Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Ah, Madison

Dateline: 10:30 am November 6, 2007 Filed under:

The urbanist that lives inside of me was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1994. The very first entry on this website tells that story. It has been 10 whole years since I graduated from the University of Wisconsin. The temptation is to remember one’s college days with a certain hazy reverie, and to return to your alma mater and act as though no time has passed while privately weeping for the fact that you are aging and there’s no stopping the march of time. There is certainly that temptation for me, and I do have fond memories of Madison. But I am more interested in Madison as a place, and it is always wonderful to go visit and see the changes and evolution in that wonderful city.

Indeed, much has changed in the 10 years since I graduated. I recently spent a day wandering around on my own there, seeing it with both rose colored glasses but also with a fresh set of eyes. Besides the obvious new tenants on State Street (Chipotle, Starbucks, and Cold Stone Creamery) and the condo projects that have popped up downtown (in what downtown haven’t they?), there are some less obvious improvements to downtown.

The Monona Terrace, the convention center overlooking Lake Monona, is inspired by a Frank Lloyd Wright design (a true Star-chitect). It has truly calayzed significant new development in the area in the 10 years since it opened. The area around it used to be somewhat deviod of life. That is certainly not the case today. A big success story for downtown.

A clever marketing and wayfinding system has also been introduced to the downtown, with a focus on State Street. Everybody, especially alumni, think they know Madison like the back of their hand. In truth, nobody does – there are a lot of bars from which to choose! As the six blocks of State Street get redone with new pavement, benches, streetlights, etc., the city is adding maps and directories of businesses, parking and destinations. Each block also has signage by address – the 100 block, the 200 block, etc. The maps cover everything from the edge of campus and the Memorial Union Terrace, up State Street and the couple blocks east of the capitol to the Monona Terrace. They are very well done, and help students, alumni and visitors alike find their way. Any downtown seeking to become a true destination, a set of nice maps are critical.

I made my way out to Picnic Point, which is a mostly forested area with numerous trails occupying a peninsula facing the University across Lake Mendota. From the Memorial Union Terrace, you can take the Lakeshore Path along campus and out to the end of Picnic Point. It is roughly six miles round trip and a favorite among students for walking and jogging. I was happy to see Picnic Point had not changed much. You still enter Picnic Point and the gravel trail hugs the row of trees to the right, close to the water, with a sloping lawn framing a stand of tall trees with a few pines sprinkled in. Sun, shade, grass, water, trees, all in one place. The landscape architect who designed it is a genius. Most of Picnic Point is fairly untouched, with the exception of the trails and a couple manicured areas with firepits. But it offers intermittent vistas across Lake Mendota, and the views back towards campus and the city are truly captivating. It is very lovely.

The entire city plan for Madison, created by John Nolen, is designed around the state capitol, which occupies the top of a hill on the isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona. Height restrictions mean one can catch glimpses of the capitol up streets, across the water, or from unexpected places miles away. As grand plans go, it is one of the better of any city I’ve visited.

But while the capitol building and square forms the geographic heart of the city of Madison, the Memorial Union Terrace is its soul. It is, bar none, the most beautiful place on earth to hang out on a sunny day. Sitting on a distinctive Terrace chair, sipping a beer from a Wisconsin Union wax paper cup and watching the parade of people and sailboats go by is an exceptional experience. Everything about it is well designed – the way the Union building walls form a sort of room around the space, framing the lake, the way the Terrace is indeed “terraced,” stepping down to the water, or the way it is a public place that allows people to come and go as they please, with no obligation to buy anything or limit their time there. The colorful mix of characters and life is just wonderful. Add live music on warm summer nights and you get pure perfection.

This is difficult to describe, there is a certain spiritual centeredness about Madison that I don’t feel elsewhere. I don’t think it is my memory of the place, because clearly I’m impressed with how Madison has evolved as a city since I left. It has the right mix of geography (the lakes and isthmus), planning and architecture (some landmarks but mostly good urban buildings that take advantage of the geography – as well, they avoided ramming a freeway through it all), and people (the timeless presence of university students is like eternal life). The best way to describe it is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I guess that is what a true city is. Its setting is splendid and its mix of inhabitants give it life and balance. Of course I’m proud to say I went to school there, but I’m thrilled to say it hasn’t lost any of its lustre in the interveing years. I dare say it is better than it was then. Madison is a vibrant, living organism and a great urban place.

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