A Note to the City and County: Just Do It!

It's time for our region to become the great place we know it can be

My friend and colleague Marc Eisen started a conversation with me recently with the disclaimer, “Maybe it’s just that I’m getting old and crabby, but I’m getting more impatient.”

He was talking about an issue he cares a lot about—this city’s support for a vibrant music scene. But I found myself feeling exactly the same way—old, crabby and impatient—as I listened to speaker after speaker talk about creating creative, healthy, exciting places to live at the terrific and under-attended Capital Area Planning Conference in late October.

The conference, called “Collaboration & Connections: Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities,” was co-sponsored by the Capital Area Sustainable Communities Partnership, the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission, the Dane County Cities and Villages Association and the Dane County Towns Association—a small miracle in itself.

Twenty years ago these folks could not be in the same building together to say nothing of talking across the table to one another. But at least we have come that far, and while the majority of people these folks represent have no clear idea what “sustainability” means, participants from across the geographical, political, professional (but sadly not cultural) spectrum listened to unusually good speakers and then shared ideas on green infrastructure, trends in agriculture, integrating employment and regional growth strategies, partnerships with community-based organizations and connecting housing, transit and jobs.

In other words, this was about what we want to be. I would add the words “when we grow up” if I felt like being cute. But that’s my point. Madison suffers from Peter Pan syndrome more than any city I can think of, and it’s not cute. And it’s not smart. And I’m sick of waiting for us to start acting like a confident, sharp, forward-thinking urban hub in a healthy, complementary region with growth strategies that we will embrace and make happen because we know they work and we know they’re smart and we know they’re—yes—sustainable.

After attendees heard from regional planning experts from Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, Sacramento, Kansas City and Salt Lake City, all regions that are leaving us in the dust, the discussion turned to issues of the arts, food and transportation. How long has Dane County been talking about arts, food and transportation? Twenty years? Thirty? Yes, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, the Dane County Farmers’ Market and Madison Metro are great. They are. They’re great. But they were great in 1980. We have zero commitment to the arts as a part of our identity to say nothing of our economic growth strategies; we have a majority of our civic institutions and even restaurants with no commitment to using local foods (and a population that to a large degree doesn’t demand it); and we have a 20th-century transportation system.

By all means Occupy Wall Street. But I want two hundred artists, led by Anne Katz if you wouldn’t mind, to meet with elected city and county officials, planning staffs and facility operators—weekly—until we have a Madison Cultural Plan that is recognized from Boston to Eugene. I want people to refuse to eat in restaurants, hotel ballrooms or meeting facilities if they don’t serve a substantial amount of local food, and I want REAP and Community GroundWorks and Dane County’s Institutional Food Market Coalition to be valued as leading community partners at the same level as Meriter, Oscar Mayer and CUNA Mutual.

And I want a train. And THAT’S what really got me going. One of the speakers at the conference, from Chicago I think, said in effect, if he was the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission he’d go to Washington and ask the Obama Administration personally to give us the money to build a train. Ignore Walker. Ignore Waukesha. Ignore Vicki. Just go and do it ourselves. And you know what? He thought we just might get it. And yes, entrepreneurs, jobs, wealth and clean air will follow.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

Find more For the Record columns here.

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