How far we’ve come and still need to go in Madison

A lot of people who care about this city and region have been anticipating 2020 for what feels like a long time.
Madison skyline with a blue green overlay

A lot of people who care about this city and region have been anticipating 2020 for what feels like a long time. It’s been a convenient target year for marking our progress on the issues that faced our community at the start of the new century. Suddenly 2020 is here, and its significance feels substantial.

We should start by acknowledging the changes we’ve seen in the last 20 years, many of them unexpected. We moved quickly from having potential as a hub for bioscientific research to becoming an increasingly diverse economy. Few U.S. cities have a higher concentration of software publishing jobs than Madison. And Madison is one of only 11 of America’s largest 100 metro areas to have seen employment and average wages rise for both whites and people of color since 2010. But like most metro areas, we’ve learned that our successes are tempered by racial disparities in school achievement, incomes and incarceration.

Since 2000, the game-changing Capitol East District along East Washington Avenue was transformed from a depressing strip of car dealerships, vacant lots and empty sidewalks. Overture Center for the Arts opened in 2004. The Madison College Goodman South Campus opened on South Park Street and Badger Road in 2019. We have more bikes, more farmers’ markets, more public art and more young people deciding to stay here or move here. There’s a biergarten at Olbrich Park, for crying out loud. It’s been a remarkable couple of decades.

Madison is a bigger and better city. So where do we go from here?

Let’s start with the challenges: Equity, inclusion, safety, housing, transportation, affordability and climate resilience. Since 2000, the population of Madison and Dane County has grown more diverse, which has exposed resistance to change and many disparities, biases and divisions. 2020 will mark Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s first full year in office. We will have a new police chief and new superintendent of schools. This is an opportunity to find leadership through collaboration.

Our business community and civic institutions are strong and, in some cases, getting stronger. One example is Centro Hispano, an increasingly important player in Dane County’s civic ecosystem and a key to the region’s economic growth. One of our first wishes for the New Year is growth in the stability and investment in Centro’s work and its facilities.

We are looking to Centro and its strategic allies — including the Urban League of Greater Madison, United Way of Dane County, Madison Community Foundation, Doyenne, One City Schools and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce — to lead critical conversations about the future of our public schools, public safety and community policing. We have some of the best education and law enforcement minds in the country right here in Madison. Our schools and our criminal justice system can be models of innovation, achievement and equity.

For most of the last 20 years, affordable housing and efficient and clean transit options have only grown in importance. In 2020, a significant addition of housing stock will come with the Oscar Mayer redevelopment and further steps will be taken to get Bus Rapid Transit on track.

And 2020 is an election year. But if any city can withstand political distractions and make progress on equity, inclusive economic growth and maintaining a safe, healthy environment for all of its residents, it is this one.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.