Putting on the Brakes

The realization that this is the December issue of the magazine (and I won’t even get into the mind-warping notion of it being the last issue of this decade) almost kicked this particular View From Raymond Road into a premature “year in review,” or worse yet, “preview of the year ahead” mode.

Good grief. What is it about “slow” that is so easy to write about and so hard to live? It’s not just pushing the calendar, which frankly doesn’t need any help. Rather it’s the accomplishment rush to which we’ve become addicted, that short-term pleasure that supersedes the satisfaction of a good idea, clearly thought out and well-executed.

The gubernatorial election will be here soon enough. There’ll be plenty of time to enjoy the grand opening of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. What’s the hurry? What this non-stop, frantic fixation on the future really does is diminish the good work and planning and deliberation going on right now in this city, and a lot of it is pretty exciting stuff.

As I reviewed my own schedule for the last couple of months I thought about a meeting with Center for Resilient Cities executive director Tom Dunbar about the Intensive Urban Agriculture and Community Center being planned for the old Badger School property and the potential that project has to transform both a terrifically diverse trio of neighborhoods and an entire community’s perception of urban agriculture. The center will be a laboratory for green building, sustainable agriculture and environmental practices, and green job training and development. It’ll feature community gardens and a fish farm, a commercial kitchen, a basketball gym and neighborhood meeting space. There are a lot of partners and this is going to take a while—and that’s my point.

Here’s another: Forward Community Investments has been supporting community development around the state since it was established here in Madison fifteen years ago, so president Salli Martyniak knows something about slow growth. I know for a fact she is no more inherently patient in the absence of progress than I am. But Martyniak knows as well that community development is deliberative work with returns that are broad and long-term, the antithesis of the quarter-by-quarter race to keep beating ever-greater earnings expectations. FCI’s recent statewide community investment conference suggested the concept of “slow money” might be taking hold.

Then there’s the work being done to make Madison the best host city yet for the annual Congress of the New Urbanism meeting here in June 2011. By the standards of this column that’s a long ways off. But the beauty of this discussion is the quality of thought surrounding some fundamentally important questions: who are we, why do we live here, and what makes our city different, healthy, authentic and better than other cities? It’s an interesting exercise. Sort of defies quick answers, doesn’t it?

I’ve got more. For example, Madison/Dane County is now one of just a half-dozen communities in the United States to be recognized as a Safe Community. It comes after ten years of hard work and commitment by the Madison/Dane County Safe Communities Coalition. Slow, but safe. And a group of some twenty people representing a diverse cross-section of community and civic leaders are working to encourage maximum public participation in the 2010 federal census. It only happens every ten years so it’s really important we take the time to think through this and make sure everyone counts. So let’s slow down, enjoy the holidays and appreciate what we have.

OK, one small contradiction. I’m already a slow eater, and the notion of savoring one’s food has always appealed to me. But if someone put that piece of cake from our cover in front of me it’d be gone in a New York minute. I’m just sayin’.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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