Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Madison’s Reality Distortion Field, Or A Look at the Farmers Market by Chuck Banas

[ Chuck Banas is a Buffalo based urbanist and fantastic writer who runs a blog called Joe the Planner that sadly only gets a few articles a year. But they are all money. Thankfully he’s allowed me to repost them here, but be sure to check out his site for all of them. The latest repost is his take on Madison, Wisconsin and farmer’s markets – Aaron. ]

Madison, Wisconsin is an incredible place. I mean that in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. The city has tangibly more vitality than say, Denver, at about one-sixth the size.

That’s the thing that immediately struck me—how few people it takes to create a vibrant, energetic city. At least in this country, that is. Madison is in complete defiance of the way that the vast majority of U.S. cities and towns have developed, with their ubiquitously dead downtowns and placeless, mind-numbing, soul-sucking, vitality-sapping, automobile-based sprawl. In this sense, the city has much more in common with Europe than North America.

You’ve Got to Be Good to Be Lucky

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The central market square of Poznań, Poland, typical of European plazas. There is virtually no greenspace, yet this is among the most beautiful—and popular—types of public space. Framed and defined by the surrounding buildings, the space is furnished with high-quality pavements, a fountain, and several monuments. (Image from wikitravel.org)

Madison got lucky, however. It’s both a college town and a state capital. The 40,000 or so students at the University of Wisconsin virtually guarantee a lively pulse of street life and nightlife. There are thousands of well-paid middle-class jobs, from university faculty and staff to the jobs in state politics, government agencies, and museums. Many world-class cultural institutions are the inevitable product of both the university and the omnipresent state government. All of these things add value to the city, attracting talent and investment in a virtuous cycle.

On top of that, Madison was never an industrial city, so it never really suffered deindustrialization, and never contained the over-concentration of noxious industrial activities that, over time, helped to devalue cities like Buffalo. Madison also never truly experienced the race and poverty problems attendant on larger industrial cities, which helped to drive out the middle class in the decades following World War II.

It’s tough to screw up that equation. Not that some cities haven’t. Around here, building the North Campus of UB in Amherst immediately comes to mind. But Madison made some very wise choices over the last few decades that have helped turn it into one of the hippest and most valuable mid-sized cities in the country.

The Cold-Weather Straw Man

Before discussing this further, a perniciously popular myth about weather must be debunked. Madison’s success has absolutely nothing to do with its climate. The brutal Wisconsin winters are longer and more extreme than in Western New York, with nearly as much snow. Summers are hotter and more humid.

Obviously, Madison’s luck doesn’t include its weather, but the city’s success certainly doesn’t seem in any way impeded by it. Yet in Buffalo we spend a lot of time carping about our weather when it’s hardly different from Madison, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, or Toronto, or everywhere else in the Northeast and Midwest, and in many cases much better.

This pathetic bellyaching is not just demonstrably wrong, it’s disempowering. It perpetuates an ignorant stereotype among ourselves and outsiders. It’s lazy. It’s fatalistic. It absolves anyone of any responsibility or ability to do anything. It robs us and future generations of hope. It’s a non-issue and we simply need to get over it.

There it is. Weather myth debunked. Now can we move on?

The Public Realm: Design and Behavior Are the Same Thing

So, finally, here is the disclaimer: Madison is a reality distortion field. Yes, the conditions that undergird much of that city’s success can’t be duplicated in most other places. However, that success wasn’t divinely ordained, either. Their reality is simply the cumulative product of the choices and sustained efforts of Madison’s leaders and citizens. They’ve intentionally created a city for people, not cars. This is clearly reflected in the design of their streets and public spaces, which is the focus of this piece—and why Madison was an obvious choice of venue for the CNU.

In the United States, public space mostly comes in the form of the street, and sometimes the square or park. These spaces are often referred to by planners as the “public realm,” which can be thought of as all of the spaces owned collectively by the public, freely accessible to everyone.

