Spotlight on Sustainability: Madison, WI

A view of Madison, WI from Flickr user Gbozik.

Unsustainable growth, lack of economic opportunities, community health concerns, and loss of natural resources—these are issues facing cities and towns across the country, and Madison, Wisconsin is no exception. But, regional planning organizations in the Greater Madison area are now attempting to confront these endemic issues in a strategic and sustainable way that utilizes Madison’s strengths rather than allowing its weaknesses to be barriers to an effective response.

With the help of a HUD Regional Planning grant, the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission (CARPC) and 33 partner communities and organizations have developed Capital Region Sustainable Communities (CRSC) to establish common sustainability goals and systematically address regional problems. There are four major components to the initiative: determining the potential for rapid transit, increasing infill and redevelopment, completing a market study of regional economic opportunities, and outreach and engagement with the public. In fact, a new effort is currently underway to engage more volunteers in the community. Steve Steinhoff, a senior community planner with CARPC, says that they’re asking design professionals to donate their time to “developing a broader vision for the community”.

As part of their effort to determine the potential for rapid transit in the Madison area, CARPC recently launched a study of the feasibility of Bus Rapid Transit in the region. Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, can offer certain benefits of light rail, like faster service, but at a much lower cost. Buses would be longer, make fewer stops, have signal prioritization, and even have dedicated travel lanes along major roadways. But one of the greatest advantages of BRT is its flexibility; it can include a combination of services that best fits the needs of the community. If BRT does become a reality in Madison, planners hope it will bring, not only greater cohesiveness and vibrancy to neighborhoods, but also an increase in real estate investment and economic development.

The major factor that will determine whether there is a need for BRT and increased public transit is new housing and business along the proposed corridors, which would generate ridership. CARPC and private consultants are assembling growth projections of the next 30 years to estimate potential housing and commercial demand. They will look at the current state of the region— without a BRT system and with current levels of walkability and bikability—and then interview developers, business owners, and residents in the area to learn from their perspectives and create alternative development scenarios. CARPC is hosting public meetings ad opportunities for residents and local business owners to engage in the planning process, thereby fulfilling several of the initiative’s main goals: determining the potential of BRT and the regional economy while also engaging residents, stakeholders and volunteers. At these meetings, the public will have a chance to air their concerns and opinions on local issues.

One issue that both residents and experts are concerned about is water quality. In fact, CARPC was created in part to be an area-wide water quality management planning agency. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources identified the Madison region as having special water quality concerns. This designation requires establishment of “urban service areas”, or areas where public sewer and water service is allowed. Almost all growth projected to take place in the Madison metropolitan region is within these urban service areas; they accounted for 97% of growth from 2000 to 2010. Solving systemic problems like water quality will be critical in ensuring the region’s future health and development.

“Making decisions about growth or where it could (or should) happen is inherently controversial,” says Steinhoff. “That’s why it’s essential to emphasize collaboration rather than enforcement.” Unlike federal agencies, which encompass vast areas and often by necessity focus solely on enforcement, organizations like CARPC have a unique opportunity to foster collaboration at the local and regional level that is attuned to communities’ specific needs and concerns.