Return to Case Study Briefs

Railroad Park

Landscape Performance Benefits

Environmental

  • Sequesters approximately 20,800 lbs of atmospheric carbon annually in 531 newly-planted trees, equivalent to driving a single passenger vehicle 21,000 miles. The tree canopies also intercept 92,000 gallons of stormwater runoff annually.
  • Increased the number of bird species observed on the site by 250%, from an estimated 10 to 35, including bobolink, wood duck, peregrine falcon, loggerhead shrike, and northern mockingbird.

Social

  • Attracts over 600,000 visitors annually.
  • Improves perception of Downtown Birmingham for 98% of 95 survey respondents, and helps unify the northern and southern parts of the city in the opinion of 92% of the respondents.
  • Influenced the housing choice of 43% of the 63 survey respondents who live near the park.
  • Serves as a place to exercise for 77% of 95 survey respondents.

Economic

  • Catalyzed $324.5 million in public and private investment in the area since the park's opening, with over $200 million more in private investment in the works.

At a Glance

  • Designer

    Tom Leader Studio, Macknally Land Design

  • Project Type

    Park/Open space

  • Former Land Use

    Brownfield

  • Location

    1600 1st Avenue
    Birmingham, Alabama 35233

    Map it

  • Climate Zone

    Humid subtropical

  • Size

    19 acres

  • Budget

    $17.5 million

  • Completion Date

    2010

Formerly the site of warehouses and a yard for rail and steel industry waste, Railroad Park links the northern and southern halves of Birmingham, Alabama and celebrates the 11 rail lines that bisect and define the landlocked city. Railroad Park’s unique introduced topography, organized around the elevated rail lines, allows people to be physically at the level of the trains, reconnecting the city to the historic force that built it. The park is commonly known as “Birmingham’s living room”, and reclaimed materials from the site’s industrial past are used throughout the gathering spaces that host festivals and performances. Railroad Park has broken down barriers in a city with a reputation for division and has become the most racially-integrated and heavily-used space in the city.

  • A chain of water features makes up 30% of the park’s surface area and includes a wetland, ponds, lake, rain curtain, and streams. The circulating pond-stream system provides biofiltration capacity for over 1.5 million gallons of water and provides emergency flood storage for the surrounding watershed. Portions of the lawn areas, the West Green and The Meadow, are designed to tolerate inundation should the western ponds become overfilled.
  • Stormwater is filtered through a 3,500-sf wetland before continuing into the lake and stream system. The wetland is planted with species like swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), common rush (Juncus effusus), and green arrow arum (Peltandra virginica).
  • The approximately 1-acre, 7-ft-deep lake is used for park irrigation and is supplemented by a deep well in times of low water. It is the only open body of water downtown and helps cool the breezes coming across the water during hot Birmingham summers. Cobblestones found buried on site were used to create an apron surrounding the lake, allowing for a more resilient shoreline by preventing soil erosion.
  • An 80-ft-high rain curtain under the Rail Trail Bridge oxygenates the lake and is backlit with slowly rotating LED lights at night. 
  • The stream system is lined with recycled staggered granite curbs to prevent the stream edge from scouring. The stream is the most popular play amenity for children. Once water has circulated through the entire stormwater system, it is pumped back into the original wetland to avoid stagnation.
  • Knolls along the northern and eastern sides of the park were created from the soil excavated for the lakes and streams.
  • More than 500 trees of 20 different species are planted within the park, in addition to 75 species of shrubs, perennials, and vines. Tree species include American beech (Fagus grandiflora), river birch (Betula nigra “Dura Heat”), sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana “Australis”), Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), and wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera).  
  • The gabion baskets throughout the site are lined with hand-cast bricks and limestone chunks that were discovered in debris previously buried on site. Yellow fiberglass stair tread covers are attached to the top of the baskets to provide comfortable seating. 
  • 2 play areas invite toddlers and children to play while safely watching the trains go by.
  • Outdoor gym equipment provides open-air exercise opportunities while 3 skate bowls serve as designated areas for skateboarding and trick bikes.
  • The “birch bowl” is a cool, paved plaza that holds stormwater. Irrigation for the trees is provided by pop-up sprinklers. 
  • The elevated “Rail Trail” and a series of other looping trails provide a variety of routes for walkers, runners, and the casual stroller, giving them the opportunity to safely get closer to the trains. 
  • A 4,000-seat amphitheater provides space for outdoor movie screenings, concerts, and performances.
  • Free wifi is available within the entire park. 
  • The Birmingham History Panel at the northeastern end of the park outlines the impact of trains and the steel industry in the formation of Birmingham.

Challenge

The primary design challenge at the city level was to create a park that would unite the northern downtown with the booming south side even though they are bisected by a 15-ft-high, 11-line active railway. The park also needed to facilitate a several-decade attempt to unite the area between Alyce Furnace to the west and the National Historic Landmark-designated Sloss Furnace to the east. Finally, the 19-acre area is the lowest point in Birmingham and was a marsh before being developed for the steel industry. The marsh was filled in with debris from the rail and steel industries to build warehouses, leaving behind a significant amount of material. Even filled in with debris, the area remained the city’s lowest point, generating significant concern about stormwater and drainage-related issues.

