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Madison residents have taken pride in their park system since attorney John Olin persuaded a couple dozen citizens to pay membership dues to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association in 1894. And the moment rickety carriages started making wheel ruts in the then 2-year-old, 12-mile-long Lake Mendota Drive, the need for park maintenance was born, too.
"We stand on the shoulders of giants," says Madison Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp, 124 years later.
Madison is known for its abundance of public green space — in fact, 13.5% of the city is parkland. And the parks department, with some 5,000 acres to manage, is Madison's largest landowner.
Madison parks stack up well against those in other cities, too. The Land for Public Trust ranked Madison's parks 10th in 2016, ninth in 2017 and 12th last year among park systems in the 100 largest U.S. cities.
A city's "ParkScore," calculated by The Land for Public Trust, is a statistical measure of a city's park system based on acreage, investment, amenities and access. In 2018, Madison earned maximum points for the number of playgrounds, dog parks and basketball hoops it offers.
But it was dinged for its lack of recreation and senior centers and for having less than the desired number of splash pads and restrooms.
However, one fact noted in Madison's 2018 ParkScore — that 90% of Madison residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park — is a particular source of pride for Knepp.
"We're the most walkable urban park system in a medium-density American city," Knepp says. "We're lucky that we had great city and park planners over the decades."
The park system is also fortunate to have a plethora of friends — 21 active, park-specific friends groups — helping maintain them and guide more visitors through them.
"Every park or natural area needs friends," says Jan Axelson, president of Friends of Cherokee Marsh, which formed in 2007 to protect the largest wetland in Dane County. Volunteers organize work days to cull invasive plants, raise money for educational programs and lead guided walks and paddle tours of the marsh for hundreds of visitors annually.
"The specific activities may vary," Axelson says, "but I believe that for every friends group, love of a special place is the motivation to do what's needed to care for and encourage appreciation and enjoyment of that place."
As love is lavished this way on natural areas and neighborhood parks, Madison Parks officials are busy expanding and retooling some of the city's largest parks. In February, the Madison Common Council approved the purchase of 3.65 acres of shoreline adjacent to Olin Park. The $5.5 million needed will come from a fund that developers are required to pay into when they don't set aside parkland in their projects.
With little room to grow, the downtown 12.6-acre James Madison Park could be reconfigured through an ongoing update of its master plan. How to allow for parking has sparked debate between area residents — who neither need nor want a parking structure eating up the green space and view — and folks from greater Madison wanting access to the park on the southwest side of Lake Mendota.
"I don't like parking," Knepp says. "But it's important that we don't build a park system where there's undue challenges and barriers to using the community park asset which is the lakeshore. … It's the balancing act that we're [always] trying to strike."
Looking to the future, however, Knepp asks, "As the city changes, how do we make sure the park system remains up to date and responsive to the needs of our community?"
To find out, city park staff made a record-high 30,000 contacts with members of the public — through an online survey, comment cards, visioning workshops and direct observation of park activity — to develop the 2018-2023 Park and Open Space Plan published last summer.
What follows are some increasingly popular park uses the city is trying to accommodate, like trail riding by cyclists, disc golf, Ultimate Frisbee and pickleball. The desire for places to enjoy these activities were evident in the feedback received by the authors of the new Madison parks plan.
The soaring popularity of nontraditional sports coupled with increasing demands from a variety of user groups willing to donate their time and money is changing the shape of Madison parks. It all adds up to an exciting time to be outdoors in the city.
Madison hasn't had much to offer mountain bikers, but trail connections may be coming.
Miles of paved bicycle paths wander through Madison's many parks, but for the most part riders aren't allowed to venture off the asphalt. That is changing.
Rob Lewis and other members of Capital Off Road Pathfinders have been working with Madison Parks and the Parks Commission to provide more places to ride on dirt rather than just pavement.
Lewis credits Madison Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp for keeping an open mind to off-road riding despite historic city staff concerns over turf and trail damage.
"We're slowing turning the tide," says Lewis. "Just about every survey says people want more and more mountain biking in their parks."
