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Healthy and Happy Urban Living

"Cities are the greatest thing that people do."
-Stewart Brand, author of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, and featured speaker at the 2017 Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference in Madison

We have a problem. Let's solve it.

Madison is projected to have 70,000 new residents by 2040. The current population of the city is around 250,000, so that significant shift presents all sorts of possibilities, and problems.

Like all American cities, the street systems are designed for cars. Like most American cities, the public transportation system is too inefficient or too inconvenient for a good portion of the population to want to use it.

The Cap East District, as envisioned and supported by city planning, is now booming. It's an urban-infill dream come true: unused buildings and empty lots are giving rise to high-rise mixed-use spaces. 

So the problem is: Lots of people who want to move around in a city. It is easier to design a system from scratch than to retrofit it. We don't want to clear-cut this urban isthmus (or any part of the city). However, what is happening in the Cap East District is almost like a new city by design.

So as this dream comes true for developers and city government, I hope the people don't get run over. Literally. We need a vision for human movement and behavior, and we need transportation systems to support the dream. We don't want to try to retrofit it in 2040.

This Wisconsin State Journal article about the Cosmos apartment complex alongside Starting Block Madison and American Family Insurance article ends with an admission of a part of the problem: "We have to take a better look at how we get people across East Wash. How do we get the people back and forth comfortably and safely? That's going to be a long-term issue we'll have to be looking at as we develop East Wash."

I'm struck by the fecklessness of this statement. Is it really possible at this stage of the game that this important piece of the puzzle is missing?

There is a transportation master plan and, like any average citizen, I know very little about it. It's called Madison in Motion. At a session of the recent Earth Day conference at Monona Terrace, Brian Grady from the city's planning division explained to a crowded room of people that is hasn't been as successful as it should have been.

The Earth Day conference, presented by the UW's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, was tagged "Hope and Renewal in the Age of the Apocalypse." It was a welcome chance to consider shining examples of human problem-solving. The featured presenters were there to push us to think big, thing bold, and think pragmatically.

Cities are beautiful and intricate systems for people to meet their needs while developing their well-being and happiness. Julian Agyeman, author of Sharing Cities and Just Sustainability, offered a concept called "urban acupuncture." The term was coined by Brazilian architect, urbanist and mayor Jaime Lerner. Agyeman told stories of 'pin-pricks of excellence,' such as High Line Park in New York City and Spanish Park Library in an impoverished neighborhood of MedellĂ­n, Columbia. These intense injections of visionary change have a healing effect on the neighborhood and the city. The good energy spreads. 

Excellence is contagious: once people experience what is possible, they want and create more excellence.

The Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association has decided to make traffic issues the focus of projects, events, and conversations this year. Residential and commercial density is concentrated and increasing quickly in this neighborhood and we feel the tension that can birth grand change. Positive, negative, both, either.

How much can a neighborhood association accomplish?

On April 17th, an initial meeting was held for neighbors to talk with traffic engineering specialist Tom Mohr. The agenda and scope of that meeting can be found here. The slides from Mohr's presentation can be found here.

There are many concerns, but at this meeting, the focus was on the East Mifflin Street bike boulevard and traffic around Lapham Elementary School. Mohr discussed the issues, brought to light the pros and cons of possible changes, and encouraged neighbors to work together to design solutions. 

Graphic from City of Madison traffic engineer Tom Mohr


Let's do some urban acupuncture. Let's be bold and move toward a vision. Let's look for shining examples, trust data, ask for expertise, and make changes.

A neighborhood steering committee is forming and will meet this week: May 18, 2017, 7:00 PM at Festival Foods 2nd Floor Conference Room. We are lucky to have people working on this and we owe it to them to respect their ideas and try them.

It seems to me we don't have problems of engineering or science. We have 'social science' problems. In other words, the real challenge is in presenting opportunities that allow us as individuals to feel lucky to be part of a community with equitable and healthy systems working in our favor. If we recognize and capitalize on our strengths, we will be resilient as other changes come.

At this moment in history, fully half of the world's population lives in cities. The median age in Madison is 30.8 years old. This is visible in the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood. But here, among the old trees and historic parks, we also benefit from the wisdom that comes from a diversity of experience.

We are ripe to become a pin-prick of excellence on the planet. I am looking for bold vision. I am hopeful we can experiment and strive to be an example talked about by conference presenters in the future.

"The person who is in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go." -German theologist Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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