Once upon a time, American cities did a fine job designing public space. Market plazas such as those pictured here were often not as ornate or refined as European plazas, but they were designed using the same principles. The top image is Market Square in Portsmouth, NH, 1853 (wikipedia.org). The bottom image is the Chippewa Market, Buffalo, 1896 (buffaloha.com).

Public space can be designed for different purposes. If one wants social, public activities like an outdoor market, a memorial service, or some other such event, one needs a specific type of space for that to take place. But in recent decades, almost all older cities and towns either mangled or entirely removed most of their good public spaces, usually in the effort to accommodate the automobile. As a result, we’ve lost much of the knowledge, and even the language, of good urban planning: witness the misnomic appropriation of words like “plaza” or “square” in the branding of suburban strip shopping centers.

Speaking of which, one of the primary goals of the CNU is to reclaim the language and revive the knowledge of civic art and placemaking. In terms of the design of public or civic space, the concepts of square, plaza, and park are a very good place to start.

Before World War II, American towns and cities did a pretty darn good job of creating all types of civic space, including market plazas. Here in Buffalo, over the last 60 years or so, the city removed four or five outdoor marketplaces that were distributed throughout various neighborhoods. Like almost every other American city, many were converted into parking lots. Others were demolished, often along with their surrounding neighborhoods, in the name of “urban renewal.” Yet others were simply put out of business by the new economics of sprawl and the supermarket.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the suburbs were designed around the car from the very start, and have never had any of these types of civic space. Even the most basic and normal civic activities, such as parades or fairs, don’t work very well in a strip mall parking lot or on a traffic-clogged suburban arterial. You can’t have a civic life if you don’t have good civic spaces. This is a big part of the reason why suburbs are often described as isolating and socially disconnected, even by some of their staunchest advocates. And, because of their car-centric design, low population density, and segregated-use zoning, most post-WWII ’burbs will probably never be able to build and sustain successful public spaces other than large, drive-in parks and sports complexes.

In any case, the design of parks and other types of civic space is much more sophisticated than just plopping down some trees or baseball fields. Urbanistically, there are three basic types of civic space: the square, the plaza, and the park. These fundamental types are designed to meet the three basic needs of a community: the civic, the economic, and the recreational. Properly designed, all types of public space also serve the fundamental social needs of people. Meeting these needs is essential for healthy, thriving civic life. For the purposes of this discussion, here are short definitions of the three types:

  • The square (known otherwise as a town square, neighborhood square, or village green, depending on context), usually fronted by civic buildings like the town hall, is designed for civic functions like parades, speeches, and demonstrations. The center of a square is the natural (and intentional) place for civic monuments, or in the case of Madison, the entire Capitol building, whose dome creates a beautiful vista for the eight streets radiating outward from the square.

  • The plaza (sometimes called a market plaza or market square) is intended for economic activities such as public markets, fairs, and festivals. The design of a plaza has some interesting caveats: most activities associated with a plaza have high foot-traffic, and vendor vehicles must also have access to the site. These activities are tough on grass surfaces, so plazas typically contain little or no greenspace. This runs counter to most Americans’ intuition; market plazas have been absent from our culture for several generations. However, all that hardscape doesn’t make plazas any less attractive than squares or parks; some of the most beautiful public spaces ever created are found in the lovely market squares of Europe.

  • The park (and the smaller playground) is designed for differing types of passive and active recreation and other social activities. A note on parks: in Buffalo and throughout the U.S., we’re quite familiar with large, sprawling parks of the type that Frederick Law Olmsted designed. Indeed, Olmsted designed Buffalo’s park and parkway system, the first such system in the nation, and the first of many more commissions throughout the U.S. Olmsted had more influence than any other figure in American landscape design, and his principles shape how we as a culture think about the role of parks and public space. The Olmstedian park is typically a large, spawling simulation of the natural landscape, intended to be an escape from hectic urban life. This is all well and good, but because Olmsted’s ideas have become so pervasive, American cities and towns tend to lack the smaller, more formal, more accessible types of local parks that are integral to functional, beautiful neighborhoods.

