sPark: A Social Good Park & Project


Be imaginative. Be committed. Be the change you wish to see in Birmingham. On May 5, 2011, Birmingham embarks on a world-class social entrepreneurship program that selects the most determined people to work on their most creative ideas in an unparalleled collaborative space: sPark.

Each year, college graduates, Ph.D. candidates, and young faculty looking for a creative sabbatical year--particularly those with connections to Alabama--are invited to submit proposals focused on projects designed to transform Birmingham for the better. Applicants are encouraged to be visual and specific in their ideas; the selected applicants travel to Birmingham to take part in a one-year fellowship program: sPark.

Fellows move into a collaborative, state-of-the-art center in the heart of sPark. The physical site is a "vertical" park--an extension of the Railroad Park continuing the link across the city. This social entrepreneurship "incubator" allows the fellows to have everything they need to work on their ideas around the clock: loft living spaces, technologically-advanced work and meeting spaces, restaurants, etc. Throughout the project, fellows are invited to collaborate with Birmingham's community leaders and residents to develop their projects.

At the end of one year, the fellows meet with a group of potential funders (public, private, and civic) to present their sPark ideas. Fellows are encouraged to share prototypes, research data, and/or policy proposals with as much evidence as possible to support the likely success of their ideas. Community-based funders choose the ideas they believe most likely to succeed and provide the start-up capital to see them implemented over the course of the next year. The Community Foundation or designated sPark Board of Directors manages the project. This group markets the program across the country, chooses each year's cohort of fellows, arranges for orientation, helps the fellows to transition quickly to working on their ideas, and provides oversight to the program. It connects fellows with mentors in the community and relevant community partners vital to their ideas' success and invites potential funders to the final presentations.

Over time, the program sustains itself financially as well as adds revenue to Railroad Park via three mechanisms: (1) funded sPark ideas that are revenue-generating; (2) interested private sector partners that rent restaurant, retail, and office spaces on site; (3) rented public event space


With the launch of sPark, Birmingham can be catapulted to the forefront of a growing movement worldwide: social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs bring imagination to the world's most urgent social problems, developing innovative, substantive solutions that spark widespread structural change. This project will be the center of creative thinking in Birmingham, where a broad spectrum of community leaders and residents alike gather to address problems--with the confidence that solutions are within reach.

The target group of fellows includes recent college graduates, Ph.D. candidates, and young faculty looking for a creative sabbatical year. Such individuals are highly motivated to seek out opportunities that allow them to be creative, take ownership over tremendous responsibilities, and result in tangible improvement to the world around them. Moreover, these individuals have the availability to take a year off and have background in an issue area and talents to follow through.

The fellows are connected and anchored by a "vertical" park, sharing both leisure and work areas. Further collaboration is facilitated by the sPark Board of Directors through introductions to community leaders in the public, private, and civic sectors. Moreover, fellows are required to make public presentations on those social issues that they are addressing, especially engaging school groups from across the Birmingham metropolitan area.


The site is located in the heart of Birmingham in the midst of a "vertical" park. sPark presents Birmingham with a unique green space: park paths leading upward, a hundred rooftop gardens nestled in hidden turns, spaces for reflection and forward movement, a new outlook on Birmingham at each perch. The physical space is an exploration much like the work of the fellows, and the park is anchored by the collaborative sPark workspaces that rise through the paths as the physical expression of social entrepreneurs.

sPark builds upon and perfectly complements Railroad Reservation Park and the Sloss Corridor. While Railroad Park offers Birmingham relaxation, recreation, and release, sPark provides a place of focus, commitment, and solution. As Railroad Park eventually connects to Red Mountain Park, Ruffner Mountain, and beyond, sPark offers the community a place with new perspective for connection, contemplation and collaboration. It also grants Birmingham the ability to view the entire park simultaneously.

The few people who have the ability to view Birmingham from up above out of office windows or conference rooms in downtown towers understand the empowering feeling of seeing the entire city around and below. sPark is a place where all of Birmingham can share in this experience: if Railroad Park is Birmingham's cultural playground, then sPark is Birmingham's creative board room.

Each year, three teams of three people are selected to participate in the fellowship program. Fellows are awarded $5,000 as well as living space at sPark and a modest living stipend. Fellows will present to potential funders after one year. Successful ideas will demonstrate clarity of purpose, extensive community buy-in, data-based solutions, and measurable returns on investment. If the idea is funded, fellows commit to an additional year in order to oversee implementation of the idea in Birmingham. If the funded idea is revenue generating, a percentage of the profits from the implemented idea must be committed to supporting future fellows.

Phase I [private contributions from campaign led by the Community Foundation]. The vertical park is constructed along with collaborative program spaces as well as a cafe and restaurant as revenue-generating spaces. Event spaces, conference rooms, classrooms, public forum spaces, and art galleries are also available for rent. Phase II [partnership with private developer to finance and manage construction, rental agreements, and maintenance of leased space]. Retail, restaurant, loft, and office spaces are developed and leased, providing additional revenue.

Research on existing models such as Y Combinator, AmeriCorps, and Teach for America suggests that the programmatic elements we have chosen provide a feasible method to harness the creativity of today's social entrepreneurs and incentivize their participation.


A new experience of viewing our world will sPark interest from the region and nationwide. sPark is a laboratory to prove the possibilities of Birmingham. Birmingham is on the map: a destination for innovators, dreamers, and entrepreneurs.

sPark becomes the place and catalyst for young and old alike to learn and grow together though field trips, clinics, workshops, galleries, strolls, and explorations. Birmingham continuously hears about big ideas being developed and can then witness them actually implemented throughout the city and in our own neighborhoods.

Through sPark, viable start-up businesses are continuously bringing in a new flow of capital and young entrepreneurs annually to Birmingham. Fellows inspire our schoolchildren and business leaders and encourage visitors to share in the development of ideas throughout each stage of the process. In this way, repeat visits yield new discoveries, questions, and moments of illumination each time a visitor engages with a fellow and his or her work at sPark.

When Birmingham dreams big, sPark becomes at once as a favorite local destination, a national landmark, a compass, an education, a catalyst, and a touchstone. This place, in the center of the city, in a flux of change, will offer opportunity for entrepreneurial leaders of the future.


Oftentimes in our lives, we need to feel a firm ground beneath our feet; but at some moments, we need to reach for the sky. Railroad Reservation Park allows us to connect with nature in the center of the city in the same way that sPark encourages us to reach above and beyond what is already known.

sPark serves as an incubator for the best and brightest ideas to find Birmingham's future. The development of entrepreneurship ideas must be a public process, engaging the widest range of community members, from the school child in the Birmingham City Schools to the medical professional at UAB to the banker or lawyer at the top of the tallest building downtown. Ideas that emerge will serve as best practices for other cities facing similar problems, drawing policy leaders and community members from other geographic regions to Birmingham to discuss reform.

The story of Birmingham is a rich heritage of struggle and progress. Our state has confronted history's most pressing social and political conflicts and cultivated some of its most distinguished leaders. A commitment to downtown revitalization and rich intellectual resources at our city's core confirm its potential. Birmingham has social and political challenges that can be solved, and sPark offers a platform for creativity and diversity of thought that can ensure that the story of Birmingham will be one of hope for our city and each of its children.