For the Madison region the future is all about growth. Where we put it. How we shape it. Who comes. Who goes.
Every couple of years an expert shows up to tell us that things aren't as great as we think. Last month it was a consultant from Atlanta, hired by the regional economic development group called Thrive.
He told a meeting of business and community leaders that Madison wasn't well known nationally and that unless we marketed ourselves better we could see the economic parade pass us by.
There wasn't anything new, remarkable or false in his conclusions. But the truth is, despite the occasional dire warning, there's no realistic scenario under which Madison won't continue to be an attractive and successful community. Our fundamentals are so strong because of the University of Wisconsin and our natural setting that it would be virtually impossible to really mess up this place no matter how hard we try. And from time to time we do try.
The central problem here is how to manage our success. It comes down to this: Do we want to be successful but uglier, more sprawling and more socially stratified? Or do we want to be successful but even more beautiful, compact, vibrant and equitably prosperous?
We're adding a population the size of Sun Prairie to the city of Madison every decade, and we're adding two Sun Prairies to Dane County every 10 years. That's not spectacular growth on the Austin or Portland scale, and it's not boom or bust like Las Vegas or Phoenix, but it's steady and meaningful.
So the big questions are:
1. Can we govern ourselves regionally?
We have the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission, the Dane County Lakes & Watershed Commission, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and Thrive. There's also the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and school districts and sewage districts that transcend municipal boundaries.
Little of this dispersed regional effort is as effective as it could be despite the best efforts of the people who work for these entities. Yet the big problems - water quality, land use, transportation, economic development - all demand regional solutions.
Are we going to learn to think and act as a region or stay tied to our narrowly focused regional entities and our 60 municipal units? The places that have handled growth most successfully - Portland, the Twin Cities and most European cities - have had relatively strong regional approaches.
The recent announcement of Spectrum's move to Middleton, while less significant than most people think, is symbolic of how we waste energy and talent on bickering within our region when we should be focusing that energy on competing with other regions.
2. Can we live up to our progressive reputation?
The Urban League of Greater Madison recently challenged the Madison School Board and the entire community with its proposal for Madison Preparatory Academy. Whether or not that was the right answer, Urban League President and Madison native Kaleem Caire was saying powerfully that we have been too complacent for too long. The achievement gap in Madison schools would not be tolerated if it were mostly white kids falling behind.
Madison Prep lost at least the first round, but it did prompt Superintendent Dan Nerad (a good and intelligent man) to propose an aggressive plan to close the achievement gap. It's too early to say his plan is enough, and there will need to be a lot more conversation.
But the Madison Prep debate brought into stark contrast a problem we have as a community: When it comes to race and poverty, we're a little too self-satisfied.
Economic development can't stop at the University Research Park. And we know that cities like Stockholm that provide strong social safety nets are more prosperous overall and better places to live.
I am an unabashed fan of European cities and of the advanced progressive social services that are provided by them and by their national and regional governments. Educational efforts, including European models that better coordinate real job training in the trades and in technical fields, should be tested in Madison.
And here's another place where we need a regional approach. If every kid who comes from a challenged background is in the central city's school district, this will overburden that district and cause it to slide, damaging the reputation of the entire region. Everybody in Dane County has a stake in the performance and the future of the Madison Metropolitan School District. You can't just flee to Waunakee.
3. Can we get serious about fixing the lakes?
Jim Lorman, who was my representative on the Lakes and Watershed Commission when I was mayor, believes we can make substantial improvement for about $30 million. And we could do it in the next decade or so for an annual cost that is a fraction of what we put into rebuilding streets, for example. Does anybody think that's too high a price to pay for cleaner lakes?
Now, it would be too simple to say, as some sometimes do, that we have the answers and that all we need now is the money and political will. The lakes are complex ecosystems that even Madison's internationally recognized limnologists don't fully understand. But we do have some answers, and we will get more as we try and fail and try and succeed at new attempts.
Dane County Board Chair Scott McDonell has taken up the cause, and I know that new County Executive Joe Parisi is making this a priority as well. Our lakes define us and make us special, but we haven't taken bold enough action to improve them.
The primary culprit, again, is the balkanized governmental approach that ignores the natural flow of water across artificial legal boundaries.
4. Can we get over our fear of heights?
The Edgewater debate really came down to a concern that the building was just too big. We've heard that echoed in debates about mixed-use developments at Hilldale, Sequoya Commons, Monroe Commons and on and on. Just about any building in Madison proposed to be over four stories is in for a fight.
Yet we can't say we're for infill and greater density without dealing with our phobia about the height and mass of buildings.
That's not to say we need skyscrapers. The Capitol view preservation law, which limits the height of buildings to around 10 stories in the downtown, should stay. It would also be wrong to say that we're not making some progress. Despite the Edgewater's apparent defeat, Hilldale, Sequoya Commons and Monroe Commons all were approved and all fit comfortably in their respective neighborhoods.
The dense project now rising on the near west side surrounding Lombardino's is another good example, and proposals for city-owned land on East Washington Avenue look even more promising.
