PESTLE Project: Final Document. 15Dec09.


The purpose of this document is two-fold: to discuss Birmingham’s historical and current activities and their consequences on Birmingham’s current air quality and economic status, and to introduce a policy that would help alleviate Birmingham’s air quality problems and stimulate economic development.

Historical Background:

Birmingham was founded in 1871 at the crossing of two railroad lines. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, Birmingham grew into a center of industry due to its abundant supply of coal, iron ore, and limestone, the key ingredients in making steel. Traditionally a one-industry city, Birmingham’s prime industries were iron and steel production. Initially, the iron industry rose with the founding of Tannehill Furnances in 1830. During the early 19th century, the high phosphorus content of the iron supply made it ideal for pig iron production. It was not until late in the 19th century when purification processes for the raw materials became available to reduce the phosphorus content, allowing the steel industry to bloom. Birmingham also benefited from two important factors: cheap African-American labor, and excellent transportation facilities including canalized waterways and railroads. As the availability of raw materials declined, electric arc furnace technology began to replace basic oxygen furnaces allowing for further expansion of the steel industry.

Since World War II, the prevalent social trend in Jefferson County has involved the affluent moving away from the city proper to the many surrounding suburbs, leaving the poor to occupy much of downtown Birmingham. This has led to a concentration of wealth outside of the city and a concentration of poverty in the city, both of which continue to increase (due to greater stability, prosperity and access to education, affluent suburbanites continue to outcompete poor urbanites for employment opportunities).
This may also be traced back to Birmingham’s deep history of racial tensions. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, wealth was concentrated among whites (blacks did not have equal education and employment opportunities). As white families moved away from downtown, the wealth too spread to suburbs. As a result today, approximately 73.5% of Birmingham City’s population is black. The demographics of Hoover and Vestavia Hills (two of Birmingham’s large, proximal, incorporated suburbs) are quite different Hoover and Vestavia Hills have black populations 6.8%, and 1.9%, respectively (The US Census Bureau 2000 estimates).

Statement of Problem:

Birmingham’s traditional industrial activities did not come without a price. In May of 2009, the American Lung Association named Birmingham, Alabama, the fifth most polluted city in the nation for short-term Particle Pollution and the fifth most polluted city in the nation for year-round Particle Pollution. Birmingham currently suffers from rampant pollution from fine particulate pollution (PM 2.5). As a way to hinder the advancing of the pollution in Birmingham, the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) has set a daily standard of PM 2.5 particles of 35 µg/m3 and a yearly standard of 15 µg/m3.

The decreased air quality prevalent in Metro Birmingham negatively impacts both human and environmental health. Increased particulate pollution can amplify lung and cardiovascular diseases such as asthma, and bronchitis, and it can lead to phenomena such as acid rain which can lead to the degradation of soils and vegetation, and decreased biodiversity in surface waters. This decreased air quality affects not only the health of residents of the area, but also the, social structure, economic situation, and overall perception of Birmingham to others.
Like many other small cities in the nation, the Greater Metropolitan Area of Birmingham is split into the city proper (downtown Birmingham) and surrounding suburbs (Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Homewood, etc). In total, the Greater Metropolitan Area of Birmingham (composed of the city proper and the surrounding suburbs) houses approximately 1.2 million people, slightly greater than one-fourth of Alabama’s 4.6 million residents (US Census Bureau 2007 estimates), making it the most populous region in the state, but most of the wealth remains outside the Birmingham city area. Specifically, during the day the population within the city is 36% higher due to the commuters. Today, approximately 24.7% of the city population live under the poverty line, whereas only 3.4% of the population live under the poverty line in Hoover and only 3.1% of the population live under the poverty line in Vestavia (US Census Bureau 1999 estimates).
Nonetheless, currently, Birmingham has a larger and more diversified industrial sector than before. The decline in the traditional materials industries has complemented the rise in new economic engines such as the biomedical, banking, retail, insurance, and energy industries. The heavier of concentration of industry, abundance of small businesses and companies, and significant increases in population as a result of the growing job market in the metro Birmingham area have widened the gap between the economic and residential sectors in metro Birmingham. Inevitably, transportation has become a major source of particle pollution, as both the amount of commuters and distance to commute to Birmingham soar. The lack of a mass transit system in the area as well as Birmingham’s geographical setting exacerbates the situation. The particle pollution from the leftover traditional manufacturing industries as well as the pollution from the plethora of current industries, though much less, have also contributed greatly to Birmingham’s air quality.
However, Birmingham’s politics and legislation are barriers that need to be overcome in order to alleviate current air quality problems. The Alabama constitution prevents any county or municipality from levying taxes without a majority vote in the legislature and state. Taxes could be used for enacting smart-growth, bringing business into Birmingham, and creating a mass-transit system for the area—an area with almost 88,000 commuters. The state is pro-highway system instead of pro-mass transit. Amendment 93, passed in 1956, requires all fuel taxes be put toward highway construction and repair, and not toward anything else.
Problems also arise when addressing how to formulate regulation. Some of these problems include policy structure, lack of resources for regulation and the complexities of experimentation. Particularly in Birmingham, overlapping power creates confusion among regulating bodies, mostly due to state deficiencies. Alabama’s State Implementation Policy is sub par at best; it fails to control the areas three major sources of pollution: particulate matter, mercury, and ozone. The state tends to rely on Federal regulations instead. Even Federal regulations have problems. The Clean Air Act lacks concrete incentives for emissions reductions.

