Last weekend, Birmingham was the site of what may, or may not, be looked back upon as an historic event, potentially of global significance.
Some of the world’s leading green building experts — including India's Karan Grover, known as the greenest architect in the world — held a sustainability summit here.
The purpose? To create a new set of protocols for sustainable development worldwide, and to discard wasteful, environmentally destructive modes and patterns of urban development left over from the 20th century.
This new set of protocols, which has only begun to take shape, is being called the Birmingham Charter.
James Smith, CEO of Birmingham firm Green Building Focus and one of the event’s organizers, explained why during a press conference Sunday afternoon near the steps of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
According to Smith, the group was challenged by Grover to create the charter during a green building conference hosted by Smith’s firm in July at the BJCC. This new document would replace the outdated Athens Charter of 1933.
Developed by a group of European architects, the Athens Charter favored a so-called "functional city" in which residential zones were separated from commercial and industrial areas and connected to them by large transportation arteries. Inevitably, those transportation arteries became clogged with automobiles, and critics say the Athens Charter has led to cities that are becoming increasingly unlivable and unsustainable.
In issuing his challenge to the attendees in July, Grover invoked Birmingham's importance in the Civil Rights movement. Smith echoed this theme at the press conference.
“We gather here in Birmingham this weekend because of the very profound symbolism of meeting in this birthplace [of civil rights], a place that has a profound impact on the world, the place that has brought together people in struggles and has united people on specific missions," Smith said. "We are hoping that we will be able to unite the world again in the effort to bring sustainability and prosperity to all."
Smith cautioned those present on the sunny afternoon that it would take considerable effort to make the Birmingham Charter more than merely a bright, shining idea.
“In no way do we think that this group of experts that we brought in is going to solve the process alone,” he said. “This is a collaborative effort. We are trying to bring together people from all over the world, to seek to join together and collaborate and to create a new model for defining sustainability globally.”
As we discovered when we sat in on hours of meetings between Friday and Sunday at the Urban Studio at the Young & Vann Building downtown, it will indeed take a lot of work and a lot of patience to make the Birmingham Charter a reality. In fact, it was difficult, except in broad outline, for the group to agree on the form the charter should take and what the next steps should be. Of course, this should not be surprising, nor should it necessarily be discouraging. After all, as summit participant David Eisenberg said during one of the sessions, "We’re trying to create something that doesn’t yet exist.”
Below, we have attempted to give you some sense of what happens when a bunch of smart, passionate and highly accomplished people are put into a room and told to come up with a plan to save the world, and — even tougher, perhaps — to help Birmingham embrace not only its past, but its own tantalizing future as a center of green manufacturing.
The challenge for the charter
Karan Grover unveiled the idea for the Birmingham Charter at the Green Building Focus Conference in July. Grover, the first architect to build a LEED Platinum-certified building, was one of several keynote speakers. His presentation was big and technologically complex, using three massive projection screens that hung behind him on the stage of the BJCC theatre. Throughout his hour-long lecture, thousands of pictures and multiple video clips flashed on the three screens. It was like a laser light show for tree-huggers.
But in addition to going big in a technological sense, Grover went big in a philosophical sense. He expounded on the moral and ethical reasons for pursuing sustainable development and suggested that the guiding principle of medicine, “First, do no harm,” be applied to development, as well.
“We must act with a force of full attentiveness,” Grover told the crowd of architects, builders and developers at the BJCC. “With easy access to information, technology, expertise and resources, so much is possible for the preservation of our world and for a more merciful future. We have all that we need to build supportive, generous communities.”
Grover emphasized the importance of respecting local cultures, traditions and history, and paid homage to Birmingham's history. He quoted extensively from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, along with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, led the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and was heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi (who, of course, led the struggle for independence in India, Grover’s home country). Tying Civil Rights to sustainable development might seem presumptuous, but Grover was respectful and humble.
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” Grover said, quoting King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Eventually, Grover got down to the business of changing the world. “We are at a crossroads,” he said. “We have to make a decision. We are faced with a choice, a chance to change. All of these changes are leading us to the inevitable conclusion, a place we must go, if we can, a place that promises peace and prosperity within a sustainable framework.”
He called for a new vision for the future, a vision that would preserve our world for future generations. He cited Birmingham as the place for this because of its history and resonance, and laid out his vision in a long poem, meant to be reminiscent of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, called “The Earth Has a Dream.”
