The New New Urbanism

From old, established neighborhoods to new residential and mix-use developments, city living - whether it's Madison, Middleton or Sun Prairie - is safer and sounder than ever before

A few kind words was all it took for Kate Block and her husband, Jay O’Toole, to know they made the right choice moving into Madison’s east-side Tenney-Lapham neighborhood. It was the first day in the new home. Their neighbors, who lived for years in one of the beautiful old homes on Lake Mendota, were passing by on their way to the coffee shop.

“I remember it so clearly,” says Block. “They walked by and said that they loved living in this neighborhood and we would, too. It was such a positive statement. We weren’t from here and we didn’t know if we made the right choice. Their words set the right tone.”

Block and O’Toole, who moved from Seattle for O’Toole’s Ph.D. studies at UW–Madison and wanted to live within walking distance of campus, shopping and downtown, are among a growing population of urban dwellers looking for economically and socially diverse neighborhoods in the city rather than the suburbs. Coupled with the condominium boom of the late nineties and early 2000s, areas like the east side as well as others scattered across Madison and Dane County are offering affordable housing that blends in with a neighborhood’s mix of established and often higher-priced homes. Add walkable streets with unique, locally owned restaurants, retail stores and other commercial businesses, and what it all adds up to is sustainability—and safety—at the most local level.

While the housing stock in well-established neighborhoods varies in size, architectural design and character, more often than not it features prominent front porch designs. What early architects and builders saw as a natural way to connect the public and private realms—residents greeting and getting to know their neighbors—also lends itself to an informal neighborhood watch. Another naturally occuring security element is the pedestrian traffic that mixed-use neighborhoods attract during the day.

“When there’s activity there’s less crime,” says Jason Valerius, an urban planner with MSA Professional Services who has worked on a number of urban projects including Middleton’s Parmenter neighborhood redevelopment, the Fieldstone development in Prairie du Sac and the village of Cross Plains’ downtown. Both Valerius and Stephen Filmanowicz of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit based in Chicago, say housing diversity is another big benefit with deep roots in urban living.

“The great city neighborhoods serve as models,” says Filmanowicz, who also points out that resurrecting old urban designs is bringing back that interaction between people of different ages, income levels and backgrounds lost to suburban tract patterns that rarely offer a variety of price points.

“It brings in housing options for everyone and really adds to the experience of that place,” he says.

Marshall Erdman, a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, saw the benefits of traditional design concepts when he developed the area’s first new urbanism project, Middleton Hills, in the early 1990s. Erdman’s is a model other communitiy planners and developers have been trying to emulate and improve upon ever since.

New urbanism styles cropping up in a growing number of Dane County communities are modeled after historic neighborhoods like Tenney-Lapham and traditional neighborhood developments, or TNDs, like Middleton Hills. Nathan and Ann Poe found Liberty Square after Nathan, a Wisconsin Army National Guard staff sergeant, returned from a nearly yearlong deployment in Iraq last spring. The couple had just sold their house in Spring Green and were living with Ann’s parents in Sun Prairie until they found a new one. While they were looking to buy a cabin-style home near Richland Center, gas prices were spilling over $4 a gallon and the Poes, who both work in Madison, were feeling the pinch.

That’s when Liberty Square, one of several TNDs under way in Sun Prairie, caught their eye. Once they started looking, the Poes fell for the modern architectural styles, including spacious front porches that reach out to the sidewalk, and the neighborhood layout with condos and apartments alongside beautiful rowhouses, restaurants, shops and daughter Katie’s school within walking distance.

“It was exactly where we wanted to be,” says Ann.


Like most TNDs, Liberty Square’s design takes autos out of the spotlight, making it more neighborly and eco-friendly to make a short commute or even walk to school, the store or to grab a bite to eat. Grandview Commons, a TND by Veridian Homes off Cottage Grove Road on the far east side of Madison, also takes the focal point away from the vehicle.

Like Liberty Square, garages are stealthily tucked away in alleyways behind homes. The development was recently named a “Next Generation Neighborhood” by the environmental nonprofit 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin for “bringing back some great old ideas,” including open greenspace and rear garages.

Placing parking areas below Madison’s Monroe Commons and a tri-level parking ramp alongside a stretch of condominiums in front of Hilldale Mall helped remove the need to pave over potential green or building spaces with expansive parking lots. Living in urban areas also creates more access to alternative transportation. Metro Transit General Manager Chuck Kamp says compact development, our unique isthmus geography, and a culture of conservation are important reasons the bus system offers more services than some U.S. cities twice our size, including Indianapolis; Toledo, Ohio; and Syracuse, New York.

“So where our peers do forty-five minutes of service per person we’re doing an hour and fifteen minutes,” says Kamp.

Another mass transit option currently being considered is a light rail system that would run between Middleton, Madison and Sun Prairie. And private initiatives like the popular Community Car, a Madison-based car-share program, promote reducing dependency on automobiles.

Then there are Madison’s one hundred miles of bike trails, which saw increased use from commuters last year. Paths wind through nearly every neighborhood and commercial development in the city and have connectors reaching out to trails in neighboring communities. There’s even a bike route running behind the Poes’ new home in Sun Prairie, which links into a trail running along Highway 151 into Madison.

Alternative transportation will play an increasingly important role in the area’s growth and development, especially on the outer fringes of Madison and in its surrounding communities where future mixed uses may remain affordable options in economic hard times. Liberty Square developer Herman Kraus sees the new urbanism option as a bright spot. “There are lot of people who are suffering right now. I’m building houses—not as many as I was before—but I have subdivisions that are right next to me that have the large lots and they’re not building anything. So that tells me something’s happening.”

In nearby Verona, where corn fields have given way to auto-centric, single-family residential neighborhoods, T. Wall Properties is developing a sixty-acre “urban village” anchored by two large retailers. Is it perhaps a sign that change is in the air?

“We are seeing many developers and builders choosing the new urban designs,” says Bruce Sylvester, Verona’s Director of Planning.

Joe Starr is a Madison-based freelance writer.

Madison Magazine - February 2009
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