Finding out about the Birmingham Charter

itsnicelogoWell, you can’t accuse Birmingham’s green builders and architects of thinking small. They’ve proposed coming up with a new standard for cities, which they call the Birmingham Charter. And to convince the world that it will work, they want to transform greater Birmingham into a model of sustainable living.

I went to the Green Resource Center last night to find out more. The place was packed, and some latecomers stood outside in the stairwell listening.

James Smith, CEO of Green Building Focus, gave an enthusiastic, rambling address about the Charter, punctuated by video excerpts from architect Karan Grover’s dramatic multimedia presentation at the July conference on green building here in our fair city. The scope of this conference went well beyond nuts-and-bolts topics for builders. It was visionary, arguing for an entirely new philosophy for building cities and living on the earth.

This conference, we’re told, was supposed to take place in Atlanta, that international city just east of here. But Scott Walton and other local green designers made the case that Birmingham is ready not only to host meetings, but to be a living laboratory for sustainability. Community gardens and “urban farms” have taken off in a big way, and there is a little known but thriving community of architects and builders committed to green techniques. Then there is Alabama’s biodiversity, with the greatest variety of ecosystems of any U.S. state except California. Anyway, somehow or other they made the case, and the conference was held here, with two more annual meetings to come.

Karan Grover is a trail-blazer in green architecture, and it was his suggestion to draw up the Birmingham Charter, a new blueprint for urban design. To architects and planners, the parallel to the Athens Charter of 1933 is obvious, but for the rest of us, here’s a quick history.

Plan A

Seems that in 1933 a group of noted architects were on a steamship bound for Greece when they got to talking about urban planning. They decided that modern cities ought to adhere to modern principles, and they wrote down a list of 95 guidelines for a “functional city.” On arrival in Athens, they published these 95 rules as the “Athens Charter,” a document that is so influential that it defines the basic premises of city planners, public works departments, zoning boards, developers — you name it.

Trouble is, the Athens Charter no longer works. It prescribes separate zones of activity (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.) linked by transportation arteries — a model for a world in which industry is filthy and energy is cheap. A world we will never see again.

In the United States, Athens thinking has produced traffic congestion, automobile dependence, and urban blight in places where residents don’t have reliable transportation. Outside the U.S., where urban development has proceeded in even more haphazard ways, tanker trucks and donkey carts must share the same narrow arteries, and slums consist of tar-paper housing. Yet we keep adding urban spaces: According to Smith, an urban space the size of Birmingham (about 100,000 people) is built every two weeks.

How long can we sustain that? Obviously we can’t. The human population is expected to increase by 1 billion within 25 years. If we adhere to Athens standards, we will bring about the painful, lingering death of cities.

Time for Plan B

That’s “B” as in “Birmingham Charter.” Think of it as a replacement for the Athens Charter: a new blueprint for the modern, functional city. This time the core principle will be sustainability, not separation. And the document will be accessible: “Sustainability for Dummies,” Smith called it. A how-to guide for public officials, business executives, plant managers, neighborhood activists. Something to help them make smart decisions.

Not that this document has been written yet. Smith and his colleagues reject the idea of having a few well-educated rich guys get together for drinks and to bash out an instruction book for the world. The Athens Charter approach is outmoded in more ways than one.

For one thing, the Birmingham Charter will rest on sustainability, and you can’t achieve that by cookie-cutter means. The first step is to know your environment, both urban and natural. If your city is baking in the desert, lying in a smog-capped bowl in the mountains, or perched on the tip of a glorified sandbar, you won’t learn about your environment by reading a paper written in Alabama. But what the Birmingham Charter can do is give you guidance and encouragement to discover the place where you are.

That’s where Birmingham itself comes into the picture. The authors of the Athens Charter only had to get off the boat and send some telegrams letting people know what a great job they’d done. That won’t suffice in this case.

Everyone knows that humanity faces overwhelming environmental dangers that we seem unable to mitigate or avoid. Sometimes it seems that every month brings news of another peril that might bring down human civilization. As someone said at last night’s meeting, all these warnings don’t encourage action; they’re more likely to encourage us to fix a drink and go to bed.*

So the Birmingham Charter won’t win widespread adoption with a repent-or-die message of prophetic doom. It won’t win acceptance by sending out press releases. And the founders decline to set themselves up as experts. As another speaker candidly admitted, the “experts” got together last month and concluded that they don’t have the answers. Meanwhile the world’s governments, after scheduling a summit on climate change this December, are losing any consensus even over what they mean by the words “climate change.” Expertise and authority are letting us down.

