Nolen's Vision, 100 Years Later

What is a model city in a world gone flat?


“The purpose of the report herewith submitted is to try to find out the kind of city that Madison should be, to examine the existing city fairly and frankly with a view to discovering its merits, defects and tendencies, and then to consciously plan for the definite steps necessary to realize a practicable ideal. The work is undertaken in the confident belief that Madison may be so developed as to establish a new standard for city making in the United States.”

Respectfully submitted,
John Nolen,
Landscape Architect.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 1910

Respectfully resubmitted,
Neil Heinen,
Editorial Director.
Madison, Wisconsin, January 2011

You know that feeling of success that comes with completion of an important piece of work? A big project that turned out better than you expected? John Nolen must have been experiencing something like that one hundred years ago today. Four months earlier he had turned in his plan for the city of Madison, the plan he had been hired to produce by some of Madison’s most influential city fathers, the names of whom we find on many of our streets, buildings and parks today. The plan was to be published in March, a 168-page, hardcover book titled Madison A Model City. And while its reception was considerably less than warm, and indeed Nolen was actually fired in February, a month before publication and with a year left on his three-year contract, one need only read the opening paragraphs to get a sense of the excitement, sincerity and accomplishment Nolen must have felt.

Nolen’s plan, and his list of seventeen “general conclusions and recommendations that may be sorted out as of supreme importance for the future of Madison,” has been much discussed and—with a notable exception or two—pretty much followed for the last hundred years. A thorough reading of his plan is a great history lesson, but the most memorable quotes have been repeated enough to justify their exclusion here. What fuels our current journey are the major themes of Nolen’s work—Madison’s extraordinary physical gifts, its role as the seat of state government and one of the world’s greatest research institutions, the unique character of its people and the still-enviable position of not having foreclosed on most of the possibilities one can envision for the city. Those, and of course the spirit of Nolen himself, the enthusiasm, respect and—dare we say—love for Madison that is so transparent in his work. It is his passion for this city that has made that 1911 book such a persistent reminder of our place—up or down—among the world’s cities. A passion that has at times been lacking among the civic leaders of the last century. A passion that on this anniversary demands our reconsideration. The fundamental question is still the same: Has Madison indeed become a model city? Can it still? And what is a model city in a world gone flat, and certainly much smaller?

This is the year to answer, or at least begin to answer, those questions. It is in many ways an extraordinary year. A numerologist could have a field day with the coincidences. The Wisconsin Technical College System, the Madison Civics Club, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and Mt. Zion Baptist Church are all one hundred years old this year. So is Taliesin. Isn’t that extraordinary? Dane County is 175. The Wisconsin Alumni Association is 150. Community Groundworks is ten (got to nurture the young ’uns, too). It’s the UW Year of the Arts, the expanded Chazen art museum is opening, and there’ll be serious planning for (Nolen would love this) a train station and a public market.

It’s going to be an interesting year, and right smack in the middle of it the Congress for the New Urbanism is holding its annual conference here at Monona Terrace. How Nolen-esque is that? Mayor Dave Cieslewicz worked hard to bring the CNU conference to Madison, to highlight our new urban successes, but also to add momentum to our new urban potential—a potential that won’t be realized without vision and determination.

Above: John Nolen called a section of State Street “an agreeable open space midway between the Capitol and the University.”

“I think the significance of John Nolen’s plan for Madison is that he made us reach,” says the mayor. “He made us realize that we could be a world-class city if we stopped taking our natural advantages for granted and started working with, rather than against, them.”

Of course Nolen found that easier said than done. His position was eliminated from the city budget by those who found his plans too expensive. Unenthusiastic news coverage didn’t help. Cieslewicz knows the feeling. But “world class” is a powerful aspiration. It is in its truest meaning both the quality of life for which Madison has been perhaps too amply acknowledged and honored, and the new economic realities that demand doing business, be it biomedicine or tourism, on a global scale. “World class” is the dream, as it has been for a hundred years.

“John Nolen took a sleepy little Midwestern town with shacks lining its waterfront and told it that it had the stuff of greatness,” says Madison historian, writer and civic leader Dick Wagner. “What we continue to need is that understanding of Nolen’s that great places stem from visions of the best in a broad tradition of collective civic spaces where public life flourishes. Some big cities seem dead because their civic life is too disbursed, their citizens are not engaged. The movers and shakers of the Madison Parks and Pleasure Drive sponsored Nolen’s vision of 1911 but the civic activism of Madison in the 1960s has carried on Nolen’s call for an urban place that works based on citizen activity. Greatness demands nothing less.”

Greatness. Nolen quotes the nineteenth-century writer Henry Drummond in the chapter “Madison as a Capital City”: “He who makes the cities makes the world,” Drummond writes. “Whether our national life is great or mean, whether our sons are moral or vicious (sic), whether religion is possible or impossible, depends upon the city. To the reformer, the philanthropist, the economist, the politician, this vision of the city is the great classic of social literature.”

Cities make the world. It was true in 1911, and Nolen’s comparison of Madison to Geneva, Switzerland (pictured at right), was his definition of greatness. It is true again today after some intervening decades of subservience to national or state rule. Author Richard Longworth makes the argument that in an environment of globalization, cities, or more importantly regions of cities, must be more independent of a national government that has become too clumsy, and “shake off the dead hand of nineteenth-century state-based politics.” Lying right in the middle of Wisconsin Technology Council president Tom Still’s IQ Corridor, from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to Minneapolis–St. Paul, Madison has a unique opportunity to quarterback a team of global cities in one geographic region that can compete with any other anywhere. If it has the will.

