A closer look at "Measuring Sprawl": Activity centering in Madison, WI

madison-wiMadison, WI has attracted businesses and residents to locate in its downtown by making it a great place to live, work and relax. Photo via Flickr.

Madison, WI, received high marks in our recent report Measuring Sprawl 2014—thanks in large part to the city’s efforts to focus development near downtown. How did the city achieve this success? And what can other communities learn from Madison’s example?

Factor in focus: Activity centering
Measuring Sprawl 2014 used four factors to evaluate development: density, land use mix, street connectivity and activity centering. Every major metro area in the country was evaluated on these factors, which were then combined to create a metro area’s overall Sprawl Index score.

One of the four factors is activity centering, which is measured by looking at the range of population and employment size in different block groups. Metro areas with greater variation (i.e., a wider difference between blocks with a high population and a low one) have greater centering. This factor also includes a measure of how quickly population density declines from the center of the metro area, and the proportion of jobs and people within the metro area’s central business district and other employment centers.

How one city excelled at activity centering
The City of Madison, WI had the highest activity centering score nationwide—a fact which helped the city’s overall ranking of #13 nationally. A number of public policies helped Madison achieve this success.

First, in 2012, the City adopted a new Downtown Plan, which aims to strengthen and guide the future growth of Madison’s downtown neighborhood, and make the area “a magnet for a diverse population working, living, visiting and enjoying an urban environment characterized by a sensitive blending of carefully preserved older structures, high-quality new construction, architectural gems and engaging public spaces—all working together and integrated with surrounding neighborhoods, parks and the transportation system to create a unique environment for the community, County and region.”

Bill Fruhling, Principal Planner for the City of Madison, discussed Madison’s Downtown Plan as part of an online panel discussion to launch the report last week.

“We took a strong look at the various neighborhoods and districts that comprise the downtown, and we worked to make sure that there were places to go and things to do in each of those areas,” Fruhling said on the call. “Then we really considered how they were all connected and how they worked together for the betterment of the greater downtown.”

Madison has also taken a comprehensive approach to downtown development. In 1994, Madison adopted a series of strategic management system goals, including directing new growth toward existing urban areas, increasing owner-occupied housing in the city and creating economic development areas. These goals later influenced the city’s 2006 comprehensive plan.

“We focused on creating a downtown where people would want to be, whether it’s a place to live, a place to work, or just a place to visit and spend some leisure time,” said Fruhling. “One of the things we heard through the Downtown Plan process is that people want the same thing. They want to be close to amenities and where the action is.”

In addition, the city has several homebuyer assistance programs, below-market-rate loans, an inclusionary zoning program and the American Dream Downpayment Initiative that provides qualified homebuyers with a long-term deferred loan to assist with down payment and closing costs. All of these programs encourage reinvestment in existing neighborhoods.

These are just some of the public policies that helped Madison achieve its great overall score on the Sprawl Index. Other communities interested in improving their scores can use the four factors as a guide, and policies like these from Madison as a great model to follow. Read the full report to learn more.