These Fellows Know Urbanism Is The Road to Better Health

By: Javacia Harris Bowser

Ethan Madison and Faris Zaibaq know that the focus for their Albert Schweitzer Fellowship year isn’t a typical project for the program. At first glance, one might think that creating safer infrastructure for active transportation in Birmingham isn’t a public health issue. But Ethan and Faris know better. 

Ethan, who is entering his second year of residency in periodontology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Dentistry, frequently sees low-income patients cancel appointments due to lack of transportation. Faris, who is entering his second year at UAB’s Heersink School of Medicine, knows that promoting urbanism can promote overall well-being. 

“It’s a very intersectional topic that affects a lot of different aspects of life such as childhood obesity, managing diabetes, mental health,” Faris says. Along with skipping appointments because they don’t have reliable transportation, patients also might not get their needed medications because they have no way to the pharmacy. They can’t go outside for a walk because they don’t feel safe. 

“Our goal is to improve the urbanism of the City of Birmingham,” Faris says. “And what that means to us is making the city more accessible and safer to people who are outside of a car. More accessible by walking, by biking, by other modes of transit, in order to do activities in their daily life or maybe just to go out and exercise or maybe just to go across the street to the grocery or the pharmacy or other such errands.”

Ethan and Faris know that this is a lofty goal, especially in a city like Birmingham. 

“Like most American cities, Birmingham’s challenges come down to two issues: resources and politics,” Ethan says. 

With suburban sprawl, not only are destinations farther away but city resources are stretched thin. 

“Without a more convenient option, people have become dependent on cars to make their daily trips,” Ethan adds. “Simultaneously, as more of the people in a city shift farther away from one another, physical improvements to the city’s infrastructure can affect fewer people with a given budget and people become disincentivized to support these improvements.”

Despite these immense challenges, Ethan and Faris are confident they can make a difference, one street at a time. They plan to complete two or three projects during their fellowship. First up is a street transformation in downtown Woodlawn at 1st Avenue South. Working with the Birmingham Department of Transportation, they’ll add a bike path, additional parking and other elements to make the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists. 

Ethan and Faris are grateful for the support they’ve received from the Woodlawn neighborhood and from James Fowler, director of the Birmingham Department of Transportation, who suggested the Woodlawn project. 

The need for these improvements is evident.

“At one of the intersections we’re focusing on is an elderly care home called the Faush Manor and right across the street from them is Christ Health Center’s clinic facility. And these residents of the elderly home physically cannot cross the street and go 100 feet to the Christ Health facility because there’s no crosswalk and they don’t feel comfortable crossing the road,” Faris explains. “Even when it’s right there, right outside of your window, there’s still an accessibility issue. Improving that accessibility to people who are not in a car, for pedestrians, for cyclists, that has many impacts on health that are widespread.”

Ethan and Faris are also planning to pilot improvements to 20th Street through downtown Birmingham. 

Ethan and Faris met while working on a project related to their passion for urbanism. 

“Last year, Faris and I — along with other community partners — helped organize the activation of the Richard Arrington Jr. Viaduct, commonly known as the ‘Rainbow Bridge, connecting Northside and Southside downtown Birmingham,” Ethan explains. “This project converted a closed-off bridge into a space for people to socialize and commute via foot, bike, or scooter, free from the dangers and pollution associated with motor vehicles.”

Many of the volunteer efforts related to this project were spearheaded by the Alabama Urbanists Coalition, of which Ethan and Faris are cofounders and officers. The Alabama Urbanists Coalition (AUC) is a statewide community of people interested in bettering the quality of life in Alabama through improvements to the built environment and related regulations. 

In addition to organizing volunteer events, the AUC helps to shape public policy. For example, the AUC was involved in Birmingham’s recent removal of minimum parking regulations.

If you walk by Rainbow Bridge and see a group of people having a sunrise yoga class or a birthday party, you can thank AUC for helping to activate that space in a way that breathes life into downtown. 

A few months after working on the Rainbow Bridge project, Faris learned about the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship and encouraged Ethan to apply with him. 

“This is not the traditional project that ASF takes on and I really appreciate that they have been open minded to take us on as fellows,” Faris says. “We’re trying something new and we’re approaching an important problem from a different angle.”

The projects that Ethan and Faris are taking on will live on long after their fellowship year ends. 

“Our projects are meant to be the beginnings of larger projects,” Ethan says. “In Woodlawn, the Birmingham Department of Transportation plans to extend and make permanent a version of the changes we implement in our project during the next repaving of 1st Avenue South.”

Furthermore, Ethan and Faris will continue their work with the Alabama Urbanists Coalition. 

They both feel that promoting urbanism is part of their duties as healthcare providers. 

“As a healer, I have a responsibility to improve peoples’ lives,” Ethan says. “Through this project I can improve lives even without direct treatment.”