindset of those living in Central Alabama, when the Coosa River was dammed leading to one of the largest extinction events in modern history. Over 40 different species vanished as a result.
“We’ve learned a lot over time just how our actions can impact the natural world, from the quality of air to how we use the land,” Reid said. “During the 1900s, there was this feeling that the rivers and streams were loafing and they needed to be put to good use and put them to work.”
This led to an exponential increase in dams around Birmingham and throughout the state. The health of the rivers throughout the state were impacted by this constricted flow. For Reid, it’s about striking a balance between using the rivers while allowing them to maintain their natural rhythms.
What does sustainability mean to Reid? “Sustainability means two things to me,” he said. “First, it means you are using that natural resource in a way that doesn’t cause it to go away over time and can be enjoyed indefinitely. The second thing I think it means is having balance. You can have a system where you’re holding water — and we use that for a lot of different things — but having a bunch of cisterns and dams is a very narrow view of sustaining a natural resource,” he said.
Reid drew parallels between sustaining a river system and sustaining a community as a whole.
“I have concerns over the Birmingham region,” Reid said. “If we want to continue to live by these rivers, we need to make changes in how we develop our communities. … We need to really think about how we live in this world.”
And that all starts, he said, with making sure Birmingham has a sustainable source for drinking water, not just for today, but for generations to come. Reid brought up the controversy over the proposed 1,773–acre coalmine at Shepherd Bend that would be located on the Black Warrior River near the intake for Jefferson County’s drinking water.
Whereas he understands the reliance that modern society has on extracting materials, Reid said, “Mining is an enormously disruptive practice. You’re taking the land apart to extract the resources. When you do that, there is an enormous amount of waste. Mining practices in general are problematic and need to be looked at from a completely different eye. If we are going to mine, how do we do it responsibly?”
This issue, he said, will have a huge impact on Birmingham’s future sustainability for generations to come.
Despite the sense of guarded optimism over Birmingham’s sustainability efforts from environmentalists, the mood at Friday’s address was celebratory.
Birmingham shares three-star status with cites such as Cleveland, Atlanta and Indianapolis, which places it in the middle, below the two higher tiers of STAR rankings, 4- and 5-star ratings. Only two cities, Seattle and Northampton MA, have reached 5-star ratings. The scoring is based on seven main categories, with a total of 44 “objectives” that cities are graded on.
The Birmingham report indicated that there was still plenty of room for improvement. Even though Bell spoke about the significance of Birmingham’s “Comprehensive Plan,” the city received no credit (0/10) for the Comprehensive Planning portion of the evaluation.
The city also scored low on Climate and Energy, receiving only 10.3 points out of 100.
Last week’s sustainability address came two days after the clean air advocacy group, GASP, had the appeal over their challenge to ABC Coke’s operating permits thrown out by the Jefferson County Department of Health.
GASP opposed the Title-V operating permit JCDH issued to ABC Coke. GASP contends that the coke plant’s discharge of airborne byproducts is affecting the health of citizens who live near the foundry.
The debate during monthly board meeting got heated at times. GASP’s attorney was escorted out of the meeting after repeatedly interjecting during the board’s discussion about their course of action.
Stacie Propst, executive director of GASP, issued a statement after the meeting, saying, “The Board of Health ignored the legal merits of our complaint and once again missed an opportunity to reduce Birmingham’s air pollution and improve the health of everyone who lives and works in Jefferson County.”
“Birmingham continues to rank as one of the worst cities in the nation for air quality,” Propst continued. “GASP intends to hold the Jefferson County Department of Health and the Board of Health to account for actions that are clearly in the best interest of industrial polluters at the expense of the health and well-being of the public they serve. Everyone deserves clean, healthy air to breathe.”
Board of Health chair Jennifer Dollar said at the meeting that the appeal has been considered and the board had already heard arguments on both sides. The board voted to toss out the appeal and side with the JCDH appointed hearing officer James Hard IV, who accepted ABC Coke’s “Proposed findings, conclusions of law, and recommendation.”
Representatives of ABC Coke declined to comment.
During Friday’s sustainability meeting, several people in the audience asked the mayor about some of the initiatives being taken by the city to ensure clean air for future generations.
“We’ve been working with the [Environmental Protection Agency] as it relates to some of our air quality concerns,” Bell said. “Birmingham has made a tremendous amount of progress over the last few years. We’re looking at having more conversations with the private sector to let them know we are all in this together.”
He also briefly spoke about Birmingham’s dismally low recycling rates.
“We want to make sure whatever we do is consistent with Birmingham and we make sure we have a plan that I sufficient for our needs,” Bell said, adding that there will be a newly formed Solid Waste Authority, a five member board tasked with coming up with solutions for Birmingham’s trash.
Perhaps on a more positive note, Birmingham scored highest in the Health and Safety section (47.5/100) and the Economy and Jobs section (42.7/100). Within those categories, Birmingham nearly had a perfect score (18/20) in Business Retention and Development. The flocks of construction cranes looming over the Birmingham skyline perhaps can attest to this recent upswing in business development.
What’s needs to be done?
Julie Price was all smiles after Friday’s meeting. Not only was she excited about the 3-star rating, she was glad she made it through another Earth Week without a hitch. It’s been a busy week for her and her team, she said.
Price is the coordinator of sustainability at UAB, and her team focuses on not only helping make UAB and the community operate more efficiently, but also raising awareness about what it means to live responsibly and sustainably.
So how sustainable is Birmingham right now?
“There are things that we could certainly do better,” Price said, mentioning the lack of public transportation. “But we are one of the greenest cities in the nation in terms of green-space percentages.”
The fact that the city put in the time and effort to complete the STAR report and participate in the sustainability audit is a step in the right direction, Price said.
“If you don’t know where you need improvement, you’re just shooting in the dark,” she added.
“I think the most important change that needs to happen, is making people aware of this issue and their own resource use,” Price said. “We want people to know that we can meet our current needs without impacting the needs of future generations, whether that be pollution or water resources or making sure we have enough trees left.”
Price said that green spaces like Railroad Park and other planted areas downtown have contributed to a renewed sense of pride in Birmingham, one that she believes is contagious.
“We just have to make sure that during those efforts, we’re not creating challenges for lower income communities,” Price said.
Price explained that she believes that in order to be truly sustainable, Birmingham’s transportation system needs to be restructured so that everyone can have access to public transit.
“It’s very automobile oriented,” Price said. “We have all these separate communities around the Birmingham area that aren’t really connected and rely on using cars to get to where they are going. Then there is the problem that many low-income families can’t afford vehicles.”
As sustainability efforts begin to gain more traction and the cranes of progress continue to circle the Birmingham skyline, Reid said the most important thing people can do is get back in touch with the natural world, a world that lies just beyond the bustling city center.
“We have so many natural wonders around here,” Reid said. “If people just go to the river, put their toes in, enjoy it, remember what it’s like to be in nature, I think this will go a long way towards people wanting to fight for it. Not just for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren to enjoy some day.”