Solution

Railroad Park is organized around the elevated rail lines, making it a critical stepping stone between the northern and southern halves of the city. The park helps unite surrounding communities by serving as a critical aspect of a new “green corridor,” catalyzing the creation of 3 railroad underpasses and an expansion of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s medical facilities, and offering opportunities for future development. The ‘green corridor’ will connect the Sloss and Alyce furnaces and is expected to expand over time. The park has spurred future development; the area to the south is going through a period of significant investment as former warehouses are converted to residential lofts. The rail and steel industry debris used to fill the site prior to its redevelopment was excavated, sorted, cataloged, and then used to commemorate the history of the city by incorporating it into the design both functionally and aesthetically. As part of the earthwork that uncovered and removed the material-rich debris, a new topography was created with a chain of water bodies to address stormwater concerns. 

  • The design for the entry plaza at 17th Street originally included 2 structures: the Eastgate Pavilion and an outdoor theater with a stage and terraced seating. The theater complex was never built for a variety of reasons, but the anticipation of its later addition resulted in a sloped amphitheater and an 80-ft-wide plaza from which a bowl-shaped hollow would be carved for the stage. Once the park opened, it became apparent that the open plaza, being void of any additional built elements except for the pavilion, was necessary to house the scale of the events and celebrations that were held there. The non-terraced amphitheater also had unforeseen advantages because it could be used as a sledding and rolling hill without hazards for children at the bottom. The lesson from this happy accident is to avoid designing too much detail for future phases that may never come to fruition, and to recognize that there may be unexpected uses and beneficial outcomes.
  • Because structurally “incompetent” fills were historically used on the site, gabion baskets were chosen for their ability to adapt to inconsistencies in the base below. In order to provide comfortable seating atop the wire baskets, designers had to cap them with a durable, inexpensive material. The yellow fiberglass stair tread covers that are anchored to the baskets establish a unique pedestrian character and serve as a visual warning for the small drop-off into the lake on the opposite side of the baskets. The softness of fiberglass is a natural deterrent to skateboarders who have shown no interest in the otherwise attractive long horizontal planes. As demonstrated with the gabion basket seating, the selection of finishing materials can have anticipated and unexpected impacts that significantly influence the successfulness of key site elements.
  • To provide continuous connectivity within the park in the context of undulating topography, the designers had to decide if a pedestrian bridge or stairs were needed at 18th Street to connect the amphitheater to the level of the Rail Trail and avoid creating a dead-end trail due to elevation change. A pedestrian bridge was chosen and, as a result, completed a large perimeter loop that tied into a series of smaller loops. This continuous circulation created conditions that support fitness and has shown the positive impact of making an extra effort to create looping paths. 

Seating: Safety Yellow Fiberglass Pultruded Grating
Playground equipment: Kompan Climby Shifter, Kompan Albatross, Kompan Steel Swing, Berliner Seilfabrik Mini Jupiter
Lighting: Louis Poulsen Light Pole Fixtures RSA-4.5 / 12-ft and 14-ft heights

Project Team

Landscape Architect: Tom Leader Studio
Associate Landscape Architect: Macknally Land Design
Associate Architect: Kennedy Violich Architects
Associate Architect: GA Studio
Associate Architect:
HKW Associates
Contractor: Brasfield & Gorrie
Civil Engineer: Walter Schoel Engineering
Civil Engineer: Khafra Engineering
Lighting: CRS Engineering and Design Consultants
Signage: Radius Graphic Design
Lake and Stream: Georgia Fountain Company
Irrigation: Irrigation Consultant Services

Role of the Landscape Architect

The primary landscape architect served as the project master planner and detailed design lead, produced the majority of the construction documents, and managed a sizable consultant team throughout the 5-year process of developing and programming the park. A public-private partnership meant that the landscape architect worked with multiple client heads and many stakeholders to gain local trust and collect public input. 

Case Study Prepared By

Research Fellow: Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, AICP, Chair Landscape Architecture, Auburn University
Research Assistant: Ryan Bowen, MLA Candidate, Auburn University
Research Assistant: Britton Garrett, MLA Candidate, Auburn University
Firm Liaison: Emily Leader, Marketing and Administration Coordinator, Tom Leader Studio
August 2016

To cite:

LeBleu, Charlene, Ryan Bowen, and Britton Garrett. “Railroad Park.” Landscape Performance Series. Landscape Architecture Foundation, 2016. https://doi.org/10.31353/cs1080

Topics

Stormwater management, Populations & species richness, Carbon sequestration & avoidance, Recreational & social value, Health & well-being, Other social, Economic development, Educational signage, Efficient irrigation, Reused/recycled materials, Trail, Trees, Wetland, Active living, Placemaking, Revitalization, Social equity

The LPS Case Study Briefs are produced by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), working in conjunction with designers and/or academic research teams to assess performance and document each project. LAF has no involvement in the design, construction, operation, or maintenance of the projects. See the Project Team tab for details. If you have questions or comments on the case study itself, contact us at (email hidden; JavaScript is required).

Help build the LPS: Find out how to submit a case study and other ways to contribute.