Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Madison: Fun and Green

by Jay Walljasper
The Green Guide
April 3, 2008

I recently journeyed to Madison to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin about what cities can do to instill a lively sense of public life through the chilly winter months. But I hardly felt like Madison residents needed to hear what I said on the subject. As far as I could see, they were the experts. Madison saw 100 inches of snow last winter (as an avid cross-country skier, I felt envious) and the city's streets are filled with activity even on a snowy Monday evening.

Strolling around Madison watching the snow fall and people out enjoying their town, I realized that the usual definitions of what makes a green city need expanding. It's not just about pollution levels, recycling rates, public transit service, parkland acreage, renewable energy sources and energy conservation measures. It's how those things add up to create a place that people love and will work to protect and improve.

Madison certainly qualifies as a green city on most of the usual measures. It initiated the nation's first curbside recycling program for newspapers in 1968 and today is one of the top U.S. cities for bicycling commuting, with ten percent of residents pedaling to work each day. Air quality is excellent according to the EPA, and it's said to be the largest city in the U.S. not to have a freeway cutting through the heart of town. It's full of parks and enjoys a superb natural setting on an isthmus between shores of two large lakes.

Yet just as important as these environmental indicators, Madison also offers plentiful opportunities for people to meet one another and hang out. The State Street mall, a bus-only avenue running from the University to the downtown square, functions like the central pedestrian zone in many European cities. It's a place you are drawn to simply to be there. It's lined with inviting restaurants, rollicking pubs, interesting shops and some of the best used bookstores anywhere, but the big attraction is just to be part of the scene, running into friends and people-watching.

The weekly Dane County Farmers Market turns the downtown square into a cornucopia of locally grown food. But again, the big appeal of the market is that it transforms Madison (population 225,000) into a bustling small town where everybody seems to know everybody else. I spent a Saturday morning there a few years ago with a friend who lives in Madison, and while we were shopping for heirloom tomatoes and fresh-baked bread he introduced me to at least two dozen folks he knew--including Dave Cieslewicz, who a year later was elected mayor of Madison.

A city that offers so much opportunity for social interaction inevitably becomes a more environmentally conscious place. Citizens will respond sooner to ecological and social problems because everyone is so invested in the life of their community. They will be less inclined to decamp to a far-flung suburb and more willing to pitch in to make improvements around town. A fun city like Madison is also a greener city.

© The Green Guide, 2008

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