balancing growth and character

Having just returned from settling a daughter into a new apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, I was unsurprised to learn that the city tops Kiplinger’s ranking of best places for young adults.  With a metro area population of 568,593 and unemployment just under 5%, Madison offers a respite from the national economy’s chill winds, if not from the chill winds that sweep across the city’s lakes each winter.

At first glance, Madison represents a successful experiment in social engineering.  There are bike lanes everywhere.  Restaurant menus contain notations showing which entrees are gluten free, and there’s a robust local food movement centered by a Saturday farmers’ market around Capital Square.  Thriving mom-and-pop retailers like Douglas Art and Frame, Martin Glass, and Wilson’s Bar (try the daily lunch special!) preserves the delightful friendliness of a small town.

At the same time, there are hints that Madison’s politics make it tough to keep up with growth and create a few blemishes on this rosy city.  Homeless men are visible along State Street, the lively pedestrian-only avenue connecting the Capital and the University of Wisconsin, and in the city’s pocket parks.  Big-box commerce has migrated to just south of the Beltline highway, where development in an adjoining suburb is presumably easier; for those without cars, that means higher prices for food and other services.  I wondered why gasoline was $.25 per gallon more expensive in Madison than in Minnesota.  After experiencing extremely poor cell phone service during my stay, I did some quick Internet searches that revealed Sprint’s infrastructure in Madison has become saturated, with poor prospects for catching up with demand.  At dinner with friends, we heard about epic battles between real estate developers and the Vilas Park neighborhood to approve a four story condominium project.

Cities like Madison (and neighborhoods like Linden Hills here in Minneapolis) have to fight to maintain their character and their economic viability.  Because of its extraordinary strengths, I’m glad my daughter lives in Madison.  I hope the city’s leaders and citizens will resolve the challenges of balancing growth and character so the bloom stays on Madison’s rose.


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