A green investment

New park brings more than just an amenity to Titusville

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on April 11, 2021.

by Sydney Cromwell

The lot at the corner of 3rd Avenue South and Omega Street South has laid bare and brown for years, except for the remnants of a burned home. This spring, it is being seeded with the hope of a new green amenity for the Birmingham neighborhood of Titusville.

This new park is being developed as a space for nature, leisure, art and learning — and Titusville Development Corporation (TDC) Director of Housing Archie Hill wants it to be the first of many across the neighborhood and other Birmingham communities that need them.

BLIGHT TO BLOOMING

Vacant, condemned and dilapidated properties are scattered across North and South Titusville and Woodland Park. They’re an eyesore for neighbors, a drag on property values and a deterrent to potential new homeowners. 

“How do we make these things look pretty and make it an amenity for the community?” Hill asked. He said that many of the lots, which originally held narrow “shotgun” houses, are now considered too small or oddly shaped to build modern homes, limiting development possibilities.

TDC Executive Director Ron Bayles said Titusville was considered one of the most blighted communities in Alabama in 2009. That kind of legacy takes years to counteract, even with the work of the Land Bank Authority and recent residential and commercial investments.

Using blighted properties for pocket parks, walking trails and other greenspaces was recommended by the Titusville Community Framework Plan, developed in 2015 after a series of meetings with residents. Making that idea happen, however, isn’t a walk in the park.

  • Volunteers carry pots of native plants to the park.
  • Volunteers dig out a concrete retaining wall, which will be covered with rock rubble.
  • Two men move a sapling from a truck bed onto the park site.
  • Two young girls move a wheelbarrow full of debris out of the park.
  • Two women move potted shrubbery that will be planted at the park.
  • Four people use shovels and rakes to clean a layer of mud off concrete.
  • A row of saplings wait to be planted along a roadside.

Hill said the TDC has wanted to work with Cawaco Resource Conservation & Development environmental specialist Francesca Gross on a new greenspace for several years, but it took time to get grant funding from the Housing Affordability Trust, purchase the property from the Land Bank and develop a team with the expertise and funding to see it through.

“We were able and very blessed to get some money to do an experiment,” Hill said.

Gross said many people think of environmental conservation as something that only happens “outside city limits,” but it is just as critical in urban neighborhoods that don’t have access to greenspace. In addition to Titusville, she has worked in places like Woodlawn and Goldwire “trying to bring conservation and community development together in communities that usually don’t have the resources to do that.”

The TDC is working with Gross, landscape architect Jane Reed-Ross and UAB, as well as donated materials from landscapers. The corporation had a budget of $15,000 to create the park, Hill said, but without those donations the cost would have been at least double.

“We’re going to be a collage, a mural of materials,” he said.

The park’s plans will use the existing topography of the lots at 314 and 320 3rd Ave. S., now merged into one. One of the lots is triangular and has a historic marker currently on the site, which will be set reset upright. Here, the TDC is installing seating and a gravel path.

The second lot, where a burned home used to sit, will have native plants, including wildflowers and pollinator-friendly species, and walking space. Gross said they are hoping to install a sculpture by local artist Willie Williams Jr., display space for artwork and a mapping project by UAB students, which will highlight historic spots in Titusville for visitors.

“It’s designed to function as many ways as possible and reach the diversity that exists in the community.”

Ron Bayles, Titusville Development Corporation executive director

“It is a symbol of hope for the residents. We don’t have, really, a great park,” Hill said. Memorial Park is also in the neighborhood, but there is “nothing else that’s an amenity, so to speak,” he said.

Hill said he wants the new park to have something to offer to all of Titusville, from an outdoor classroom for its youngest residents to a gathering place for its oldest and a mental health benefit for everyone. The park is within walking distance of the TDC’s senior housing units and a few blocks away from Washington Elementary School.

“It’s designed to function as many ways as possible and reach the diversity that exists in the community,” Bayles said.

Their design also includes long-term sustainability, from choosing low-maintenance species to finding help from students, neighborhood captains and others to keep the park maintained and litter-free.

Once this park is completed in May, Hill said he already has his eye on a second lot across the street. He would like to develop as many as four or five in Titusville, each with a different design such as a meadow or an orchard. The TDC is also working on creating raised garden beds at another spot in the community, Hill said.

“Every March, we hope to open up a pocket park,” he said.

Then, Bayles and Hill want to take what the TDC has learned from the project and spread it to other neighborhoods.

Many of Birmingham’s neighborhoods have a Community Framework Plan, or are in the process of developing one, but not all have an equivalent of the TDC to fund and initiate projects, Bayles said. Without a driving force, the community needs voiced in those plans can languish on paper.

“A Titusville Development Corporation is always needed, we feel, in order to push things forward,” Bayles said.

  • A vacant lot, as seen from the street.
  • A side view of the vacant lot, which was formerly the site of a burned home.
  • The lot as seen from the road during a service day, with people at work and landscaping ready to be installed.

THE IMPORTANCE OF AN URBAN PARK

Pocket parks like the one on 3rd Avenue South offer more than just recreation and aesthetics, Gross said. They can provide a number of health and infrastructure benefits for communities that need it most.