Grover’s poem urged the conference attendees to listen to the earth, to smell it and to hear it. This was his vision for the Birmingham Charter — a respect for the earth and for future generations, and the idea that sustainability was both a right and responsibility. He was grand and philosophical rather than specific — the details would be hashed out later.
Just before this weekend’s conference, Grover talked to Birmingham Weekly about why he chose Birmingham, and why now. He expressed some frustration with a lack of progress on environmental issues by world leaders, as well as concern about the upcoming Copenhagen environmental summit in December. “[Leaders] are waffling now because it’s happening two months later,” he said.
Grover suggested that engaged participation from ordinary citizens would be more effective at creating change than politicking by government officials. “I felt that it was important to get the top minds in the world — across government, across color, religion, caste, creed, nationalities — to think of what we could do,” Grover said.
Instead of starting with a summit of government leaders, the movement could start with a successful prototype, a grassroots movement here in Birmingham.
“We needed to put it into a context,” he said. “What better place to have this than Birmingham? This is where the Civil Rights Movement started.
“I feel the time is right,” Grover said. “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Weekend work & a living first draft
About 20 key participants took their places at the Urban Studio conference room on Friday morning. They included Grover; Eisenberg, co-founder of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT) in Tucson, Ariz., and an expert in “greening” building codes; Charles Kibert, one of the people credited with inventing the term “sustainable development” and a professor at the University of Florida; and Kathy Roper, a professor at Georgia Tech and expert in facility management.
There was DCAT co-director Tony Novelli; R. Steven Lewis from Los Angeles, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects; and from Birmingham, developer Cathy Crenshaw and builder and consultant Colin Coyne.
Also serving key roles were Birmingham architects Chris Giattina and Cheryl Morgan and Laura Clemons of Innerspace, an architectural interiors firm. James Smith served as a moderator, along with Cathy Wright of Birmingham firm Clarus Consulting.
The summit began — fittingly, for a conference searching for solutions to 21st-century problems — with an appearance via video hookup by Llewellyn van Wyk, an architect and sustainability expert from Pretoria, South Africa, who had attended the green building conference in July.
Van Wyk read aloud the text of a letter he had sent to the group, in which he discussed, among other topics, his concept of and hopes for the Birmingham Charter. It was clear from the letter and van Wyk's other remarks that he sees Birmingham as an interesting test case for new sustainability initiatives.
“There are lots of precedents, lots to look at,” he said, in response to a suggestion from Coyne that the group could perhaps save some time in drafting the charter by looking at some earlier, similar documents. “What’s unique about Birmingham is I’ve never seen examples to be tested in the precincts of any city.”
Kibert suggested that the charter should be broad-based, with a lot of stakeholders, and that the charter should not have an “architecture-centric point of view.” Van Wyk agreed. “This is a small sliver of a group of stakeholders beginning a process,” he said.
David Eisenberg expressed a desire that the people of Birmingham have a big role in crafting the charter and referenced the way the Civil Rights movement here gained momentum through support at the grassroots level. “What happened in this city changed the world,” he said. “We could recreate that in a more democratic way than a bunch of brains on a boat,” he said, referencing the European architects who crafted the Athens Charter on a three-day cruise from Marseilles to Athens.
After van Wyk signed off, Smith asked participants to name their most important “takeaways,” the things they hoped to see achieved after three days.
Kibert emphasized the idea of climate change as an urgent problem, advocating for immediate action. “We see things being destroyed at a faster rate than the most pessimistic people have thought,” he said. “We need to do a lot more.”
Grover described his sense of the Birmingham Charter as a sort of open, living thing. “This should not be an extensive, verbose kind of document,” he said. “It should be a charter as a verb, not a noun.” Eisenberg agreed: "We need a living, learning structure rather than they laying out of a blueprint," he said.
Like van Wyk, Grover seemed most intrigued by Birmingham’s possibilities as a laboratory. “Let’s get 50, 100, 1,000 good ideas, and then use Birmingham to implement them, because of its scale, and because of what happened here,” he said, once again emphasizing Birmingham’s Civil Rights history.
“The task at hand is not a small one,” Smith told the group. He emphasized the need to set goals, to determine such issues as who would participate, what the charter would be and when it would evolve. “We’re not here to write the Birmingham Charter,” he said. “We’re not here to have a finished document.”
