Highland Park Named One of America’s Great Places

Announcement from the American Planning Association:

American Planning Association Designates

Highland Park a Top 10 Great Neighborhood for 2011

Noted for public spaces, historic housing, and mix of land uses

Birmingham, AL – The American Planning Association (APA) today announced the designation of Highland Park as one of 10 Great Neighborhoods for 2011 under the organization’s Great Places in America program. APA Great Places exemplify exceptional character and highlight the role planners and planning play in creating communities of lasting value.

APA singled out Highland Park for its distinctive public spaces, mix of land uses, and housing options that promote community diversity. Its picturesque setting and strategic location have made it attractive to families and individuals for generations.

“Highland Park is one of the City of Birmingham’s jewels. We are honored, but not surprised, that they have been given such an esteemed award. We encourage everyone to take the time to visit Birmingham and all of her beautiful communities, especially Highland Park,” states Mayor William A. Bell, Sr.

“The Highland Park neighborhood is one of Birmingham’s premier turn-of-the century communities – charming, historic, and within close proximity to downtown – but it would not have survived and blossomed without the enthusiastic efforts of its neighborhood association, led by its very proactive president, Alison Glascock.  These residents have set a high bar for neighborhoods in Birmingham,” adds

Councilor Valerie Abbott, whose district encompasses Highland Park.

Through Great Places in America, APA recognizes unique and exemplary streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces – three essential components of all communities. These authentic places have been shaped by forward thinking planning that showcases diverse architectural styles, promotes community involvement and accessibility, and fosters economic opportunity.

APA Great Places offer better choices for where and how people work and live every day.  Since APA began Great Places in America in 2007, 50 neighborhoods, 50 streets and 40 public spaces have been designated in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

“Building on the rich planning legacy of Highland Park’s visionary founders, today’s residents are partnering with local planners to protect this vibrant neighborhood from encroachment,” said APA Chief Executive Officer Paul Farmer, FAICP. “Their success has resulted in a charming yet adaptable neighborhood designed to stand the test of time.”

Envisioned as a resort area to which city dwellers could travel via streetcar to escape the smog and heat, Highland Park soon became home to some of Birmingham’s most prominent political, financial and industrial figures. Today it is Alabama’s most densely populated neighborhood.

Highland Park follows the swales and ridges found at the foot of Red Mountain. Its central artery, Highland Avenue, was unusual in the 1880s in that it followed the contours of the hilly landscape and skirted three ravines, now parks that are nestled into curves below street level.

Its proximity to downtown; the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus; medical facilities; and popular business and entertainment districts continues to attract new residents. Housing options – which include apartment units for low-income and disabled seniors and a home for women recovering from substance abuse – promote diversity. Diversity of land uses – residential, office, commercial – limits commutes, encourages walking, and adds to neighborhood vitality.

The neighborhood, itself a local historic district, is a collection of five national historic districts, each with its own charm. More than 20 architectural styles are represented. Highland Park’s historic multi-family structures reflect the growing popularity of apartment living in the early 20th century.

Having long faced pressure from residential and commercial development interests, the neighborhood made a concerted effort to protect its single-family homes through zoning changes and legal challenges. Residents worked with local planners to craft the city of Birmingham’s first form-based code, which will guide future growth and further preserve community character.

The nine other APA 2011 Great Neighborhoods are: Northbrae, Berkeley, CA; Ansley Park, Atlanta, GA; The Pullman Neighborhood, Chicago, IL; Gold Coast & Hamburg Historic District, Davenport, IA; Hattiesburg Historic Neighborhood, Hattiesburg, MS; Dundee-Memorial Park, Omaha, NE; German Village, Columbus, OH; Swan Lake, Tulsa, OK; and College Hill, Providence, RI.

For more information about these neighborhoods, as well as APA’s top 10 Great Streets, top 10 Great Public Spaces, and designations between 2007 and 2010, visit www.planning.org/greatplaces.

This year’s Great Places in America are being celebrated as part of APA’s National Community Planning Month during October; for more about the special month, visit www.planning.org/ncpm.

