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Slow Trains & Wide Open Spaces

The railroad was the river that moved the steel and commerce of Alabama's biggest city. Now it is the centerpiece of what Daily Green says is the best new public park in the U.S.

Photos by Ben Burford and Steve Gates

In Birmingham, a river does not run through it. There is no lake front or bay side or ocean view. No significant body of water acting as the centerpiece of an urban area.

Instead, Birmingham has the railroad, the steel artery that pumped life into the iron-ore-rich region in the late 1800s. The multiple sets of tracks that dissect the city act as a natural divider between north and south, separating the downtown business district on one side from the educational, medical and entertainment areas on the other.

“The rails are our river,” says Lea Ann Macknally, president of the Birmingham landscape architecture firm Macknally Land Design. “They are how the city was connected to everywhere else.”

So when it came time to create a long-planned park in the heart of Birmingham, it was quickly decided that the railroad would be a key element in the design. While most urban greenspaces strive to push out the surrounding industrial world, Birmingham’s new Railroad Park was designed and constructed to embrace the neighboring train tracks.

“We took on the idea that it’s a train-front park in the same way you might have a waterfront park or riverfront park in other cities,” says Tom Leader of the California-based landscape architecture firm Tom Leader Studio, which developed the master plan for Railroad Park. “Birmingham doesn’t have that water element, but they do have the trains, which is kind of an interesting, dynamic element in itself. So the trains were really key from both a practical and a thematic standpoint.”

To achieve the desired result, the land on the north side of the 19-acre park was elevated to the same height as the adjacent tracks, with a walking/jogging trail at the top. Not only has this created a sloping amphitheater effect, but it accentuates the connection between the park and the tracks. The trains that periodically chug slowly past the park are as important to the overall feel of the space as the grass and trees.

"We placed trees where we'd still have these wide-open lawn spaces. We wanted people to see Birmingham from a new angle." -Lea Ann Macknally 

“Rather than make a park that was scattered with archives and remnants and things that aren’t operational anymore, we wanted to put people in contact with the trains so they could have a direct experience of them,” Leader says. “Even when you’re down below in the park, the way the trains cruise right along the top makes it feel like they’re in the place with you.”

The trains are not the only things that seem close at Railroad Park. The downtown Birmingham skyline looms over the space, just far enough removed to offer a nice panoramic view from an angle most residents and visitors have never really seen before.

Macknally, whose firm worked with Tom Leader Studio on the project, says maintaining a good view of the skyline was one of the primary design plans. Even though there are more than 600 trees planted on the site—a mixture of hardwoods, evergreens, and elms—Macknally says they were placed in a way to keep the skyline backdrop from being obscured.

“We wanted to focus on views of the city skyline and not make it seem so cloistered,” Macknally says. “So we placed trees where we’d still have these wide-open lawn spaces. We wanted people to see Birmingham from a new angle.”

The creation of the park also helped eliminate a flooding issue that had long plagued the 14th Street underpass. Previously, the land had a slight, natural slope in that direction, and every time there was a hard rain, it overwhelmed the drainage system. When the park was built, the slope was directed away from 14th Street and toward a newly created stream and lake system. Macknally says this system captures approximately 70 percent of all rainwater, which is then used for park irrigation.

But while there certainly are some practical applications to the landscaping of Railroad Park, it is the aesthetics of the park that have brought it so many accolades since opening in Sept. 2010, including being named the best new park in the United States in an online poll by the Daily Green website.

“We’re calling it the living room of the city,” Macknally says. “It’s a place where people can come and just really relax. We’re still in awe to see it succeed like it has. It’s one of those things that can really help develop a community.”

Leader is not a member of that community, but from the other side of the country he speaks with obvious affection about the park he helped create.

“Railroad Park is my favorite subject to talk about,” says Leader, whose company began working on the project in 2005. “We wanted something that is very authentic to Birmingham, and the train tracks provide that. It’s so gratifying that people really like it.”

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