Innovating a Greener Birmingham

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

At the 2016 annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, the Economic Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe and a non-profit startup known as The Collider, touted Asheville, North Carolina as "Climate City." It was an effort by Asheville to brand itself and attract top minds and innovators in climate science and adaptation. Based on this US News article and a host of others, it looks like the nickname is going to stick.

The Collider has played an integral part in branding Asheville, NC the epicenter of climate change research.

Asheville is home to the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), which houses more than 40 petabytes of weather and environmental data dating back to 1743. In case you're wondering how much 40 petabytes is, it's a heck of a lot...equivalent to about 500 years of high definition video. With the presence of the NCEI, Asheville is uniquely situated to tackle the challenges climate change poses to our future by harnessing data from our past.

The Collider started in 2016 as an entrepreneurship and innovation center for startups and organizations focused on utilizing data to prepare the world for climate change. It was the first of its kind and has attracted talent from around the globe, including more than 65 partner companies and organizations. Asheville and The Collider got me thinking about Birmingham and whether we could do something similar...something that fosters innovation and focuses on solving the environmental problems of tomorrow. Birmingham has incubators like Innovation Depot, pitch competitions like Alabama Launchpad, and co-working spaces like Forge. We have economic development organizations like REV, initiatives like Smart Cities, and a new administration that's excited about sustainability. So, a collaborative work space that fosters innovation isn't much of a stretch. But what makes Birmingham uniquely situated to stimulate green innovation in particular?

In the 1990s, the EPA selected Birmingham as a pilot city for the Brownfield and Land Revitalization Grant Program. Industry is part of Birmingham's identity, and its residual contamination is literally ingrained in our infrastructure. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, foundry waste was utilized as a free fill material throughout the growing city. Today, you don't have to dig very deep in many of the City's 99 neighborhoods to uncover black fill material containing elevated levels of heavy metals like arsenic and lead. Thankfully, buried, this material doesn't pose a threat to most Birminghamians. However, residual contamination from past and on-going industry combined with a resurging and changing economy makes Birmingham a perfect laboratory for new remediation technologies and brownfield redevelopment tools.

The historical Ensley Works, now owned by US Steel, sits abandoned and unused on the west side of Birmingham. Waste material from ironworks like Ensley and Sloss were redistributed all around Birmingham to be used as fill material for building during the growth of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Let's admit it, here in Birmingham we don't have the best reputation when it comes to environmental matters. Just look to the recent environmental ethics fiasco in North Birmingham as an example. The unscrupulous tactics of that campaign left citizens not knowing what to believe, and wondering just who, if anyone, has their best interest at heart. Given this crisis of trust, and that the City is witnessing unprecedented redevelopment and opportunity, I couldn't think of a better time for Birmingham to turn over a new leaf.


Interested in learning more or getting involved with a green collaborative work space? Let's chat! Click here to send a message.

Trey Noland is the founder of Trek EC, an environmental firm specializing in services and products that promote the reuse of brownfields and conservation of greenfields.

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