The American Planning Association is an independent, not-for-profit educational organization that provides leadership in the development of vital communities. APA and its professional institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners, are dedicated to advancing the art, science and profession of good planning — physical, economic and social — so as to create communities that offer better choices for where and how people work and live. Members of APA help create communities of lasting value and encourage civic leaders, business interests and citizens to play a meaningful role in creating communities that enrich people’s lives. APA has offices in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Ill. For more information, visit www.planning.org.

This year more than 100 suggestions were reviewed altogether, making the selection process difficult.  While many of the suggested places were good examples of planning, entries selected for designation illustrate most effectively what it means to be a “great” place, including design, functionality, sustainability, character, quality, and public participation.

Summary From the Review is Below:

Architecture, history

  • Impressive assemblage of more than 20 architectural styles popular for residences and apartment buildings during first half of the 20th century
  • Prairie-style houses, many designed by S. Scott Joy of Wheelock Joy & Wheelock of Birmingham, are hallmark of neighborhood’s Hanover Circle Historic District
  • Neighborhood supports historic surveys that lead to listing of five separate historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places: Rhodes Park/Highland Avenue (1982), Chestnut Hill (1987), Country Club (2003), Hanover Circle (2003), Milner Heights (2003)

Reliance on Planning

  • First conscious effort in Birmingham to utilize picturesque landscape planning and design
  • Inappropriate zoning fought at administrative, legislative, judicial levels; 5-1 decision by Alabama Supreme Court in Pollard et al. v. Unus Properties, LLC and City of Birmingham v. Unus Properties, LLC, (2004) favors neighborhood desire to retain single-family zoning
  • Highland Park named local historic district (2003), allowing it to initiate preservation activities and provide input into city’s design review process
  • Highland Park Neighborhood Association and Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham develop neighborhood plan (2008-2009)
  • City amends zoning map (2010) to incorporate form-based overlay district, contained in neighborhood plan; identifies acceptable range of development fitting historic character

Sense of place

  • Featuring a raised landscaped median, Highland Avenue meanders through the neighborhood; city’s first example of traffic calming (from the 1970s) with single lanes, widened sidewalks and bulbouts. Three sets of unique stone steps allowed original residents to reach streetcar line
  • Curvilinear street pattern with variously sloped circles and crescents adds charm and visual appeal; tree canopy enhances streetscape
  • Scenic views abound; Highland Avenue offers striking vistas of the below street-grade parks. Looking across Rushton Park, the Independent Presbyterian Church rises like a great English cathedral with its beautiful aged stone, stained glass windows
  • Popular for weddings, reunions and birthdays, the three public parks — Caldwell, Rhodes and Rushton — are social and recreation centers. WPA-era stone walkways and walls complement landscaping and furnishings


  • Land use mix limits commutes, encourages foot traffic, adds to neighborhood vitality; mix occurs vertically and horizontally as apartment buildings host ground-floor retail, restaurants
  • Necessities of daily living and amenities within walking distance; shopping, restaurants, theater, churches, professional offices, and medical, recreational and senior facilities found here
  • Variety of housing options promotes neighborhood diversity; purchase prices range from $42,500-$785,000; monthly rent ranges from $400-$2,500. Section 8 apartments, units for low-income and disabled seniors; also a home for women recovering from substance abuse
  • Two bus routes serve neighborhood; bicycle racks throughout neighborhood
  • Residents plant 2,500 trees and shrubs over 18 years, emphasizing native species; porous pavement used in Caldwell Park renovation to aid water retention (2007)

Active and Engaged Residents

  • Residents lead downzoning effort (1999-2000) to protect 50-plus single-family residences
  • Highland Park Neighborhood Association (1975) active in planning, zoning, design review and beautification; organizes tree plantings, clean-ups; installs benches, waste receptacles
  • Annual events attract Highland Park and city residents; Caldwell Park hosts Do Dah Day, state’s largest single-day event, and Magic City Smooth Jazz Festival. Gumbo Gala held as fundraiser for low-income senior programs; also Halloween block party, spring and fall children’s festivals

Great Places Questionnaire

List of All Winners of Great Places in America 2011

Link to U.S.A. Today article