The biggest challenge, and opportunity, the Madison area faces in the next 25 years is growth. If trends continue and predictions hold true, we can expect that by 2031, Dane County will have about 150,000 more residents, 75,000 new housing units and 100,000 more vehicles.
Growth will put pressure on our natural resources and our transportation system. But if we can shape that growth, we can use it to make our community more diverse, more interesting, and even healthier and more prosperous.
We can enact policies that have some modest impact on how fast our population grows. We can have a greater impact on directing where those 75,000 or so housing units will go. And through transportation policies, we can probably pull back somewhat from those 100,000 additional vehicles.
For more than a century, Madisonians have applied their talents toward improving our city. The 40,000 Club, the John Nolen Plan, the Park and Pleasure Drive Association and other efforts were about taking stock of our advantages and trying to shape our future instead of just being shaped by it. Our 150th anniversary gives us an excuse to do that again. Here are eight ideas for the kind of city Madison might want to grow into over the next 25 years.
The Healthy City. Health in all its forms is a theme we should apply to everything we do. Watching our weight - whether we mean that literally, in terms of our own personal size, or figuratively, regarding how much energy we use or how fast the city budget grows - is key. Madison should be filled with healthy people living in a healthy environment.
The Solid City. The "Sewer Socialists" who governed Milwaukee in the first half of the 20th century believed in making solid public investments. They paved streets and built public transportation, libraries, museums, hospitals, parks, schools and, yes, sewers. They didn't believe, as do many politicians today, that the highest purpose of government was to cut taxes for the rich. And they were careful with the public's money, demanding quality in projects and being intolerant of waste. Madison should continue in that same spirit, making investments in infrastructure and programs that will last.
The Creative City. Economist Richard Florida has made a name for himself by naming himself: He calls himself and those like him the "creative class," by which he means professors, artists, writers, graphic designers, high techies and the like. Florida's message is that good urban design and the quirky creativeness that comes with real urban places turns out to be good for the local economy. So when another coffee shop opens up or a funky restaurant or art gallery starts, that's economic development.
Fine, but we need to go beyond what is essentially an elitist theory. Creativity is good for its own sake. An exciting mix of people is what makes cities interesting places to live, whether or not it's good for anybody's bottom line. Moreover, the local economy must always have room for good, family-supporting blue-collar jobs. It's not all about latté.
The Affordable City. Another urban thinker, Joel Kotkin, argues that "second tier" cities like Madison are becoming economic powerhouses precisely because they have some of a big city's vibrancy without all the hassles and the high prices. In Kotkin's view, affordability - especially in housing - and mundane things like shorter commute times, help build strong competitive cities in the new economy.
This is another reason inclusionary zoning and the city's affordable housing trust fund make good sense. This is why we need to improve mass transit and look for ways to make rail work. This is why those solid city investments will pay off.
The High-Road City. Joel Rogers, the director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategies, argues that, when it comes to the economy, we should take the high road. We should invest in quality public schools and worker training and mass transit and environmental protection and other things that make for a skilled, educated, adaptable and happy workforce.
Currently, much of our public policy is about taking the low road - that is, trying to compete more effectively in a race to the bottom. Too many state politicians want us to become Alabama. Instead, we should look to our roots and be more Wisconsin. The fact is, we can never catch up in a race to the bottom. Somebody's taxes will always be lower. In Madison, we should never quit striving to provide quality services.
The Connected City. Some clichés are true. We are part of a global village. High-speed Internet. High-speed trains. Both make sense. Our medium size and midcontinent position should be recognized for the advantages they are, but we also need to understand what we lack. Madison is not a big city, but a number of big cities are not far away.
Richard Florida says the strongest new economies have three things in common: "latte town" amenities like State Street, research parks like the UW's, and big-city diversity and culture. We fall a little short on the last point, but a high-speed rail connection to Milwaukee, Chicago and the Twin Cities could expose us to more diversity in those places, as we continue to become more diverse here at home.
The Regional City. We can't ignore that Madison is the center of a region, or that the central city gives the region its identity. The Dane County Farmers' Market is perhaps the perfect example of the city and its surrounding countryside contrasting and complementing one another. Urbanites appreciate the bounty of the surrounding land so much we're willing to pay two bucks for a tomato, and this creates a market that makes gardening for profit possible. We need more of this synchronicity and less of the us-against-them attitude we've had in the past.
The Sustainable City. "Uncontrolled growth," mused Edward Abby, "is the ideology of the cancer cell." Too much growth too fast drives up the cost of housing, clogs our roads and makes it all but impossible to get a good table at the Harmony Bar on a Saturday night. Who needs it?
To some extent, we all do. Growth in our tax base has allowed Madison to lower its tax rate over the last six years by an annual average of 25 cents per $1,000 of valuation. Growth in housing and jobs helps keep the economy strong.
What we need is not a no-holds-barred, "let's grow as fast as we can" strategy, but a selective, grow-smart, grow-slow philosophy. There's no magic number, but I'd say the city's present growth rate (about 1.5% a year) is optimal.
We need to live with greater density to consume less land. We need to drive less, resulting in less air pollution and less production of the gases that are causing global climate change. To be sustainable, we need to grow smarter.