Another subtlety that may surprise many Americans is that there aren’t always strong distinctions between these types. Indeed, most civic space is hybrid to some extent, and there are many fine examples of civic spaces intentionally designed to serve double- or triple-duty. These hybrid spaces are often more successful than single-use spaces because they support a variety of simultaneous activities, or have varying activities at different times of day, or on different days of the week—as Madison’s Capitol Square attests.

How to Do a Farmers’ Market

Madison’s Capitol Square is a well-designed public space, with buildings that front the sidewalk and define the space of the square, with formal parkland inside the square. There is just enough hardscape so that the space can do double-duty as a marketplace or festival; the square doesn’t turn into a mud pit during an outdoor market. In comparison, Buffalo’s excellent Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market unfortunately takes place in a public space never designed for such a high-traffic function, resulting in problems like mud and dead grass on Bidwell Parkway.

Let’s take the specific example of the Dane County Farmers’ Market. On Saturdays during the spring, summer, and fall, the market is arrayed around Madison’s Capitol Square.

This is not a coincidence. Capitol Square is the natural location for this kind of event; it’s the physical and psychological center of the city and region. It is a beautiful public space, with the Wisconsin Capitol building at the center of a large, tree-lined square, and dignified downtown buildings containing shops, restaurants, and offices framing the edges.

Of course, this design is also no accident. Most great places are the product of intention. Like public squares in most older American cities, the space of Capitol Square was planned and designed precisely for both daily life and for special civic events like a public market. Many types of activities, from the mundane to the ceremonial, reinforce each other and activate the sidewalk. In addition to people on foot and bicycle, cars circulate around the square. But the outer roadway is relatively narrow, so cars move efficiently but slowly. They don’t threaten the safety or peace of people using the public space.

The whole effect is one of civility, vitality, and fun. From the very center of town, Madison is a city that cares about people. And people respond by using the streets and squares. There are shoppers, loungers, street performers, and people just passing through. Even on a day-to-day basis, there is more vitality here than in American cities many times the size. It’s a refreshing, ennobling experience.

The Whole Kit of Parts

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Vitality increases exponentially when several activities are combined in one space. Madison’s farmers’ market also includes many other synergistic activities, including live music, a car show, and daily activities such as shopping and dining, connecting seamlessly to the always vibrant strip of State Street.

From a design perspective, the basic tools of planning employed to make a healthy public realm come from a sort-of “kit of parts.” While there is a lot of flexibility regarding design, certain basics are mandatory. In order to be successful, you need the whole basic kit of parts, which includes the following:

  • Sense of enclosure. A successful space that is defined emphatically by buildings and/or trees. A public space must have a sense of enclosure; it must feel like an “outdoor room.” Orderly rows of trees and buildings that line up along the sidewalk do the trick.

  • More space for people, less for cars. There must be a significant amount of space devoted to the pedestrian: wide sidewalks and, in case of a square, generous areas of orderly hardscape and greenscape. Roads and travel lanes should be narrowed to provide safe, efficient traffic flow.

  • Permeable ground floor. In the case of squares or retail streets, buildings must contain a mix of uses, not just office space or some other single use, with a “permeable” ground floor fronting the sidewalk, containing shops, restaurants, and cafés.

  • Connected and walkable. The space must be physically connected and in close proximity to the rest of the city or town, easily accessible by various modes of transport, but most importantly within walking distance of neighborhoods.

Here in Buffalo, the weekly Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market is a very successful event, and has been a wonderful, natural addition to its neighborhood. Like so many other such markets across the nation, the Elmwood-Bidwell Market has become not just a forum for local agriculture, but for local culture as well. The market not only fulfills its basic economic function, but is also a place to socialize, to engage in those daily communal acts that create an authentic community.

