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Winter in a Model City

This morning, the birds were singing. I've been listening. Listening and looking around. As a photographer and an aesthetic thinker, really seeing is a kind of listening for me.

It is February. The light outside is often beautiful, though the palette is subdued. Inside, my desk is covered in piles. I'm catching up after the holidays while gearing up for the next round of birthdays and celebrations. On the floor next to my bed is the book I got for Christmas from my Mother-in-Law. The handmade bookmark from my daughter in there points to the fact that since that leisurely stretch of unstructured days, when I read on the sofa full of zeal and interest, I've gotten distracted. But I keep thinking of the ideas in the book.

Because they keep coming up in different ways.

In the introduction of Erika Janik's Madison: History of a Model City, Madison is described as a place that "took full advantage of its natural assets." As a place, it was "as pleasing to the eye as it was to live and work."

This was the "aspirational vision" of the landscape architect John Nolan in 1911!

For me, it is true and aspirational still today, one hundred years later. 

What does the city want to be in 2016?

Also while lying on the couch over break, I read an interview in the Public Art Review with a modern planner named Mark VanderSchaaf. He says that "people throughout the world and throughout the ages have always thought of places as having personalities." In cities where he works, like the Twin Cities (which I personally consider model cities), he engages in 'deep' listening. Instead of asking people "What do we want the city to be?" he tries to listen for an answer to the question "What does the city want to be?"

In Madison, city planners are in first phase of what I'm sensing is an important round of modern planning. It is set to culminate with a plan for "growth and development" in 2020. Back in December, my neighborhood listserv alerted me to a survey developed to inform this plan, called A Greater Madison Vision: A Shared Regional Vision and Strategy. (I'm really sorry I'm mentioning it now, too late for you to take the survey. Like I said, my desk is covered in piles...)

The website explains that the survey was to help them learn people's core values

"Survey results tell us the common shared values across the region and how they relate to our experiences and feelings about our communities....[which] will inform the design of a handful of alternative growth scenarios. Extensive community polling will be used to select the most preferred scenario and craft a strategy to achieve it."

But what does Madison, as a place, want to be?

In January, I had the honor of attending the Madison Arts Commission event "celebrating the collective impact we make on our community through art and culture." 

Mayor Paul Soglin spoke. He reminisced about transitioning State Street into the pedestrian mall we know today during his early days as mayor. He explained that the City put out a call to city planners for proposals. The planner who was chosen, and who is credited with bringing out the essence of State Street, emphasized listening 'to let the place express itself.'

I was among an impressive group of artists, visionaries, and community leaders. I had the sense that these were people who hear the vibe of this place. Or maybe they create it? 

I wonder, are people and place so distinct?

I am guessing they are not. A place draws people. The values of the people drawn-in ultimately shape the place. But it is winter, a time when people are a notch quieter, and I have been listening to the places I frequent with new eyes. 

The personality of these waters, shores, mounds, plants, and animals have value. As a resident and neighbor, my values are shaped by their value.

All photos by Jessica Becker.

PS: The Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association is sponsoring a photo contest from now through October 2016. There are three themes: Faces, Places, & Action. Post a photo to the TLNA Facebook page to enter. More information is here.

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