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AIA Design Assistance Team Addresses Short-Term Disaster Needs and Long-Term Demographic Shifts in Birmingham
The Pratt neighborhood of Birmingham had already experienced decades of deindustrialization and depopulation, but a devastating April tornado spurred residents to re-imagine their community with fresh eyes
By Ariella Cohen
Birmingham mayor William Bell is standing in a parking lot next to a roofless public library. The Pratt City library’s remaining cement wall is a bleak, fog-colored 1970s structure pocked with wounds from flying debris. The street has no sidewalks, and FEMA-supplied blue tarps familiar from photos of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina cover the rooflines of surrounding homes.
Andre Bittas, Birmingham’s director of planning, engineering, and permits, points to a debris-strewn lot that borders the library. “There will be a pocket park that connects a modern library with the community, and with a new greenway,” he says.
Bittas has reason to be optimistic. It’s the next-to-last day of a whirlwind AIA Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) planning activity that will produce a 144-page report on the opportunities that surround him in the tornado-ravaged Pratt City neighborhood. And the best part for Bittas: His boss, Mayor Bell, has already bought into the plan.
From the ground up
“We want to work with [the] AIA to focus our recovery with ecology in mind to build a friendlier, safer environment that will be better than what we had before,” Bell says.
Building a better Pratt means reimagining it from the ground up. April’s tornado destroyed 500 homes, displacing about 1,000 people from the historic, largely African-American community on Birmingham’s fringe. But while the tornado was the largest natural disaster to hit the area in generations, its impact was far less catastrophic than the slower moving storm of urban flight and deindustrialization that has transformed the Pratt community over the last 50 years.
Pratt City and the surrounding neighborhoods generally known as “Pratt” is a sprawling area north of downtown Birmingham with origins that trace back to Alabama’s earliest experiences with coal mining and steel production. Named for industrialist Daniel Pratt, the area developed in the early 1870s around Pratt company mines and massive hillside furnaces for cooking coal into coke, the fuel for making iron. By 1890, the promise of work had drawn 4,000 people—African-American and white—from across the South, Northern industrial centers, and Europe. Subdivisions of wood-frame homes sprang up in the hills and along a streetcar line known as the Carline. It was Alabama’s first boomtown.
That boom lasted until the 1950s, when the area's mines closed, leaving empty, hulking industrial buildings to stand watch over a newly unemployed workforce. While a still-sizable African-American middle class established the area as a base for Birmingham’s civil rights movement, many neighborhoods languished. Over the next several decades, the population of Pratt continued to shrink, and connections to the area’s mineral-rich hills and rivers eroded.
This transition transformed the neighborhood from a dense working-class community of steelworkers to a highway-laced sprawl of abandoned industrial sites and forgotten commercial districts. As people moved away and neighbors were separated by Route 78, new subdivisions were styled after the suburbs, but lacked the sidewalks, parks, and well-organized green space that make satellite communities inviting. This was the primary design challenge the team was organized to address.
“The steel industry defined the landscape, and a community grew around it,” says R/UDAT team member Roland Anglin, a planning and public policy fellow at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “People were forced there by economics, but because people make do, they have made this their home and they want to stay. Now the question is how to retrofit the landscape to make it more hospitable.”
Bucking the narrative
“The history and historical structures are there, but the narrative right now is of a poor declining industrial zone,” says R/UDAT team member Mark Shapiro, AIA, a principal at Mithun in Seattle. “We are hoping that by highlighting all the value that is there in these old structures and landmarks, we can attract young people, as well as people who grew up here but left for opportunities they didn’t see [in Pratt City].”
One of those people who left is Phoenicia Robinson, a fifth-year architecture student at Tuskegee University. Robinson’s grandmother and cousins still own homes in Pratt City, and she spent much of her childhood playing in neighborhood backyards. She, along with several other Tuskegee architecture students, returned to the neighborhood in October to be part of the AIA R/UDAT team. “It feels good to come back as a professional, listening to the community,” she says. “Last time I was here, I was at my family’s house. It was flattened. Gone. Now we are working with the community to make sure what is rebuilt is more sustainable, so everyone wants to come back.”
Robinson, like other members of the team, is keenly aware that rebuilding a more sustainable Pratt City will take time and patience that many displaced residents simply don’t have. It’s a clash that can have dire consequences. In post-Katrina New Orleans, many of the city’s working-class residents never returned because immediate needs were not addressed fast enough. While planners planned and city officials bickered over how to best use resources, residents found homes they could afford elsewhere.
Roderick Royal, the Birmingham City Council member who represents Pratt City, fears that could happen in his district. “I’m glad to see we are discussing plans and coming up with some excellent ideas, but what we need is housing for the working poor,” he says. The R/UDAT plan, “Rebuilding the Pratt Community,” addresses that tension by providing a blueprint for long-term recovery while offering short-term solutions, such as recommendations for obtaining federal resources and methods of engaging community members about their needs. The report also suggests forming a land bank to assemble disparate parcels of land for redevelopment. Vacant lots could be used as temporary tree nurseries, and unused medical facilities could be converted into a nonprofit one-stop health center with a pharmacy and mental health services. One of the report’s most important recommendations is the formation of the Greater Pratt Partnership, a group of community stakeholders who act as stewards of the sustainable rebuilding of Pratt.
Short-term or long-term, getting back to normal for Pratt City is going to require accepting a new normal. “Now children have to cross three of four lanes of traffic to get home from school,” Anglin says. “That should not be normal or accepted. This process gives residents a chance to re-imagine that.”
Read the AIA Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team report on Birmingham.
Check out the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team’s full roster of reports.
Visit the AIA’s Disaster Response website.
Visit the AIA’s Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team website.
Visit the AIA’s Sustainable Design Assistance Team website.
Visit the AIA’s Communities by Design website.
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