Unfortunately, Buffalo’s Elmwood Village never really had a market square, so the only logical place to put it was at the only true civic space in the neighborhood: the intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. In the future, the community might do well to consider creating a proper plaza. If this happens, it probably won’t be at its current location, where there are strict protections for the historic Olmsted-designed parkway. Luckily though, there are a few parking lots and other empty parcels along Elmwood that could be converted into a beautiful, functional market plaza. It would be wise to identify and reserve one or two of these sites before they are privately developed. As local agriculture makes its way back into all of our lives, this would provide a much-needed type of public space, adding even more value to an already vibrant neighborhood.

Buffalo’s Niagara Square was once a lively public space, accommodating a healthy balance of pedestrians, trolleys, and cars. Removal of streetcar tracks, widening of the roadway, and elimination of interior on-street parking have created a comparatively desolate environment dominated by high-speed automobile traffic. The top image is Niagara Square in 1913 (buffalonian.com); bottom is Niagara Square in 2011 (gsa.gov).

A final note on one of Buffalo’s most important, visible, and abused public spaces: Niagara Square. The square is the center of Joseph Ellicott’s radial street plan for Buffalo, and the proverbial heart of the region—much like Madison’s Capitol Square.

Over the years, however, Niagara Square has become less and less people-friendly, as intrusive alterations were made in the attempt to accommodate the automobile. The roadway is far too wide, and fast-moving cars are a dominating, threatening presence. The square feels inaccessible and disconnected from the surrounding city.

Serving as Buffalo’s civic “front yard,” Niagara Square should be one of the city’s most beautiful and welcoming public spaces. The list of design problems might be long, but it’s a pretty easy prescription to start civilizing the square: narrow the roadway, widen the sidewalks, add pedestrian islands and well-marked crosswalks, add curbside parking (or even angled parking), change the asphalt to brick, add rows of trees (and use proper species of tree), and replace the highway-style “cobra” lights with lanterns.

That’s a tall order, but the good news is that the work can be done incrementally, and any one of those changes will make the place noticeably better, adding real value.

The Value of Public Space

Speaking of value, perhaps the best test of the design of public space is how many people naturally go there even when a festival or other special event isn’t going on. Great public spaces are great not just due to practical utility, but because people enjoy just being there. They’re beautiful. They’re spiritually rewarding. And because they are a physical part of the daily lives of citizens, great public spaces help to give a neighborhood that intangible but palpable “sense of place.” Going to the grocery, post office, or pharmacy may be a mundane chore, but a properly assembled public realm can dignify the trip, and help connect you physically and psychologically to your community.

Well-designed public spaces raise the value of the whole neighborhood, and in aggregate, the whole city—including everyone’s property values. These days, that’s a message most Americans would love to hear.

This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on June 6, 2011.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Madison (Wisconsin)

21 Responses to “Madison’s Reality Distortion Field, Or A Look at the Farmers Market by Chuck Banas”

  1. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I once visited Madison and stayed there for 6 days[They have a very nice hostel there for $25 a night,btw] .And i thought that it was a great place to visit.and that it would be a great place to live

    But i couldnt help noticing one thing. Not only did i not see anyone that looked poor, i also didnt really see anyone that looked like they held a blue collar job

    In America, you can often tell a person’s socio-economic class by the way they dress and/or thier hairstyle,ect. Im not trying to stereotype or be snobby when i say this. I myself work as a construction laborer . But that is why i noticed that almost everyone walking around Madison was an upper-middle class white person

    The suburbs of Madison seemed to have some black neighborhoods.But these neighborhoods were solidly middle class looking and full of single family homes. Maybe it was just me.But i rode a rented bike around the Madison area for three days [ about ten hours a day] and i didnt see many apartment buildings and/or many people in the city that looked like they worked at a blue collar job.

    I even had a conversation with a guy who was working on his garden plot in a city run community garden. I forgot what he said about how much he paid for renting his very small plot. But i remember that it was in the hundreds of dollars.And was not something that the average American could afford

    So while Madison is a great city in many ways, i dont see it as a role model for other American cities. Any city that is full of only upper middle class people, is going to have a low crime rate and high standard ofliving .And if my hometown of Baltimore didnt have to spend money on public housing and on lower income residents, im sure that it could afford to create as many bike lanes as Madison has

  2. Racaille says:

    Speaking of Buffalo:


    And certainly, no Sunburnt Belt city will ever compare.

