[This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Madison Magazine]
I was inspired by Neil Heinen’s retrospective, “Nolen’s Vision: 100 Years Later” (January 2011). It got me thinking: What will Madison be 100 years from now? Will Madison become an even better version of itself? And what will that look like?
It depends on whether we—as citizens, workers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, businesspeople, students, activists, academics and
electeds—can face and embrace the truths and trends already taking root in a city we love.
It depends on whether we can get out of our own way.
Madison’s self-importance mucks up everything.
Those who believe it get lazy and lose urgency for the Very Real Work that still needs doing, e.g., lakes our kids can safely swim in. I was recently with friends in San Francisco who’d relocated from Appleton thirty years ago. They reminisced about Madison and the great times they’d spent as kids on Lake Mendota. The tone of the conversation shifted dramatically when they recalled the blue-green algae they’d seen in a recent YouTube video shot at Lake Mendota. It hurt to hear them say “Madison” and “gross” in the same sentence.
Seriously, we can do better than this.
For those who don’t give a toss about Madison, our hubris makes us an easy target, as in, “Who do they think they are down there in Madison?” Governor Walker used this to great political effect. And I’m sorry to say it, but I think it was good for us.
As Elizabeth Brownrigg writes, “Sometimes disappointment is the only thing that can slap you hard enough to wake you up.”
Madison’s Wake-Up Call
The truth is, Madison has work—serious work—to do if we are to become a place our kids and grandkids can be proud of and want to call home.
For starters, Madison needs to start acting its size. We are Wisconsin’s second-largest city, and the only large Wisconsin city that’s doubled in size in the last thirty years. But in a country whose growth is turbocharged by nonwhites, Madison’s cultural competence is abysmal. I’ve been in meetings where the “diversity discussion” hinges on whether Kaleem Caire, the head of the Urban League, will join the board. In focusing on the One, we’re missing the Many.
Inclusion is a core competency of a twenty-first-century city, and one Madison is sorely lacking. (If a white woman writes about inclusion, will anyone listen?)
Madison also needs to get its head screwed on straight about growth and economic prosperity. First, growth is good. Bigger cities are
(mostly) better cities—more prosperous, more efficient, more innovative and dynamic.
The physicist Geoffrey West used reams of data to prove that whenever a city doubles in size—as Madison did between 1980 and 2010—“every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately fifteen percent per capita.” Of Wisconsin’s four largest cities, only Madison has accomplished this feat, making it the most potent economic engine in the state. But attracting more people is the input. Our greatness will be measured by our output.
So we must be intentional about how we organize and (re)design our city. We must remember that cities are for people. Not buildings. Or cars. Or pavement. Cities are the greatest human invention because designed well, they put more people in the proximity of greater resources. If they are designed poorly, people and the social fabric of cities fray apart.
To my mind, the Allied Drive neighborhood and Epic’s Verona campus are both city failures. Their creation left too much space between where people live and everything else—where they work, shop and recreate.
In Allied Drive, we cut off an entire neighborhood with giant swaths of asphalt and speeding cars. In return, we got a pocket of nonsense. And by putting one of Dane County’s major employers, Epic, in a cornfield in Verona, we invented a traffic clusterbomb.
As architect Rem Koolhaas quipped, we’ve focused too much on buildings and ignored the spaces between them. Indeed, it is these spaces between us—between kids and their schools, between parishioners and their churches, between workers and their cubicles, between kitchens and farms—that can make or break a city.