When Greg Rosenberg approached Madison officials in 2001 about Troy Gardens, a 31-acre urban farm on Madison's north side, he was getting into matters outside their comfort zone.
"Trying to get that approved by the city was tremendously complex. It was such a weird project for them," says Rosenberg, executive director of the Madison Area Community Land Trust. "Now we see things catching up."
Last week, as first lady Michelle Obama began digging a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House, Rosenberg and other proponents of urban agriculture sat down with the city staff involved in the massive overhaul of Madison's zoning code.
"We had a packed meeting looking at urban ag and zoning, which sounds really nerdy but was really exciting," Rosenberg says of the meeting. "We've got a window, and we've got to make good use of it."
The goal of the Madison Urban Agriculture Ordinance Workgroup is to advance the cause of city farming - animals as well as plants, commercial as well as personal. The group began weeding through definitions and such nuisance issues as smell, noise and stormwater runoff.
Matt Tucker, the city's zoning administrator, enthusiastically embraces the group's goal.
"We're trying to incorporate urban agriculture in most of the districts," says Tucker. "This could bring employment in a commercial district if we had a vacant building and someone wanted to start a hybrid growing venture or a fish farm. How cool is that?"
Tucker allows that it's a much different world today than in 1966, when the city's current zoning code was passed. No one could have envisioned something like Troy Gardens, or the much larger urban ag initiatives being done in such cities as Cleveland.
A group called Growing Power Inc. runs urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago. It also has projects that use vertical farming methods like aquaculture, cultivating plants and fish in a recirculating system.
In 20 years, Rosenberg sees greenhouses with these systems dotting the Madison landscape, with rooftop gardens growing on many grocery stores around the city. "We can't just think about what's on the ground right now," he says.
While this subcommittee is just starting to plant the seeds of these ideas, there is agreement that the code needs to expand to increase opportunities for urban agriculture.
"It makes sense, and there's a growing interest on most people's part on growing their own food," says Madison Ald. Lauren Cnare, a member of the Zoning Code Rewrite Advisory Committee, or Z-CRAC.
"They're increasingly interested in doing it for health, but also for the satisfaction of digging in the dirt and bringing in their own food."
Brand new bag ban
Madison recycling coordinator George Dreckmann is helping draft an ordinance to ban plastic bags from the trash stream and urge residents to recycle them at up to 50 drop spots around town.
"It's a different approach. Nobody has tried doing this," Dreckmann says of the ordinance, which he expects will be introduced next month. "Others either ban these bags or mandate that merchants do the recycling." This puts the onus on the pro-recycling public: "We'll see how it's received."
Retailers and grocers have opposed an outright plastic bag ban, like those enacted in some bigger cities including New York and San Francisco. They say this would cause a spike in grocery prices because biodegradable bags for produce and meat are more costly.
But Madison Ald. Judy Compton, the ordinance's main sponsor, thinks it's important to take steps to minimize environmental impact.
"I began this wanting to ban plastic bags and approached several departments, and it was definitely obvious that this would be a very difficult thing to do," Compton says. "So we looked at alternate ways, and one of those ways is the city would collect them."
The average person uses 330 bags a year, which would put Madison's use at about 75 million bags annually. Dreckmann says less than 1% of plastic bags are currently recycled.
Retailers including Pierce's Northside Market, Copps grocery stores and Wal-Mart already collect plastic bags and resell them. Madison's plan would provide for additional drop-off sites where plastic bags can be returned.
"We're looking at whether there's money for the receptacles in contingent reserve," says Compton. "Sooner is better, but if it has to come through the next budget, it will be a year before we can do it."
Early this year, the city of Madison began using Facebook and Twitter, joining a growing number of governments to jump on the social networking bandwagon. One blogger counts 60 pages' worth of government agencies that use Twitter. Remember pages?
But fewer than 200 people have signed up to follow these updates on Twitter, and fewer than half that number have become "friends" of the city on Facebook.
"We're dipping our toes in and getting the feeling of what we can do," says city webmaster Sarah Edgerton. "We want to make sure it's something people want to use."
Press releases and other updates put out by city departments feed into the city's Twitter log, giving social networking fans a way to get information fast. But the medium has its limitations, as even its supporters allow.
"I'm not the first person to say it, but if something can be said in 140 characters, maybe it shouldn't be said," says Marlena Deutsch, an account executive at Stephan & Brady in Madison, which recently hosted what may be Madison's first Tweetup - a face-to-face meeting of local Twitter users. "All of us have various reasons to use Twitter. Someone's personal brand is becoming important in the social media wave. It's become an expectation."
Last week, aldermanic candidate Bridget Maniaci, who's challenging Dist. 2 Ald. Brenda Konkel, scored a mayoral endorsement hat-trick, announcing the endorsements of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and former mayors Paul Soglin and Joe Sensenbrenner.
She's also gained the endorsement of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, which has paid for two billboards to advertise their choice, and the Dane County and UW Democrats.
Although Cieslewicz didn't recruit Maniaci, he openly sought to replace Konkel, an outspoken progressive council member seeking her fifth term.
"The two candidates are pretty similar in terms of their politics," says Soglin in an interview. "There's not much difference there, which means, then, that effectiveness becomes the paramount factor."
Soglin says Maniaci, 25, is better set up to advance a progressive agenda. But Konkel, 40, has gained support from groups including Progressive Dane and the local Sierra Club chapter, state Rep. Mark Pocan and a lengthy list of local progressives.
[Correction: Bridget Maniaci, who's running against Brenda Konkel for Madison Common Council, was endorsed by the Executive Board of the Dane County Democratic Party, not the group as a whole.]
Jay Allen's terrorist ties
Is Fitchburg Ald. Jay Allen in cahoots with individuals who have "known ties" to domestic terrorists? That's what Mark Vivian, his rival in the race for Fitchburg mayor, alleges in a recent mailing. Allen, on hearing this, laughs and laughs. You may too when you read Bill Lueders' report.