  3. Aaron T. says:

    This is a great, great post.

    The elephant in the living room, however, is the main/primary difference between the two cities: leadership.

    While Madison benefits from progressive, forward-looking political leadership, Buffalo is stymied by the likes of Byron Brown–a lackluster (at best), incompetent, and self-serving mayor.

    Every change that takes place in the city is the result of the people (and, some corporations, such as M&T, which are more engaged)–not from the likes of Brown and his pastors. Get some good leadership in place and watch Buffalo really go!

  4. Racaille says:

    “not from the likes of Brown and his pastors”

    Rust-Belt cities need to learn that this dynamic NEVER works.

    It’s a failure from the start.

  5. Costanza says:

    Good point Racaille, I’m always amazed at how many “houses of worship” are in the most decrepit places. Doesn’t seem to help.

  6. Racaille says:


    Houses of worship, like weeds, typically grow during a climate of failure.

    And then, of course, there’s Houston.

  7. Skip says:

    Pete from Baltimore – Being a resident of Madison, I wanted to address your comment.

    I take your point that Madison is a very middle-class city but we have blue collar workers (though I think we need much more blue collar work) and poor people. You may have seen some of the latter on State Street begging for change. Our homeless shelters can’t accommodate everyone who needs a spot to sleep and I recall very well reading articles when the recession hit about how food banks can’t keep up with demand either. Did you bike by the trailer park on the north side?

    The percentage of students in our public schools receiving free lunches or lunch at a reduced price is near 50%, if the article I read last on the subject is to be believed. The 2 counties which have the most people move to the Madison area are Milwaukee and Cook (Chicago). I think Madison gets a fair number of poorer people from those places looking for a change of scenery and a fresh start.

    Madison does have a lot of “big city” problems but not of the magnitude of Baltimore, Milwaukee, or Chicago.

    I feel stupid saying “Madison has poor people too!” but there are many Madisonians who aren’t living the middle-class dream of farmer’s markets, bike lanes, and so on. A bakery in my neighborhood sells $7-8 PB&J sandwiches yet many of the kids at the school one block from my house can’t afford lunch. One of the janitors at my place of employment lives in the aforementioned trailer park and has no hot water. He hunts, fishes, and uses a food bank to get by.

    There are poor people all around this country. Even in Madison.

  8. David Holmes says:

    Nice post. Madison is one of my favorite cities. Joe is correct about it’s nice to be lucky, and Madison is blessed to be both a state capitol and a home of a major research university. However, as also noted in the article and several of the comments has also benefitted from a century or more of progressive policies, and an exceptional natural setting, both in terms of the immediate city (one a peninsula between two lakes) and in terms of the surrounding area that straddles the edge between glaciated areas and the “driftless” region.

    The business community is progressive as well, perhaps as best exemplified by Epic Systems, a privately held electronic medical records company founded in Madison in 1979 that now employs more than 6,000 high technology workers at it’s self titled “intergalactic headquarters” in nearby Verona, where it is completing its completing a $400 million expansion on its 800 acre campus (that includes a 6,000 seat auditorium and by this summer an additional 11,000 seat auditorium to host company). The founder, Judith Faulkner, is a supporter of the Democratic party in Wisconsin. In addition to now being worth an estimated $1.7 billion, she has likely created more private sector jobs in Wisconsin over the past several years than any other individual (sadly, no interview yet scheduled on Fox News for someone who is a true “job creator” only in a progressive Madison WI model).

