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City of Birmingham
From Tragedy to Triumph: A Letter From Birmingham

Location: Birmingham, AL, USA
Project Owner: Mayor William Bell, City of Birmingham
Facilitators: Joel Mills, Communities by Design, American Institute of Architects


Mayor William Bell
City of Birmingham


Joel Mills
Communities by Design
American Institute of Architects

From Tragedy to Triumph: A Letter From Birmingham


On April 27, 2011, the City of Birmingham, Alabama was struck by an EF-4 tornado that leveled much of Pratt City, a historic African-American community. The storm damaged or destroyed over 1,500 structures citywide. In Pratt City, almost 500 homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, and over 1,000 residents were displaced. Thousands of trees vanished. Additionally, important public facilities in the neighborhood, including a fire station and library, were destroyed. The storm was part of the largest outbreak of tornadoes in United States history. From April 25 through 28th, there were 362 recorded tornadoes across the country, including over 312 in a single 24-hour period.

On May 27th, 2011, Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell sent a letter to the national headquarters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The letter stated, “The City of Birmingham is committed to the recovery and rebuilding of this important community and is requesting AIA to provide design assistance for the recovery and rebuilding of Pratt City.” The AIA accepted the City’s request, and worked with city officials to begin organizing a Regional and Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) project. The project was organized as a public service of the AIA in support of the community’s recovery efforts, and there was no fee associated with this work.

The objective of the project was to build a community-based strategy for neighbourhood recovery following a massive tornado disaster in the Pratt City area of Birmingham, Alabama.  The objective was achieved through a process involving an initial site visit and workshops, significant community engagement, a 4.5 day democratic design event, follow-up evaluation visits, and initiation of a learning collaborative.

The process produced broad community collaboration and partnership that has driven actions throughout the neighbourhood, leading not only to the physical transformation of Pratt City, but to the return of community and civic strength and pride throughout the area.

Key results achieved include:

  • Pratt City has successfully mobilized well over $50 million in new investments in the community since the process.
  • Over $10 million from FEMA was used for initial clean up, debris removal and infrastructure stabilization. Part of this funding also helped finance construction of essential community facilities, such as a new Fire Station ($2.6 million) and the Pratt City Library ($2.4 million) and install new sidewalks and lighting in the hardest hit areas.
  • Using Community Development Block Grants and private investment, a $2million development of single family housing along Hibernia Avenue, and a $5million development of senior housing next to the fire station have been completed.
  • Over $4 million in federal TIGER grant funds were used to build a trail connection to downtown with interpretive signage that tells the history of the area, including its industrial heritage and major civil rights history.
  • An additional $2.6 million in TIGER funds are being used to construct the Village Creek linear park.
  • A mixed-use development valued at $6-8 million including open space, a recreation center, and housing has kicked off with its public process now.
  • Over $3.5 million is being invested in new housing and sidewalk infrastructure across from the existing Pratt City park.
  • The city is currently asking for proposals from developers for the historic Carline Commercial node, which will require $10-12 million in financing and is in the pipeline.
  • A new US Highway 78, undergoing cleanup and beautification just north of the neighborhood, is scheduled to open this year. 
  • Four neighborhood storm shelters are being built with $10 million of FEMA funding, all located within the neighborhood in parks and schools.
  • The new library was constructed with storm shelters and has storm-strength glass that can withstand 200 mph winds.