In this position, with the clock ticking and no big rescue plan, the vision for the Birmingham Charter is to assemble the wisdom of ordinary people. The civil rights movement in Birmingham is an inspiration for this approach. When expertise and authority don’t know how to transform an insupportable situation, or when they are hampered by private interest, there’s a lot to be said for action that’s guided by faith and courage. So the idea is for the Birmingham Charter to be a result of this kind of action.

This is where the city as a whole comes in. To change the world as dramatically as its Athens predecessor did, the Birmingham Charter needs to be proven. And the way to do that is to transform Birmingham into a model of sustainable living.

As far as we got

That’s about as far as we got in last night’s meeting. The effort, to date, has been spearheaded by passionate, creative people. James Smith lets his excitement lead him into endless digressions and anecdotes, which left him precious little time to deal with specifics that this audience could act upon. The founders’ affection for one another also tends to give the project a clubby feeling that can unwittingly exclude outsiders. For instance, the speakers were introduced only by their first names, implying that everyone present ought to know them already. If the Birmingham Charter is going to catch on beyond the walls of architecture firms, this kind of precious informality really needs to be dispensed with. I was also distracted by Smith’s negligence about leaving on time for what was supposed to be a firm appointment for a radio interview. For some reason he found it very difficult to leave, even though we weren’t keeping him. Maybe we should have felt flattered, but I was concerned for his interviewer.

I could have wished for more time for questions, as there was only time for two. The convener recognized this, and said that she would offer monthly Catalyst meetings at the Green Resource Center as a forum for continuing this discussion and answering questions.

As the meeting broke up into knots of conversation, I found someone I knew and we talked over some ideas. One of these was about Birmingham’s untapped potential as a place with global significance.

Birmingham as a model

We also talked about Birmingham’s potential as a model of sustainability. It seems that there are a few things about our city that make this promising. A quick list:

  1. Alabama’s biodiversity; we can model many kinds of sustainable relationships to the environment in a relatively compact region.
  2. Expanding greenspace in Birmingham, largely because old mine land on Red Mountain has been deemed commercially unviable. Lucky for us.
  3. The neighborhood-based government structure in Birmingham. We have 99 neighborhood associations that serve in an advisory capacity and have petty administrative powers. Can we use this hyper-local structure to be powerful in shifting the city’s focus to sustainability?
  4. The urban farming/community garden movement. (Catalyst members are volunteering at two sites, “Our Garden” in West End and a community garden in Norwood.)
  5. If the idea is to move from separate zones to integration — a core principle of sustainable planning — then we’ve done that before, in the civil rights movement, by making it a Christian duty. Can the hipsters and educated planners collaborate with the church people? I think it’s essential. As a Muslim, I feel comfortable collaborating with Christian neighbors. But I don’t have the allergic reaction to God-talk that some of my cooler friends have picked up.
  6. This is an opportunity to stop thinking in terms of “blighted areas,” of which we have many. How can we meet the area’s needs using what’s already present? As “Marshall” (no last name) remarked, if you’re lost, the first step is to get your bearings.

The Birmingham Charter, it seems, is two things. It’s a project to turn Birmingham into a laboratory for sustainable living, which also promises cleaner, healthier, and more genuinely prosperous living, for ourselves and for future generations. Second, it is a teaching tool for everyone, “Sustainability for Dummies,” based largely on what we learn by changing Birmingham.

Next step? I promise to keep you posted. You can also get in touch with Catalyst or just show up at the next Green Third Thursday (6 p.m. Nov. 19) at the Green Resource Center, 2564 18th St. South, Homewood.


* Dialect note: In the South we often “fix” meals, snacks, or drinks instead of “making” them. Corollary: One who is about to prepare the evening meal might say, “I’m fixing to fix supper.”

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3 thoughts on “Finding out about the Birmingham Charter

  1. This is a terrific overview. Thank you for going and for writing it up.

    I like how you outlined Birmingham-specific traits and facets to take into consideration. Well done, Rob!

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