  9. Pete from Baltimore says:

    Regarding comment #7 by Skip
    Mr Skip, i certainly dont consider it a “Bad thing” that Madison has very few poor people.so im not suggesting that residents there should somehow feel guilty about it

    My point was merely that Madison is a great town.But that many of the good things about it cant be replicated elsewhere

    I remember going to the student union to get a bratz and watch the sun go down over the lake. It was a great experience.But i remember seeing literally hundreds of bikes parked there.And only about a third of them had any sort of lock My first thought was that if this was Baltimore, these bikes would all have been stolen

    Thats something that Madison should be proud of. It has a very low crime rate.Especially for a city of about 200,000 people. Baltimore has 600,000 people.And ive literally had 3 shootings within a hundred feet of my house.And i live in a good neighborhood of Baltimore. So i envy and respect Madison for being so safe But i dont think its a case of Madison having good crime fighting methods that other cities could replicate.

    Madison seems to be expensive by Wisconsin standards.But cheap by many other standards. Because of its University, it attracts a lot of people that make a good wage.But because of its relative low cost of living, these people can live quite well. I know that i would rather live on a college proffessor’s wages in Madison ,rather than in Manhatten

    This is all good and well.And Madison residents should be proud of how nice their city is. But my only point is that all of this is due to a combination of factors that are hard to replicate elsewhere

    I would add that whenever people at my local bar talk about traveling, i always mention Madison as a great place to got to. I spent 6 days there.And on the same trip, i spent 10 days in Chicago.and while i loved Chicago, i liked Madison even better

    I wish Baltimore could be more like Madison.But i know that it cant Thats not a put down of Madison. Just the reality that some good things cant be copied

  10. wkg_in_bham says:

    Looking into the capital city/state u correlation – per capital income (2011)
    Madison W $45,964
    Columbus O $ 40,188
    Baton Rouge $ 46,575
    Tallahassee $ 31,424
    Austin Tx $ 47,570

    State U Cities:
    Athens G $ 29,506
    Ann Arbor $ 47,288
    Auburn $ 23,562
    Gainesville $ 33,831
    Tuscaloosa $ 33,465
    Lansing $ 36,171
    Bloomington $ 27,815
    Champaign $ 34,311
    College Sta $ 26,633

    Tallahassee has managed to blow a good hand

    I’ve always been skeptical about the economic spin-off effects of Big Ed. The college towns that I’m familiar with (Gainesville, Athens, Auburn, Tuscaloosa) are very poor despite the good salaries of (some) of the university staff/facility. I think a combination of a good STEM program U with a vibrant local (and sizable) economy is needed (e.g. MIT, Stanford, U Texas, Ga. Tech, Carnegie-Mellon) .

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    One should also add Lincoln and Des Moines to the comparison. They are almost exactly the same size as Madison, Upper Midwest state capital cities; Lincoln is also a Big10 city.

    MSP is similarly lacking in minority population, so it would be an interesting social/cultural benchmark for Madison. In fact, I’d assert that a big Madison would look a lot like MSP.

    Note that Lansing is also a state capital/state U combination of approximately the same metro size as Madison, at approximately the same latitute and climate. But it has that “noxious industry” history and formerly had a large blue-collar middle class supported by GM.

  12. wkg_in_bham says:

    Lincoln N

  13. wkg_in_bham says:

    Lincoln N

  14. wkg_in_bham says:

    Lincoln Neb $39,018
    Des Moines $44,966
    Columbia SC $35,350

  15. Skip says:

    I apologize because I think I wasn’t clear in my first comment. I appreciate your kind words and did not think you were putting Madison down. We agree on Madison’s unique circumstances and the difficultly in emulating them. I was trying to say that Madison’s reality distortion field might be taking a dent soonish if issues such as poverty are not addressed.

  16. Skip says:

    Oops. That was meant for Pete from Baltimore.

  17. jim from madison says:

    Pete from Baltimore: just a little (but important) note about the cost of a community garden plot here in madison. it’s a sliding fee of $10-65 per season (see http://www.cacscw.org/get_a_garden.php ). plots are generally 20×20, and new gardeners are often encouraged to take half a plot (for half the fee) because 20×20 is sometimes too much for a new gardener. the rate is the same across the city, which contracts with Community Action Coalition (CAC) to manage the program. most community gardeners are low or moderate income.

