Most of the bills Conservation Alabama supports or opposes during the legislative session are directly related to environmental and public health. We support SB 4/HB 128 because we want people to feel safe on their roads, whether they’re on a bike or driving a car. We support HB 61 because companies who violate pipeline safety regulations need to receive more than a slap on the wrist for putting our communities in danger. At first glance, it might seem like our support of HB 214, which extends an existing tax credit for rehabilitating buildings that are eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places, has nothing at all to do with the environment. In fact, it’s a crucial step to making our communities greener and more livable.
The most obvious benefit of making use of buildings that already exist is that it reduces waste. When property owners decide to fix what’s already there instead of tearing down a building, they’re also deciding not to send materials to a landfill. We’re not saying it’s always easy to bring an old building up to modern standards, but it’s worth doing well to preserve not only the materials but also the personality of your community.
Older neighborhoods, particularly in small towns, are also built to accommodate people first and cars second, if at all. Sidewalks, even if they’re cracked, encourage you to walk through your neighborhood. Front porches that were designed to catch cool breezes in the summer encourage conversation with your neighbors and interaction with your community. Small towns and urban centers are experiencing new growth across the country as families and businesses are choosing to live with a smaller footprint and closer connections.
Think about towns you like to visit in Alabama. Maybe you’re planning to go to Eufaula for the annual Tour of Homes, or you take a detour on your way to the beach to drive under the live oaks on Government Street in Mobile. Montgomery’s Garden District, Talladega’s Silk Stocking District, and Fairhope’s Fruits and Nuts neighborhood are all places that resonate with us because they are working to preserve their unique historical character. It can be difficult for communities to do this, and they have to know that families and businesses will be able to buy into their historic neighborhoods and make them active, viable communities.
HB 214 continues the assistance the state provides to people willing to make an investment in their historic communities. A tax credit might make all the difference for a young family that wants to live in a historic neighborhood but needs space to grow, or a small business owner who wants to be a part of the community but has to meet building codes. Conservation Alabama believes these investments are worthwhile, not just for the environmental benefits of using existing materials and structures, but also for the social and economic benefits of supporting existing neighborhoods that reflect the history and culture of our state.
Correction: This post initially provided incorrect information about the buildings that are eligible for tax credits. It has been updated to reflect that all buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places are also eligible for rehabilitation tax credits. We regret the error.
New AmeriCorps Member Claire Guest: On Birmingham, Beautification and Serving Conservation Alabama in the Coming Year
I pulled into Eastlake Park bright and early, water bottle, gloves, towels, and fresh resolve in hand, ready to spend a day sprucing up a part of the Magic City to honor September 11th National Day of Service and kickoff Birmingham’s 50 Years Forward Empowerment Week. In the morning sunlight, the park looked serene, with active residents making their way around the lake path, already sweating as the temperature began to rise.
This was the first time I had ever participated in a community-wide day of service in my home city, and I was proud to do it as both a lifetime resident and a newly minted AmeriCorps member for 2013-2014. As a member, I have the privilege to serve with the Conservation Alabama Foundation as a Programs and Outreach Assistant, so last Wednesday my mind was connecting ideas about our built environment, beautification, and social justice.
Despite my self-proclaimed status as a life-long Birminghamian, I have only recently returned from a six year stint in higher education; four years in Tuscaloosa and almost two years in Pennsylvania. I graduated from the University of Alabama with degrees in philosophy and history, and have recently completed my Master’s degree in American Studies from Penn State. My brief stay in Pennsylvania exposed me to a new environment, one in which I was an outsider, so I saw many cultural and political nuances that made me realize how ignorant I was regarding the lay-of-the-land back home in Birmingham and the South. Seeing the social and environmental struggles happening in Pennsylvania opened my eyes to a new way to look at my hometown: as a city and a state that had the potential to be on the forefront of so much beneficial change in the southeastern region. So I returned in June of this year, excited to join in Birmingham’s ongoing revitalization effort.
Once everyone arrived, my fellow AmeriCorps members and I rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Birmingham Public Works gave us mulch and top-soil while others procured trash-bags from the recreation office to pick up litter around the parking lot and play-ground area. A couple of other members and I started scraping the bollards next to the road leading into the park. Folks from Alabama and the South know that even in September, working outside can be taxing. As the sun beat down on us, and the old white paint sometimes refused to come off easily, I experienced a mild feeling of futility. Our group had to be back to our home base at the YWCA of Central Alabama in downtown Birmingham later that afternoon, so we were racing against the clock, and were waiting on more supplies. AmeriCorps has practically fed me fresh optimism through an IV, yet as I scraped rust and old paint off of poles sticking out of the ground, I also felt like maybe our efforts weren’t ambitious enough. I had never been to Eastlake park before, and was genuinely impressed with its layout and size. Residents were obviously encouraged to exercise, socialize, and enjoy a shared space. People fished in the large central lake while others sat under a gazebo and enjoyed a lazy Wednesday. The recreation office housed older men and women who played cards and ate lunch, their jokes echoing down the hallway. Part of me wanted to stay as long as it took to make the entire park spotless, painted, shiny, and like-new.
More scrapers arrived along with a large plastic bucket of fresh white paint and by the time our little group finished painting the entrance poles leading up to the parking lot, my perfectionism had softened. With just that fresh coat, the bollards did look so nice and pristine and clean, accenting the beautiful lawn and the shady playground area they protected from the potential onslaught of motor vehicles. Before we could even start on the others across the street, we had to head back downtown for some well-deserved rest and debriefing from our YW coordinators. I was glad for a break, but still felt a bit guilty leaving the effort unfinished. Sometimes, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
As I begin my service with Conservation Alabama Foundation, I am reminded of how powerful these small efforts at beautification and improvement can be. One gentleman golfing in the park thanked us for volunteering and told us about his own experience serving with the Corps, validating an early lesson I have learned: people respond when they see that you care, that you care about where you live, where you work, and who lives around you. In my brief experience, I see that people here really care about Birmingham, and about Alabama. I know I do! My small mission during my year of service will be to help Conservation Alabama Foundation, along with its partners around the greater Birmingham area, move forward in its institutional goal of protecting the people and places we love here in the Magic City and across the state. I am proud to be a part of it, and will absolutely do my best, even if the overall project remains unfinished at the end of my tenure. I’m just here to scrape the bollards.