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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Fair
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Madison mayor, council look for ways to create "placemaking" opportunities for the city

Much of the discussion was about how to encourage and foster old-fashioned neighborhoods with small-scale retail that is within walking distance.
Credit:Joe Tarr
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Mayor Paul Soglin met informally with several members of the Madison Common Council Friday afternoon to talk about opportunities for "placemaking." The meeting came on the heels of a series of workshops led by Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces, earlier this week.

Soglin called the special meeting, but many council members were confused about what he wanted to talk about. Even a development lobbyist showed up in case the council talked about his project.

But the meeting was devoted to brainstorming about ways the city can create the kind of "placemaking" that Kent encourages, fostering community by getting input from the people who use a space.

Thirteen alders attended at least some of the meeting -- one short of the quorum needed for official council meetings.

Soglin frequently referred to Kent's advice that the city take actions that are "quick, cheap and light." He said one example of this is how two simple changes at Brittingham Park -- offering boat rentals and creating a community garden -- alleviated many neighborhood concerns about crime and drinking the park.

"We did two community-based things that were quick, cheap and light -- and it changed the whole complexion of the park," he said.

Using the Google Maps Street View feature, Soglin zoomed in and out of various parts of the city, looking at good and bad examples of urban design in Madison. He also looked at other cities, including Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, Milwaukee and Madrid, Spain.

Much of the discussion was about how to encourage and foster old-fashioned neighborhoods with small-scale retail that is within walking distance.

Ald. Lauren Cnare sounded one note of caution about being too harsh on the suburbs. She noted that many alders live in the suburban districts. "It's not like we're living in these areas saying, 'Oh, my God, this is terrible, I want to live somewhere else.'"

She added that strip plazas are often where start-ups locate, because that's where the rents are cheaper.

"We don't have to tear down the strip malls, but what can we do to improve them," responded Ald. Lisa Subeck.

There were complaints about the city's bus transfer stations, for their lack of activity. Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff wished the transfer stations had kiosks that sold coffee and newspapers.

Ald. Marsha Rummel said the location of the transfer points was very contentious. "They were going to be in places where people could go but then they got hidden."

At the end of the meeting, Subeck suggested that the city give each aldermanic district $5,000 to experiment with placemaking, by using participatory budgeting. "Because you can't do placemaking city-wide," she said.

The mayor suggested council members come up with a list of priorities for their district and look for easy opportunities to do placemaking. "Find ten places where you can do ten things," he said.

He added that in the operating budget, a draft of which he is scheduled to release next Tuesday, "there is a small amount of money that the council can play with."

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