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A Park System For Birmingham
The Birmingham Historical Society is pleased to re-publish the Olmsted Brothers’ A Park System for Birmingham, written during the summer of 1924 and published by the Birmingham Park and Recreation Board in 1925.
The Olmsted report was originally printed in Boston by the University Press and the accompanying maps by a firm specializing in atlases. Birmingham’s EBSCO Media has faithfully, and beautifully, reproduced the 1925 original, digitally scanning the historic report, offset printing it on a paper stock similar to that used in 1925, and letter pressing the type into the cover stock.
In the 1920s, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. headed Olmsted Brothers, the nation’s premier park planning firm. Son of America’s first landscape architect, Frederic Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, Prospect Park, and the grounds of the U. S. Capitol as well as Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina, Olmsted Jr. learned from his famous father and was educated at Harvard in landscape architecture and city planning. In 1916, Olmsted Jr. drafted the famous credo of the National Park system: Pass down unharmed to succeeding generations that treasury of scenery which you inherit. At the time of the Birmingham park report, he was working in California on the development of the California Park system, which became a national model for state park systems. Prior to this work, cities managed local and regional park systems. Hence, the Birmingham plan envisioned parks throughout Jefferson County.
What did the Olmsted plan recommend for Birmingham?
The plan suggested numerous parks for active and passive uses. Parks were important, Olmsted thought, to the spiritual refreshment and physical welfare of stressed city dwellers. In 1925, the City of Birmingham had 600 acres of parks, an amount “wholly inadequate” to serve the needs of its 200,000 citizens. The report recommended neighborhood parks within easy walking distance of every house, including those of black citizens; expansion of certain parks with beautiful, natural features; the creation of beauty spots and athletic fields; a civic center surrounded by major public buildings (for which they sketched concepts); parkways and large parks in the flood plains of area creeks and along ridges; reservations of vast lands in Shades Valley (then undeveloped) and at sites critical for protection of the domestic water supply; and the building of parkways along ridge tops to gain for the public impressive outlooks. The plan promoted a well-thought-out system of recreational amenities for the thriving industrial center. The most pressing recommendation of the plan was the acquisition, in advance of subdivision development, of the land along the creeks to provide stormwater drainage channels and fields for recreation. Politicians on the park board wanted immediate park improvements, and thus, from 1924 to 1926, the Olmsted firm designed plans for Rushton, Underwood, and Woodrow Wilson (now Linn Park) and reviewed local plans for other parks.
What happened immediately following release of the plan?
Friends of Senator Oscar Underwood raised funds and built a playground named Underwood Park, following the Olmsted plan. (In recent times, most of Underwood Park has been given over to the expansion of St. Vincent’s Hospital). Civic leaders struggled to relocate government buildings to the proposed civic center site at today’s Linn Park. Improvements to Linn Park, the planning for which was begun by the Olmsted firm, were completed during the 1930s and renovated in the 1980s.
The visionary M. P. Phillips, who served on the park board and corresponded with Olmsted about how to craft legislation and develop a comprehensive plan for a park system, died; a new park board and city administration took office. They did not have the benefit of Olmsted tutoring. Parks remained an important piece of the civic agenda. However, as became true in many American cities of the late 1920s and 1930s, park dollars poured into the development of recreational amenities, rather than acquisition of park lands.
Why is it important to revisit this plan now?
Untold problems might have been eliminated had the Birmingham Park and Recreation Board followed the Olmsted park plan in 1925. Not only would Birmingham have more parks to provide recreation and “spiritual refreshment,” but area creeks would have been developed as parks and parkways, thereby mitigating the serious flooding of structures that exists today.
Today, as historic mineral and industrial lands become available for development, our generation, once again, has the opportunity to save vast tracts of scenic land for recreation, to improve our water and air quality, and to develop new means and routes of transportation along our stream beds. We also have the opportunity to restore our historic parks. The Olmsted report, its spirit and principles, can help inspire current and future generations.