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City of Madison Parks Division needs us to push them into the future

Last fall, I was very inspired by the city-endorsed conference on "placemaking" organized by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. There we learned that "lighter, quicker, cheaper" is the obvious way to go for cities like ours.

The main principles of this place-making strategy challenge the efficacy of top-down initiatives to improve neighborhoods with assertions like "the community is the expert" and "start with a vision." Our Mayor, when introducing the keynote speaker from the Project for Public Spaces, said plainly that the City should support good and interesting projects that crop up because it makes for a great community.

Everyone I've worked with in local government, neighborhood associations, and the Parks Division, have embodied this spirit. The ideas of "placemaking" totally make sense to all of us. It's like stating the obvious and putting a label on what people want to do.

But lighter, quicker, and cheaper doesn't exactly describe big machines, big systems, or big bureaucracies. The City of Madison Parks Division is more of a heavy, slow, and pot-bellied beast. It seems they need us to help them loosen their belts and step into the current.

Reflections from the Banks of the Yahara was envisioned with a friend and neighbor to put several temporary art pieces in the parkway along the Yahara River this summer. It is coming together in a ways I think are really beneficial for the neighborhood, for the Cap East District, and for the community. The Madison Arts Commission is supporting the project with money from the BLINK! program for temporary public art.

From May 15 through June 15, five artists' works will be displayed in the Yahara River Parkway between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. This is park land. Madison has more parks per person than any other U.S. city, by far. Taking care of them all is a huge job. The City of Madison Parks Division is, of course, under-funded, always criticized, and, at the same time, doing what it can to maintain the beautiful parks that define our city.

In the fall, I contacted the Parks people to get permission to install the artworks. The people have been helpful, the process has been hard. I think we're getting somewhere, but we're having to create the paperwork necessary before it can even start to be pushed around. Slowly.

I'm told there is actually no official process for asking to, and getting permission to, install temporary art in a City of Madison park. Which helps to explain why there is not nearly enough art in our public spaces.

Instead of spending time making art, creating a website for the project, organizing cool events in the parkway, and drumming up attention, I'm trying to figure out this Parks thing. Which will feel worth it if, as they say, this project is actually being used as a model for creating a NEW process by which other regular people like myself can propose putting some cool art in a city park.

Two months from now, I hope you can wander down to the river and be delighted by what you find. I hope you see your river newly, take your kids to picnic, and celebrate how wonderful it is to have this greenspace right in the heart of our downtown neighborhoods. Facebook folks, you can start by liking the idea of it.

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