Smith's guidance focused the conference's direction. The attendees concentrated on developing Birmingham as a test case and setting up a framework to facilitate that goal. Coyne, a consultant on sustainable business practices, emphasized that the Birmingham Charter movement must have "an open acknowledgement of who wasn't here" at the conference. The perception that a lot of architects and outsiders were co-opting the city's legacy could be devastating. But those at the conference were respectful of the sacrifices of Birmingham's Civil Rights heroes. The press conference on Sunday, as previously noted, was held on the steps of the BCRI, and conference organizers reached out to Rev. Shuttlesworth and asked that he lend his support to their work, which he granted.
Conference attendees were careful to couch the relationship between sustainability and the Civil Rights movement in humble terms. Steven Lewis explained it best. Referring to Grover's presentation in July, he said, "What I heard is not simply that environmental sustainability — as it relates to ourselves and, more importantly, our children and our grandchildren — is a right and a civil right that demands the same urgency that racial civil rights did in the '60s. What I heard is that sustainability — beyond just environmental, it’s economic, social — is broadly a civil right."
Lewis said that the varying goals of the sustainability movement — the economic, environmental, social and civil rights aspects — attract different communities for different reasons, but that the right to a healthy planet has the potential to tie all those things together. "If it resonates as a civil right, then it has the potential to motivate broad intersections of people into action," Lewis said. "I think that’s where it has its most effective definition to me."
After many hours of deliberation, the document that resulted was not the Birmingham Charter itself. The gargantuan task of creating some complete plan for the future of development in Birmingham and beyond could not be expected to accomplished by cramming 20 some-odd architects and thinkers into a conference room for a weekend. All the free soda, fruit trays and good will in the world couldn’t accomplish that feat. A document meant to replace the Athens Charter (which was not published until a decade after the 1933 conference) could not be patched together in 72 hours.
Instead, the primary product of the weekend was a clear but cautious one-page statement elucidating the collective goals, beliefs and future plans of the Birmingham Charter Movement. That document states that the Birmingham Charter is a living document, and "a covenant, a sacred pact between this generation" and those of the future. It recognizes sustainability as a basic human right, and acknowledges that "sometimes the right to clean air, clean water, enough healthy food, excellent education, healthcare and opportunities to reweave our communities can be forgotten elements in the sustainability movement."
The statement cites Birmingham's potential as a centerpiece of the green revolution, and promises that the charter will provide the tools necessary for Birmingham and other cities to participate in that revolution. It promises assistance from those who worked to develop the Birmingham Charter this weekend and invites participation from "all who are interested in helping revitalize Birmingham in a way that communities worldwide can use as a model." Most importantly, the document says that it, and the work done by this weekend's participants, is just a starting point, and urges Birmingham to "carry forward this Charter, make it their own, and chart a course to a future full of possibilities and promise."
"The real work starts tomorrow."
The language of that statement is rosy, but James Smith knows there's a long journey ahead. After Sunday’s press conference, a reporter asked Smith what happens next. “The real work starts tomorrow,” Smith said. And it does. And tomorrow will likely be a long day.
With a framework established, the Birmingham Charter will require input from leaders and ordinary people from around the world. The conference participants will return to their home towns, home states and home countries and spread the word, and then, in several months, meet again, surrounded by even more minds. And this will happen again and again, until the Charter is challenging enough, technical enough, realistic enough to sustain a movement around it.
Daryl Perkins, a longtime Birmingham resident and political adviser who attended this weekend's conference, sees the challenges ahead. "Some folks will get it, some won’t," he said.
The participants from this weekend will have to stay involved, and money will have to be raised to pay for organizational and operational costs and to staff some sort of administration. The local grassroots support will need to be firmly established.
Nevertheless, Perkins is optimistic. “Things are going green,” he says. “The federal and state money is going green. There are a few times in a generation where things come together."
“I’m convinced that this thing has a chance to work,” Perkins said.
It may seem like a long road, but Smith is well aware of Birmingham's assets. “Birmingham already has the best infrastructure for industry in the southeast," Smith said. "It’s the hub of the railroad system. It has interstates going north, south, east and west. It has a barge system to get products in and out of Mobile Bay, and therefore anywhere in the world.” He also noted Birmingham's many construction and architecture firms, its industrial operations, and its central geographic location.
But more than that, Birmingham has the minds and the vision to make this Charter work. “[Birmingham] is becoming the thought leader and the nerve center of sustainability,” Smith said.
“It will start right here at the Civil Rights Institute here in Birmingham, Ala., and it will go around the world. Here in our region, we will become a model, a prototype. We will show people what’s possible.”