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Parkside Spotlight: Railroad Park

railroad park

The thing about Railroad Park is the space. It feels expansive, even though it’s really only a few city blocks. Its native grasses and streams manage to be both manicured and wild. Water drips across a landscape of wide lawns while train tracks highlight a charming city skyline.

We tend to think of it as the most integrated place in the city, not just racially but socioeconomically as well. With fitness classes and special events it’s almost equal parts outdoor community center and urban oasis. And for those who like the convenience of a running track but not the circular monotony, Railroad’s multiple paths and shifting views are a refreshing option.

Most events are both public and free, creating an enduringly democratic feel about the park. This is truly a space for everyone, and that feels like real growth in an oft-divided city. But what’s really generated attention for Railroad, of course, is the role it’s played in Birmingham’s revival. Consider the accolades:

2012 Urban Open Space Award Winner:

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.

USA Today’s 10 Best: Parks that have helped revive their cities:

Alabama’s largest city had been an industrial powerhouse that largely ignored its physical environment, [Urban Land Institute CEO Patrick] Phillips says. But this 19-acre park turned a former rail yard into a city showcase with outdoor event spaces, adult exercise areas, a central dining pavilion and high-quality design. “It’s an outstanding transformation.”

Thrillist’s 14 Coolest Urban Spaces (#7):

Once a weed-ravaged eyesore, Birmingham’s 19-acre Railroad Park now boasts nine acres of open lawns, a natural amphitheater, a 2-acre pond, and a series of undulating trails that will make that 3/4 of a mile loop feel like a lot more. If you really want to hit it hard, check out the Muscle Beach, California-style outdoor gym equipment. Or… you could always just sit in the grass and enjoy that free WiFi. Up to you.

Railroad is also helping create a more walkable lifestyle in the city, which may be its most important development contribution. Beyond getting folks out to sweat, it’s helped fill in some dead lands between areas north and south of the tracksa connectedness noted by both the Urban Space Award and Suzanne LaBarre for Co.Design. It’s made an area that you could walk through feel like a neighborhood you want to walk through. One that, as Parkside branding suggests, is best explored on foot.

Perhaps our very favorite part of the Railroad conversation, though, is the suggestion that Birmingham has embraced its own uniqueness. Instead of a sad-sack, downsized re-creation of innovation in bigger cities, Railroad Park has laid its own track: “At a time when several American cities want to build their own High Line, Railroad Park is an object lesson in how a small metropolis can create an affordable, valuable public park by exploiting the stuff it’s got instead of mindlessly aping the particulars of west-side Manhattan,” LaBarre opined.

But there are also folks suggesting we shouldn’t rest on our development laurels. The Birmingham Business Journal’s Ty West says now’s the time for another Railroad-level move, without the usual dance of dragging our feet. And we tend to agree. “It means we need to find a transformative project, idea or initiative that we’ve been talking about for years, build the necessary consensus and make it happen,” he writes. The only question is, where is it?

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