Cyclocross — which involves using road bikes with wider tires and sometimes carrying the machine over obstacles — now has a permanent home at Northeast Park off U.S. 151 between Madison and Sun Prairie. That makes it only the second Madison park to allow off-road riding, joining the near west side's Quarry Park, which for years has allowed mountain biking on a short trail loop.
Lewis, along with fellow CORP board member Dan Dacko, are also working to develop an off-road bicycling route that would run all the way across town from Starkweather Creek on the east side to the mountain bike trails at Quarry Ridge Park in Fitchburg and beyond. The route would follow a combination of paved trails and dirt paths through several Madison parks.
"It wouldn't be anything uber serious," says Lewis. "But there are all these little strips of land in the parks where people could jump off the asphalt to get their fix."
Last year, CORP hosted a series of cyclocross clinics on a rotating basis at four different parks: Garner, Olin, Marshall and Aldo Leopold. Those met with some success and are scheduled again this summer on a more extended basis.
"We've built a relationship of trust with Rob and the folks he is closely connected to that will help us keep tabs on any damage," says Knepp.
There have also been discussions about developing a wintertime fat bike course at Glenway Golf Course, but an agreement on liability for any possible damage fat bikes might cause hasn't been reached, Dacko says.
Where: Quarry Park off University Avenue is the only city park with designated mountain biking trails. There is a cyclocross practice area at Northeast Park off U.S. 151. Otherwise bicycling is not allowed off the pavement in Madison parks, aside from the bike polo area at Reynolds Park across from Breese Stevens Field.
How Much: There is no charge for using the CORP-maintained trails at Quarry Park or Northeast Park, but a pass is required ($5 daily, $25 annually) for state trails including the Capital City State Trail and the Military Ridge State Trail for anyone 16 or older.
Fun Fact: Cyclocross is considered the fastest growing segment of bicycle racing today, with Trek Bicycles hosting a World Cup event each September near its headquarters in Waterloo.
Dog owners may be surprised by how many parks do — and will — welcome them.
For decades, dogs were banned by ordinance from all Madison parks in the name of public health and safety.
But today Madison is moving toward opening more of its parks to dogs and the owners that come attached. It's a major policy shift in a city that has long erred on the side of caution when it comes to man's best friend.
The city now offers eight off-leash dog parks, has plans to open a ninth and is in the process of updating its general rules regarding canines.
The city has also recently expanded a pilot program to allow dogs on the paved paths in 26 parks throughout the city — provided the dog is under the handler's control, the dog is licensed and the owner has a permit to use the exercise areas.
Still, dogs remain off limits in children's play areas, on beaches, on athletic fields, in conservation parks or in any park building. And the policy of no dogs unless specified stands in contrast to many other urban parks in the country where dogs are allowed except where specifically banned.
"We probably get more pressure on dogs than any other issue," says Knepp, who has called the current dog policy "antiquated" and out of step with the times.
Where: Dogs are allowed on leash at 26 Madison parks, and off leash at eight designated pet exercise areas. Off-leash areas are Warner Park, Brittingham Park, Demetral Park, Odana School Park, Quann Park, Walnut Grove Park, Sycamore Park and McCormick Park.
How Much: A dog license ($15) is required for all city of Madison residents who own a dog that is 5 months or older. You may purchase a dog license at the City Treasurer's Office. A dog park permit ($5 daily, $35 annually, $17 for seniors and dog owners with disabilities) is required for city of Madison on-leash dog parks, off-leash dog parks along with the pet exercise areas provided by Dane County Parks, the city of Middleton and the city of Sun Prairie. Permits are available online and in the Madison Parks Office in Room 104 of the City-County Building at 201 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Fun Fact: Madison scores in the top 10 nationally for dog-friendliness, according to the Trust for Public Lands. That ranking is based on the number of dog parks per capita. This might come as a surprise to dog owners who hail from places like Milwaukee, where dogs are allowed in all parks unless restrictions are specifically posted.