John Nolen believed that Madison’s population was as special as its setting. The people contributed to the individuality of the city and that characteristic “express[ed] itself in unusual ways in city making.” Again there is helpful clarity to be found in Nolen’s beliefs. His singular view of Madison has prompted, among other things, three major conferences in the last sixteen years: “Nolen in the ’90s” in 1995, which brought to Madison new urbanists Andres Duany and Peter Katz and—with a focus on the soon-to-be-built Middleton Hills—put Madison on the New Urbanism map; “Nolen in the New Century” in 2001, featuring William Cronon, David Brooks and David Rusk and which resulted in the ill-fated and still-misunderstood inclusionary zoning ordinance; and finally “Nolen to Now” in 2006, which looked at neighborhood design.

Each in its own way helped marshal civic engagement in city building in the context of the unique characteristics Nolen found in Madison. They were effective in bringing together people of similar and disparate perspectives on urbanism. In many ways it helped bridge the gap between the land use battles being fought on the county level and desire to encourage developers to focus the building plans on infill projects in the city. New players like Jeff Rosenberg and David Simon stepped forward and Marshall Erdman got the props he deserved. Neighborhood design, especially pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, won converts, and fresh attention was given to important agencies like the Plan and Urban Design commissions. The people were expressing themselves in city making. But Mayor Cieslewicz is among those who believe a new perspective and motivation are necessary. “Nolen made us reach, but he’s been dead for a very long time. It might be time to leave John Nolen behind and ask ourselves what this generation’s vision is for our city.”

Clockwise from top: Seattle’s South Lake Union; the Pearl District in Portland; the Mill District in Minneapolis; and LoDo in Denver.

Fair enough. In fact, let’s just say the mayor is right. To start, let’s pick a place. Nolen had the lakefront, the parks, the university, State Street and the Capitol Square. We have East Washington Avenue. Or the Capitol East District, as it is being rebranded. The 240-some-acre swath of the isthmus on both sides of East Washington Avenue from Blair Street to First is the piece of land closest to the blank canvas upon which Nolen envisioned “a beautiful, well-ordered, free, organic city.” Today those words bring to mind urban neighborhoods like the Pearl District in Portland, LoDo in Denver, the Mill District in Minneapolis and South Lake Union in Seattle. These are vibrant, diverse, multi-use neighborhoods with hip, renovated buildings housing business startups and coffee shops with green designs and multimodel transit amid the occasional park, skateboard half-pipe and urban garden. Our version would encompass the someday coal-free MG&E Downtown Campus, the new Capitol East Center, a “high-density business living and entertainment district anchored by (an) energy center and a rebirth of Breese Stevens Field,” the Urban Technology Campus with the UW’s Metro Innovation Center at its heart, Central Park, an improved and urbanized East Washington Avenue itself, and a Yahara riverfront with waterfront living, businesses and restaurants along the waterway connecting our two major lakes.

A brief pause here, to consider the lakes. Nolen certainly did. “Topographically, Madison naturally abounds in interest and picturesque situations,” he writes. The city’s hills in particular caught his eye for their potential as “notable sites for important public buildings.” But he concludes, “The main physical features, however, that win and hold the attention are not these hills and the rolling ground between them, but the large and truly beautiful lakes, directly on and between which, occupying a narrow neck of land, Madison is located.” And his conclusion: “No other city of the world, so far as I know, has naturally such a unique situation on a series of lakes with an opportunity for so much and such direct relationship to beautiful water frontages. The physical situation certainly is distinctly individual.”

Here in fact is one of Madison’s shortcomings. “Sadly, Madison has never achieved one of John Nolen’s great visions: connecting the Capitol Square to the Lake Monona waterfront,” says writer and urban thinker Marc Eisen. “One hundred years later Nolen’s vision stands as a reproach to Madison’s failure to realize its potential downtown. Now we have the cluelessly named John Nolen Drive separating the Square from its destiny.” But why can’t we knit this all together? In fact we must.

John Nolen Drive itself, from the Alliant Energy Center to Monona Terrace, is ripe for reenvisioning. The lakefront on either side of Monona Terrace still feels unfinished and has always held a treasured spot in the imaginations of such keen minds as Kenton Peters and, yes, Eisen himself. But if we’re going to think really big here, we will make the connections from the Capitol East District (pictured at right) in all directions—south to Central Park, Willy Street and the pedestrian and bike thoroughfares to Atwood Avenue; west to Monona Terrace and John Nolen Drive and Olin and Turville parks; north to the campus and the newly opened lakefront access at the Edgewater Hotel; and east to the rejected Yahara Station site and on out to Madison College.

But the catalyst, the hub of all these spokes, is the roughly mile and a half stretch along East Washington upon which will be built the most exciting urban work, live and play development in this city’s history. This is where the physical beauty of the isthmus meets the global economy of the twenty-first century, and where a population whose diversity is limited only by our willingness to think of ourselves as a global city holds the promise of cultural, artistic and intellectual discovery. Education and industry merge in incubator and studio, woven into twenty-first-century jobs with competitive incomes and meaningful futures.

These things don’t happen without a place. We’ve got a place. We also have a one-hundred-year-old blueprint that is ready to be repurposed for the next century, still capable of establishing “a new standard for city making.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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