  18. David Holmes says:

    In discussing the economic fate and quality of life of various cities across the U.S. (and, in particular, those in “rust belt”) any analysis that includes Madison will inevitably present Madison as a Midwestern anomaly with its good fortune attributable in some significant part to its status as a state capitol and the home of a major university. I was glad to see the author as well as some of commenters note that there is more to Madison’s success than just those two major “blessings.”

    What I would be tempted to argue with some of my friends in the Midwest (as well as those in cities such as Portland and Seattle) is that Madison really isn’t that much of an anomaly if you really take a look at its regional context – it’s merely the center city of a “prosperity/innovation/quality of life belt” extending from Chicago, through Milwaukee, then Madison, La Crosse, Rochester MN, to the Twin Cities, that includes 4 of the 30 top ranked universities in the world, at least 24 headquarters for Fortune 500 companies, and one of the top 5 medical centers in the world.

    It’s convenient to dismiss Madison as an anomaly (and for that matter the Twin Cities, Rochester MN, and Chicago) because that makes it easier to ignore a much broader story unfolding in at least parts of the Midwest that doesn’t fit with the standard declining Midwest/dying rust belt paradigm.

  19. AC says:

    The recent discussion about Chicago’s seemingly-endless boosterism reminds me of a similar attitude in Madison: Madison’s boosterism and well-earned pride about certain aspects of the city does venture into provincialism/parochialism. Ask anyone from Madison or who went to UW, and they will describe the city as a kind of utopia and cite the present-day liberal and/or progressive attitudes, the co-op and farmer’s market, the bike paths, and so forth. I loved a lot of things about Madison, enough to have a wedding there even neither myself nor my husband were Madison natives or UW alumni. We lived on Willy Street, off the capital square, and on the East side, for reference; we now live in Brooklyn and generally preferred Milwaukee over Madison, so we are happily urban-dwellers, so you can take my following comments with a grain of salt. I’m not criticizing Madison for not suiting us, nor do I think it can suit/fit everyone who lives there, but the urban planning/quality of life claims from Madisonians often feels a bit … overstated.

    What I disliked about Madison is that the city’s progressive attitudes was mostly defined in terms of consumption – shopping at the co-op! – rather than policies or even attitudes towards other residents. Moreover, I disliked the sprawl and settlement patterns of the city: most downtown housing is for students, or seems to be poorly-constructed condos, and living too far east or west meant a headache of a commute on the beltline. While people love to point to Epic Systems as an example of the “high tech” draw of Madison, it is rather far away from the downtown area and frankly, living in Middleton or Mt. Horeb is nowhere near close enough to the downtown area.

    So yes, I agree with the post’s premise – well-designed public spaces can contribute to a general sense of community or vitality – but there is little connection from the downtown area to the other parts of Madison. And when we moved in 2010 and as far as I can still tell, there are few efforts to integrate the rest of the city and/or edges (McFarland, Sun Prairie, Middleton, and so forth) to those downtown spaces. It’s partly due to geographic limitations (the isthmus!) but also because there is a great deal of resistance from all parts of the political spectrum to any effort to expand the transit system. It is not a city where you have a lot of options to go car-less, even if you live downtown.

    Finally, Madison is college town ringed by more suburban/rural areas, and I’ve generally found that most people who live there are natives, have family in the area, or settled there after attending UW. Those are built-in social networks that ensure Madison’s growth but, if you are new with few connections, it seems like most people in Madison don’t have enough room for newcomers in their life. This is something that is mentioned by most ex-Madison residents that I’ve met – I know a lot of people who preferred to live in Milwaukee and commute to Madison for work simply because there weren’t many social options for professionals who were post-college but not ready to start a family.

  20. John Morris says:

    @ Pete in Baltimore,

    There is a big difference between places like Queens or Houston where many poor quickly rise into the middle class, and places like Baltimore which have massive, intergenerational poverty.

  21. George Mattei says:

    William H. Whyte’s study of public spaces in New York provided a great resource for what design elements make good public space. Chuck Banas hit on the effect of these proven features, but anyone looking for a good scientific description should read Whyte’s work.

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