Proposed Solutions:

The Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal, and Environmental sectors all have a vested interest in Birmingham’s future air quality. There is a need to educate the population about this issue, and possible solutions. Target groups for education are students, businesses, and other stakeholders. Methods to increase the public awareness of current air quality among the youth are also important; some ways include outreach and enhancing educational standards in science classes. For example, changing the core curriculum to include more case studies on pollution and environmental health in science classes. Increasing emphasis on local politics, and the Alabama Constitution within the social studies curriculum would promote awareness among students, teachers, and parents.
Another way to improve air quality is to provide incentives for alternative energy. For example, if solar panels produce more energy than the building consumes, the business may have the option to sell back the energy to an energy-providing company, such as Alabama Power. Once alternative energy is produced in mass amounts, the prices for these alternatives will decrease. The government will give a tax break to those who need help financially with buying alternative energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines. The Federal government gives tax incentives for purchasing specific fuel efficient vehicles. For a complete list see
Smart Growth has been implemented all over the United States in cities similar to Birmingham to help prevent and stagnate urban sprawl and increase sustainability. Currently, other post-industrial cities like Pittsburg have implemented Smart Growth policies. Smart Growth, like that of Chattanooga, could promote industry and tourism within the Greater Area. The Tennessee Aquarium and the Art Museum brought the city tourism and revenue, which was used to enhance the standard of living of the inhabitants. A similar course of action could be implemented for downtown Birmingham, but rather than tourism, the focus would be business and industry. Birmingham has also begun small Smart Growth projects in the Greater Area. The Railroad Park downtown provides green space and recreational area, which will hopefully stimulate revenue in the downtown area and make Birmingham city a more inviting and livable place. Park Place exemplifies Birmingham’s attempt to create mixed-use development within the city. The idea of mixed-use development is to bring all economic backgrounds into one, centralized area to stimulate economic circulation in the inner city. Other programs, such as CAP and Jones Valley Urban Farm, promote ideas of Smart Growth in the Birmingham area.
Current plans for the future include expanding the bus and DART systems so that they may serve a wider group of people. There is also the plan to create hubs outside of Birmingham proper, from which people can get around the metropolitan area, without having to return to the central hub within Birmingham proper. This will also include the creation of bike routes, completing Corridor X and a goal of increasing public transit by 2035. Although money from fuel taxes (roughly $12.6 million per year – from Birmingham commuters alone) cannot be used for public transit, it can be used for highway funding, which includes HOV lanes. These HOV lanes have not yet been implemented in Birmingham, and would result in reduced idle emissions and less traffic, thereby increasing air quality. (Alabama Dept. of Revenue)
Bringing jobs into the city would result in more people commuting in to the city, and finally, living in the city. Decreased commuter miles would then help to increase the air quality. This would help stimulate and create mixed-use development within Birmingham. Tiered-economic housing would bring shopping and more parks into the Birmingham area.
We have the tools to build on Birmingham’s current solutions to its economic and environmental problems, and to enact the proposed solutions stated above. However, it takes the cooperation of the Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal and Environmental sectors of the metro-area to implement any movement toward increased air quality in Birmingham. The lack of cooperation of even one sector could result in weaker economic stability as well as a decreased quality of environmental health. Alternately, if the sectors worked together, Birmingham’s economic and air quality problems could be mutually alleviated by viable smart growth via public awareness. Through these kinds of growth, the standard of living would rise as well as residents’ overall health, making Birmingham better perceived by prospective businesses and residents alike.


3 Responses to “PESTLE Project: Final Document. 15Dec09.”

  1. Ryan Reardon Says:

    Comments from Ryan Reardon:
    I would have liked to see a greater emphasis on data pertaining to individual commuters
    Proposed plans for increasing ridership for Mass Transit and capitalizing on Birmingham’s unique topography never made it into the proposal
    Alabama and metro-Birmingham’s reliance on Coal-fired power plants were not addressed. Greg Lin had a comment he would like to share with the class:

    I think we should consider adding something which may not belong in any of our sections but is still important, about what may be the primary source of soot pollution in Birmingham – old power plants. A study by Southern Environmental Law Center show three old coal-based power plants – “Gorgas (1951), Gaston (1960), and Miller (1978) are the primary sources of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which form soot pollution.”
    “Even with pollution controls currently planned for these plants, they will still account for 89 percent of sulfur dioxides and 50 percent of nitrogen oxides in metro Birmingham in 2012.”

    Over all, great job, everyone. You accepted the challenge. You all collaborated efficiently. Every member of the class was included. You crafted a workable, economically feasible, and scientifically sound policy document. Honestly, it could have been stronger on the science; however, your individual research papers have enough data to support the group claims and proposed solutions.

  2. Eleanor McKenzie DelBene Says:

    It is very encouraging and inspiring to see this level of work coming from ASFA students. Congratulations to the students and to Ryan Reardon. I am looking forward the Keystone Center Youth Policy Summit on Water Resources.

    Thanks for all you are doing to make Alabama and planet Earth a healthier place to live.

    Eleanor McKenzie DelBene, Co-Convener,
    Interfaith Environmental Initiative of Alabama

  3. Brad Hill Says:

    Congratulations, guys, on an impressive paper. Your findings and recommendations are thorough and far from pedestrian. I love the emphasis on making such issues part of the local curricula. Yes! If we cannot change the thinking of the current leaders, educate the future leaders. Now if we can get those educated future leaders to stay in this area instead of going away to “greener pastures.”

    If city leaders had followed through on the green plans for designed and authored by Frederick Law Olmsted and John Hull Olmsted (who designed Central Park and countless other cityscapes) specifically for Birmingham in the 1880s (?) then our city might not be in the condition it is in currently. Let’s hope your work is not ignored.

    Great work, all!

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