But the fear of heights that shows up in so many development debates comes down to a fear of urbanization. Fifty years ago Jane Jacobs changed the way we think about cities by charging that "urban renewal" was really about trying to change cities into small towns. She said that cities were different in fundamental ways and that we shouldn't try to break down our cities into small town-like units.
In order to succeed we need to embrace being the real city we are fast becoming. Our orientation should be toward Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities, as well as Freiburg, Stockholm and other advanced, green cities.
The simple acceptance of the idea that cities and urbanity in all its forms are good would be a revolution in thinking in Madison. It's past time for that revolution.
5. Can we be the Emerald City?
Can we grow into a bigger city with all the cultural and economic advantages while avoiding the crime, transportation snarls, pollution, poverty and racial tension that can come with growth?
Right now Madison is in the sweet spot. We've got the amenities of much bigger cities without some of the big-city hassles. The Overture Center and the UW provide us with all kinds of cultural outlets you wouldn't expect in a place our size. Yet our crime rate is among the lowest of any city our size, and our "rush hours" would be a midday yawn in a lot of other places.
To grow while maintaining these advantages requires a coordinated land use, transportation, housing and economic development policy (see question above), but let's just focus on transportation for a moment.
We had an $810 million passenger rail project that would have put us on a high-speed economic development corridor between Chicago and Minneapolis. Gov. Scott Walker should be recalled for giving that away before he was even sworn in, never mind anything else he's done since taking office.
Then we had a Regional Transit Authority that was poised to dramatically expand bus service and build commuter rail and, dare I speak its name, streetcars. But the Republican legislature took it away just out of spite.
It's almost too painful to remember. But we need to start adopting better transportation policy. We need to limit parking and make it easy, comfortable and safe to use frequent mass transit or to ride a bike or walk. We also need to stop expanding freeways. That's the way you build a great city. Everything you do for cars subtracts from a city. Everything you do for people outside of their cars improves it. We'd actually be better off with a little more congestion, not less.
6. Can we do it for ourselves?
With the federal and state governments entirely ignoring urban policy except when they're screwing it up, what can we do to use our own resources to strengthen our local economy and provide local services? Seattle, for example, has a goal of getting 25% of their food from the region. Can we do that here?
County Executive Parisi recently announced plans for a local food warehouse and distribution center. That kind of infrastructure is key. Meanwhile, Mayor Paul Soglin has put on hold my plans for a year-round enclosed public market. His concerns about funding aren't unreasonable (I had them too), but they're also not insurmountable. I hope we can get that back on track soon.
And it's not just about local food. It's about asking ourselves how we can keep local dollars circulating in our local economy before they leave. It's about doing as many progressive, forward-looking things as we can without counting on the state or federal government to help us.
The dysfunction at higher levels of government doesn't show any signs of abating. But cities and regional entities can actually get things done.
7. Can we age well?
There are 77 million baby boomers, and they like to retire to college towns. Plus, there are more than enough of us who never left. Can we see older people as a resource to be tapped rather than a burden to be cared for?
As my generation sped through life, boomers made the world listen to our problems whether they wanted to or not. When we were in our 20s we talked about sex and relationships. When we were in our 30s we talked about child rearing. When we got to our 40s it was all about angst in our jobs and paying for college. Now that we're into our 50s, it's about keeping young and fit. As we get into our 60s and 70s, we'll start yammering on about reinventing retirement.
So here's the responsibility and the challenge. We need to do three things: stay healthy, give back and get out of the way.
As a group we're affluent. Some of that is due to our own hard work, but more is due to the hard work and Depression-era-induced manic savings of our parents. This is the largest wealth transfer in American history.
At the same time, the cohort behind us is much smaller than ours. That means two workers for every person of retirement age by 2030 as compared to five to one when we were growing up in the 1960s.
Put those two facts together and it means we've got to voluntarily ease off on our draws from the social capital bank and keep paying into it as long as we can.
So we've got an obligation to our kids and grandkids to stay as healthy as possible. If we get sick too soon, and too often, in ways that we could prevent, we're going to choke the medical system.
We also need to keep contributing in some way. Volunteering to teach a child how to read might not net a paycheck, but the value of that tutoring in terms of future earnings for that kid (and taxes to pay your Social Security) probably can't be adequately measured.
And we need to gracefully pass the baton. Whether it's in politics, philanthropy or corporate boardrooms, we need to groom future leaders and then do the really hard thing: step back and let them lead.
There's a lot of attention paid to attracting and keeping young talent, and that's important, of course. But there has been very little thinking done about how to make cities magnets for the coming legions of talented and experienced productive seniors. With so many boomers at our disposal, Madison could be a leader in figuring this stuff out.
So that's it. Act as a region, improve our schools and our social safety net, fix the lakes, embrace our urbanity while keeping big-city problems at bay, look for local solutions first, and grow old gracefully and productively.
Easily said. Less easily done. But we can do this. If we keep asking the right questions, we're the kind of community that - sometimes after exhausting all the other options - comes up with the right answers.