Nolen's Dream

What vision will define the next hundred years of Madison?

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Madison: A Model City. Published in Boston, the author, American Society of Landscape Architects Fellow John Nolen, presented “a comprehensive plan for the future growth and development of the city as the capital of the state and the home of its university.” The plan was commissioned by the directors of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, including Van Hise, Brittingham, Tenney, Fauerbach, Warner, Hoyt, Proudfit, Frautschi and Burr W. Jones.

Nolen writes, “Madison is one of the most striking examples that could be selected in the United States of a city which should have a distinct individuality, marked characteristics separating it from and in many respects elevating it above other cities.” He concludes, “Of all the cities in the United States, it appears to me that Madison has the best opportunity to become in the future … a model modern American city.”

It turns out that’s pretty much how we’ve viewed ourselves during the ensuing century, and despite some glaring missed opportunities Nolen’s blueprint remains a foundation for the Madison of today. But it also begs the question: are we positioned to be a model, modern city for the next one hundred years? Do we still have the power and the will to keep Madison “a beautiful, well-ordered, free, organic city?”

First, of course we acknowledge that part of what makes Madison Madison is that some people will disagree on the definition of terms. But there’s no question some of that is rooted in a somewhat inflexible affection for the Madison as Nolen found it, a city that remained much the same until roughly forty years ago. Today, any description of a “model” city would have to include the word “global,” for as British urban expert Peter Taylor writes, “Globalization takes place in cities and cities embody and reflect globalization.” If Madison is going to not merely survive, but thrive in this post-recession world, what author Richard Florida calls “the Great Reset,” it must aspire to being a global city, in culture, clean energy, environment and commerce.

We do have the ability to think big. In our lifetimes MATC, State Street, the Civic Center, Monona Terrace, Overture, UW campus and more have been built, rebuilt or transformed in ways that have changed the city and region surrounding it.

So, what’s next? What is the next big vision for Madison that will define the next hundred years? East Washington Avenue. Or to be precise, the Capitol East District. With all due respect to Public Market Square, John Nolen Drive, Campus South, “Madison’s Millennial Park” and other big ideas, the Capitol East District—both sides of East Wash from Blair Street to First, and east to Main Street, including Central Park—is the most exciting and global-in-scope development in our collective imagination right now.

With a focus on economic development and job creation but with the inevitable quality of life amenities that come with it, plans call for a new Urban Technology Campus, a growing Metro Innovation Center, a re-imagined Yahara Riverfront, a walkable, high-density business, living and entertainment district anchored by a new energy center and a rebirth of Breese Stevens Field, and incorporating the impact of the new intermodal transit hub.

This is the place where new green energy businesses are going to want to locate and grow, where entrepreneurs will start companies and workers will walk to the job and eat lunch in Central Park. New restaurants, electric cars, bike paths, retail shops and urban agriculture will bring more jobs, investment and tax revenue. Think South Lake Union in Seattle, or the Mill District in Minneapolis (other global cities by the way). Can we do it? Not without civic and political will, a sense of collaboration, a shared excitement and vision for the future and a few new development tools in our toolbox.

But this is the cornerstone of the model, global city of the future. It’s the most important project in the city. It’s what Madisonians will be talking about a hundred years from now when we are measured again against Nolen’s dream.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at

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