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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Partly Cloudy with Haze
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A more beautiful Southwest Bike Path
Neighborhood associations team up to improve an ugly crossing
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Jacob Blasczyk spearheaded the Southwest Bike Path gardening project.
Credit:Dave Kreisman

Across Madison, residents have stepped forward to help beautify our network of bike paths. On the near west side, that's led the Regent and Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhoods to create a unique partnership.

Their nexus is the Southwest Bike Path, where residents and organizations have come together to beautify their shared South Prospect Avenue crossing. It started modestly in 2000, as an experiment in "guerrilla gardening."

"It all began when a neighbor and I wanted to do something with that particular area, because it was uglier than sin," says Jacob Blasczyk, a resident of Keyes Avenue. The rail line was gone, but access ramps to the new path were framed by a rocky landscape of weeds and invasive plant species.

He talked the problem up with a neighbor. Blasczyk was all for drawing up a plan, he says, but his friend "sort of chuckled and said, 'I'm not really into a plan. I'll go scatter some seeds.' So that's how it started."

From those tiny seeds grew a mighty collection of diverse gardens that feature a mural, perennials, prairie plantings, a miniature lilac tree, a hosta garden and even raspberries and strawberries. "We may have some rhubarb if that shows up," says Blasczyk.

The project really gained steam three years ago. Blasczyk was inspired by Sandy Stark of the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association, who had helped create "a marvelous small prairie" along the path at nearby Glenway Street. She urged the involvement of both Dudgeon-Monroe and the adjacent Regent Neighborhood Association. A neighbor who's a landscape architect stepped forward, both associations kicked in funds, and a formal plan was finally created. Dozens of volunteers, including Boy Scouts, have worked to transform the area. During last summer's drought, neighbors even kicked in water.

Plans for work this summer on the South Prospect Avenue crossing include replacing daylilies - also called "ditch lilies" - with prairie plants. An Oregon teacher who lives in the Regent neighborhood is donating seed and growing them. The area around a stormwater sewer will be re-landscaped with sedges, to create a waterfall effect.

"It involves cooperation between two neighborhood associations," says Blasczyk. "That's what's very different about this particular effort."

There are similar bike-path projects of varying scale throughout the city. "It's something that happens in a number of locations in different ways," says Arthur Ross, city of Madison pedestrian and bicycle coordinator. "Mostly it's plantings - prairie plantings and some community gardens."

The Southwest Path is special in one way, however.

"One of the main things we did, when we built it, was creating a policy unique to this path," says Tony Fernandez, of the city's engineering division. "It encouraged private stewardship in the public corridor.

"We basically told people - neighbors, neighborhood associations, friends of the path organizations - that we would work with them. If you would like to come in and beautify, or plant native plants, or remove invasives, or do something for the benefit of the public and the neighborhood, we're going to accommodate that."

City help includes removal of brush cuttings or the occasional load of mulch. "Not funds, so much, but work we're able to do with equipment," says Fernandez. "I'd say it's been a very successful policy. We have a large number of groups out there who are maintaining parts of that path."

Why not extend the policy to other paths, then?

"Partly because this path was unique," Fernandez says. "There were a lot of existing yards in the corridor. We knew we did not want to clear the corridor of people's yards and their planting."

Still, a similar but revised policy may be extended to the Cannonball Path corridor, a new route linking Fitchburg and Arbor Hills with downtown Madison. (A bridge for it will be built over the Beltline Highway this summer, between Todd Drive and Fish Hatchery Road.)

Volunteer work along bike paths is generally a permitted process, so if you have a yen for public gardening, be sure to check with the city first. This is because "different areas have different ownership," notes Ross. "Some [portions of some paths] are in public parks, some of them are in city public right of way." The Southwest Path is owned by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

"We're perfectly happy to cooperate with the neighborhoods on these types of projects," says Ross. "It means less maintenance for us in some ways, and it encourages community ownership of the path. It's something we'd like to see more of, certainly."

Notes Blasczyk, "There needs to be at least a small core of adjacent neighbors who can spend the time, and also dedicate the resources."

To learn more about Madison's system of bike paths, visit cityofmadison.com/bikemadison. To help with the South Prospect Avenue crossing, contact Blasczyk at jblasczyk13@gmail.com.

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