Twink Jan-McMahon calls it "a blessing in disguise." Steve Steinhoff says, "It's the most successful unsuccessful grant I've ever written."
The two east-side Madison residents are discussing their failed application last year for $10,000 in city funding. The funds, for a neighborhood-based sustainability initiative, were instead awarded to the Worthington Park neighborhood. But McMahon, a member of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association, reached a critical realization: "We have the capacity, the mindset and the infrastructure, so let's put it together and do it."
Indeed, looking back, Jan-McMahon believes the Worthington Park group was actually more deserving, as it had fewer resources to get off the ground. But the east-siders group had everything they needed - except the grant.
There was plenty of interest. The initiative has sparked the involvement of dozens of neighborhood residents, beginning at a meeting in September and continuing to this day.
At a meeting in late January, about 50 residents split into teams to brainstorm ideas in seven core areas: urban agriculture, transportation, solar energy, water quality, household practices, community composting and environmental noise.
Neighbors at the meeting tossed around ideas like community compost sites and a shared garden or greenhouse system to better use space. Others suggested capturing more rainwater for lawns and various uses.
"We have water systems that are very successful at emptying the aquifers," group organizer Lou Host-Jablonski said at the meeting. "Our food comes from 1,500 miles away from places like California and Mexico. People didn't used to do things that way."
Host-Jablonski recently returned from a trip to Madison's sister city in Freiburg, Germany, where several sustainable efforts are under way (see "Car Free," 7/24/09). He says the most important first step will be taking a look at the neighborhood's practices.
"How much solar do we already have? How many community gardens and gardeners?" asks Host-Jablonski. "Does that provide one-tenth or one-one-hundreth of our food? That will be hugely helpful, but also a wake-up call."
For years Madison has taken on sustainability challenges at the city level. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz implemented a task force in 2004 to track efforts to become more "green."
Art Ross, the city's pedestrian and bicycle coordinator, says plans have been laid since the 1970s to make Madison more pedestrian-friendly. The Schenk-Atwood neighborhood, he notes, "is an older developed area, so it has a fairly developed street grid with sidewalks that are fairly walkable."
In 2008, according to overall city data, 88% of Madison households had cars and 48% had bike-path access within a half-mile. In the Atwood neighborhood, 90% of households have cars, and 99% of them have bike-path access.
Ald. Marsha Rummel, who represents the Atwood neighborhood, wants to encourage walkability: "We want everything you need to be there - a hardware store, a bank, a daycare, serving as many people as possible."
Officials also started "MadiSUN," a program to help develop solar energy, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. The city operates 12 solar hot-water systems at each of its fire stations for showers and cooking. It also owns eight solar panels across the city that generate 62 kilowatts, or enough power to light a 60-watt light bulb for 1,000 hours.
Jeanne Hoffman, the city's facilities and sustainability manager, says residents and businesses can contact the city to have a consultant evaluate the feasibility of solar power. The city plans to double the number of solar installations within its borders by 2011.
"Analysts can check aerial views of your home to see if it's in a good position for solar," says Hoffman, "then calculate the cost efficiency of installing the units."
Host-Jablonski lives in an hyper-energy-efficient house in the Eastmorland neighborhood. The low-impact building materials include straw clay insulation packed 12 inches thick into the walls that help lower his heating and cooling bills. He says he pays only about $400 a year for electricity.
The house is rigged up for solar panels, but a giant elm in front prevents their installation. He regularly gives tours to students and anyone interested in the project, but humbly says he doesn't want to make people think this is the only way to be green.
Sue Thering, an assistant UW-Madison professor, joined the Atwood group to lend her expertise, but was surprised by the level of organization already in place. The next step, she says, is establishing baselines to measure progress.
"Someone will need to figure out how to make it happen, whether it's counting cars or counting trees in the neighborhood," she says.
Steinhoff, the author of the original grant proposal, says the movement is more about the "big picture" than the individual neighbors. Individuals can look at reducing car usage, but the advocacy aspect is more important. "Neighbors," he says, "can push for more Metro Transit or car sharing, and that requires advocates to get together with schools and businesses to get the word out."
Jeanne Schneider, program director at Madison Youth Services, works in the neighborhood and attended the planning meeting. She wants to pair her role as a "green committee" member at the office with the energy-saving initiatives by the neighborhood team.
"The agency is looking at saving energy internally to reduce our carbon footprint," she says. "It's nice to feel like we're part of what's happening to grow and sustain."
Jan-McMahon, a key driver in the Atwood project, moved into the neighborhood in 1996 from California after being turned off by urban sprawl, claiming her state "paved over a paradise." She sees the neighborhood project as a social opportunity to bring the neighborhood together, referencing the time she has spent with her 82-year-old neighbor who served in World War II as a nurse.
"We want to recognize each other and wave hello," she says, "realizing that each person is valuable and has something to bring to the neighborhood."
On the Web
Check out your own neighborhood Indicators
Check your neighborhoods' "walk-score"