Railroad Park Unites Birmingham, Alabama

The park, which is part of a trend of turning urban, industrial spaces into green space, pairs a functional railroad with an amphitheater, walking trails, grassy lawns and more.

Flickr/Max Wolfe
Back in the 1880s, Birmingham, Ala., was a steel town nicknamed the “Pittsburgh of the South.” It was also home to the production of rails and railroad cars. Today, its steelmaking days are behind it. Instead, the city is repurposing itself with an economy based on services, health care and education. But the legacy of its more brawny past remains, and rather than hide it, the city has decided to embrace it.

Even as freight trains still rumble through the city day and night, Birmingham is honoring its industrial past and present in the form of a park. Aptly named Railroad Park, the 19-acre site was designed by renowned landscape architect Tom Leader to give visitors opportunities to watch the “industrial ballet” of freight trains as they pass by on a viaduct that abuts the park.

In many ways, Railroad Park is your classic, multipurpose green oasis in an urban environment, complete with grassy lawns, fountains, walking trails, a stream and more. On summer evenings, movies are shown or concerts by the Alabama Symphony are held at the amphitheater. But in one way, the park distinguishes itself. It is a trainspotter’s paradise. Visitors can sit and relax on a series of knolls along the viaduct, watching the trains up close as they glide by.

Park Executive Director Camille Spratling describes the place as a unifier -- and she means that both physically and symbolically. With Railroad Park as the anchor, plans are under way to develop a number of other open industrial spaces nearby, eventually giving Birmingham the most park acreage per capita in the U.S. “It’s a place where people of all walks of life in the city come together,” she says. More than 200,000 visitors have stopped by Railroad Park since it opened in 2010.

The park is part of a growing trend where abandoned urban, industrial spaces are reclaimed as parks. Examples include the High Line in New York City, the C&O Canal in Washington, D.C., and the Gasworks, a former coal gasification plant, on the shores of Lake Union in Seattle.

While Railroad Park embraces all that is new and trendy with urban parks, its gestation period has been long -- nearly 20 years, according to Spratling. It was also expensive, costing approximately $22 million to build, of which the city contributed about $7.5 million. Annual maintenance and security costs run upward of $1.2 million. But judging by the number of visitors and the glowing remarks posted on the park’s Facebook page, it may be worth the expense.

Railroads once tied this far-flung country together. It’s nice to see a park that celebrates their presence and unifies a changing city.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.