Cities and suburbs are full of impervious surfaces: buildings, roads, parking lots, driveways and other “hard” materials. These surfaces absorb and retain heat, creating “urban heat islands” where temperatures are several degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas.

With UAB’s Lister Hill Center for Health Policy, Cawaco and the Nature Conservancy’s Alabama chapter, Gross recently completed the Cool Green project to study ways to replace those hard surfaces with green infrastructure like rooftop landscaping, parks, permeable pavement, rain gardens and bioswales.

The Cool Green project mapped the density of the tree canopy across Jefferson and Shelby County and found that the places with the fewest trees also did not cool off as much at night, letting the heat linger with little relief. Most of downtown Birmingham, including Titusville, is included in these literal hotspots.

That heat does more than just run up air conditioning costs — in summer, the difference of a few degrees can be dangerous. Urban heat islands increase the risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, and the temperatures can also worsen the symptoms of other health conditions.

“Trees are just an easy, natural solution.”

Francesca Gross, Cawaco Resource Conservation & Development

Birmingham’s air quality is also worsened by heat, combined with pollution from cars, heavy industry and other sources of emissions. Certain unhealthy chemicals, like ground-level ozone, usually reach peak levels on hot, sunny days.

While hard surfaces in cities absorb too much heat, they can’t absorb enough water, leading to flooding issues when it rains.

Rather than soaking into the ground, rainwater flows down streets to the nearest stormwater drain, carrying pollutants with it into local streams. However, Gross said that like many industrial cities, Birmingham’s stormwater infrastructure is old, leaky and not equipped for its current population size, which leads to temporary flooding when the rainwater can’t drain quickly enough. City of Birmingham Senior Planner Donald Wilborn said some of Birmingham’s stormwater and sewer lines were installed at the turn of the 20th century, around 100 years ago. He said repairing stormwater sewers in the city usually happens either when developers are building on or renovating a property, or when the condition of a particular pipeline is “so critical that we’ve had no choice but to replace that system.”

“Most of the stormwater system in downtown is sort of ancient, that we do have some ongoing projects to try to either replace some of our stormwater or our sewer lines, but usually that’s going to be tied to development,” Wilborn said.

The worst effects of urban heat and flooding tend to be seen in low-income and minority neighborhoods, where infrastructure and greenspace have not been funded or prioritized for decades. Fixing these shortcomings is an inequality issue as much as it is a health and safety issue.

“If you put a map of the redlining in Birmingham with a map of the tree canopy, … it matches up almost exactly,” Gross said.

Gross said intentional use of tree planting and green spaces can help mitigate all of these urban environmental problems.

Any place with “soft” soil surfaces instead of hard asphalt or concrete is going to reflect less heat and absorb more water, reducing the heat island effect. Trees also offer shade and reduce air pollution as they absorb and filter particles and gasses in the air.

“Trees are just an easy, natural solution,” Gross said.

Bioswales, which are plant-filled channels designed to contain, slow and absorb stormwater, can reduce flooding events and the strain on outdated stormwater sewers.

Gross said the same hurdle blocks the way for both stormwater sewer repair and green infrastructure: funding, and the political will to make that funding a priority.

“Some of that has to do with not having the money to invest in trees and infrastructure. It’s usually more immediate needs that are taken care of,” she said.

That’s why Gross wants the new Titusville park to be a pilot project to build enthusiasm from the city and neighborhood groups for more use of green infrastructure across Birmingham, especially the “Green Opportunity” areas identified during the Cool Green project. These are areas that have high risk for urban heat, flooding and air quality problems but also have space for potential planting projects, including several neighborhoods in West Central Birmingham, North Birmingham, Avondale/Woodlawn, Wahouma, Tarrant, Ensley, Fairfield and Bessemer.

Wilborn said the city is currently considering ways to incorporate more green stormwater infrastructure and revisions to its tree ordinance to encourage more beneficial species. He said they are also in the “beginning phases” of working with neighborhood associations and other organizations to plan, fund and maintain other park and landscaping projects.

“We have a large number of vacant and tax-delinquent lots in our city, and trying to see how we could use trees on these lots to reduce the need of the city to come back in and do periodic lawn cutting and mowing of these vacant lots,” Wilborn said.

PART OF THE WHOLE

Bayles and Hill expect the new park to be “really beautiful” when it is completed in May, but investing in green infrastructure is only one of many investments that Titusville needs, Bayles said.

The community needs more affordable housing, grocery and retail stores, banks, sidewalks, new job opportunities and improved municipal infrastructure like streetlights and storm sewers.

“We need to have a community that folks have everywhere else,” Hill said.

The TDC has a number of housing construction and repair projects in the works, along with its food bank, financial planning courses and senior programs.

“We work in this community  that’s been put to the side,” Hill said. “… We quietly get up every morning trying to improve this community.”

Some future commercial development is also planned in Titusville, including renovation of the Marc Steel facility into retail space and replacement of Center Court Apartments with new housing, and could “change the character of the neighborhood,” Hill said.

Bayles said creating these parks is one way of encouraging more people outside the neighborhood to see Titusville as a good investment.

“Our hope is that we’re piloting something that we’ll be able to show forth or that it will begin to shine in the face of the powers that be,” he said.

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