The original pay-to-play park users are still growing in numbers.
While the city of Madison is struggling with a declining number of golfers at its public courses, it's seeing no slowdown in the demand for disc golf.
Played with a flying plastic disc rather than clubs and a little ball, disc golf is hugely popular and far less expensive than traditional golf. Anywhere from 8 to 12 million Americans have tried the sport at least once, with some 500,000 playing the sport regularly in leagues, according to the Professional Disc Golf Association.
In Madison, a group of dedicated volunteers opened the first disc golf courses at Elver Park on the west side in 1993 and Hiestand Park on the east side in 1998.
But as the number of users kept climbing, the volunteers discovered they could not keep pace and the city took over operation of the two courses in 2013. The city has since opened a winter disc golf course at Yahara Hills, one of the city-owned golf courses targeted for possible closure in the face of declining revenues.
Today, the Madison Parks disc golf program generates about $80,000 a year in user fees, which cover a big chunk of the city's cost of operation and maintenance for the three courses.
Longtime Madison disc golfer Mike Batka, who owns the Glide Disc Golf pro shop at 4222 Milwaukee St. next to Hiestand Park, would like to see some of that money go toward building at least one more new disc golf course.
"It's been 20 years since Madison has added anything," he says. "The demand is certainly there."
Batka says the obvious site is Yahara Hills, where the city has talked about eliminating some of the 36 golf holes to reduce red ink from lagging greens fees.
"There is a ton of land out there," Batka says of Yahara. "You could fit 18 holes of disc golf onto nine holes of traditional golf."
Where: Madison Parks offer three disc golf courses operated seasonally. Hiestand and Elver Parks are open late spring through early fall and Yahara Hills is open late fall through early spring.
How much: A daily ($5) or annual permit ($40) is required for anyone age 16 or older. Permits are available at the courses, in the Madison Parks office in the CCB or online.
Fun fact: TV coverage of some of the biggest disc golf events reached 82 million cable households last year in disc golf's first foray into regular cable access, according to Disc Golf Planet.
The city has converted tennis courts for players of this new racket sport.
If disc golf is one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. for younger people, pickleball might make the same claim for the older crowd.
More than 75% of regular pickleball players are 55 and older, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
A combination of Ping-Pong and tennis, pickleball uses a plastic wiffle ball and wooden paddles and is played on badminton-sized courts. It's often played as doubles, adding to the social aspect of the sport.
Rico Goedjen, president of the Capital Area Pickleball Association, estimates there are more than 1,000 serious pickleball players in the Madison area. Dane County counts 62 dedicated outdoor pickleball courts, most of which were developed within the past five years.
"When I first got addicted — yes, it does get that intense — I had to explain the game to just about everyone," Goedjen says. "Now it seems that most people have heard about it and many know someone who plays."
Madison Parks has responded by converting two tennis courts at Garner Park into six pickleball courts. It has also put down pickleball court lines at nine other tennis courts, although Goedjen says that isn't ideal since official pickleball nets are 2 inches lower than tennis nets.
Goedjen notes that many pickleball courts around the country schedule "open play" during morning hours, allowing people to just show up knowing someone will be available to play. He'd like to see Madison Parks get away from its reservation system and follow that open play concept.
"Often you'll have over 40 people who show up for open play on the six Garner Park courts only to find out that some of the courts are reserved, which means extended wait times and frustration," he says.
Where: Garner Park on Mineral Point Road offers Madison's only dedicated pickleball courts but the city has also put pickleball lines down at nine other tennis courts. They are Elvehjem Park, Norman Clayton Park, Heritage Heights Park, Northland Manor Park, Richmond Hill Park, Tenney Park, Walnut Grove Park, Waunona Park and Westhaven Trails Park.
How Much: As with Madison's 92 outdoor tennis courts, there is no charge for pickleball. Courts are available on a first-come, first-served basis. But you can reserve a court for $5 an hour or $15 for a four-hour block of time.
Fun Fact: Pickleball was started on Bainbridge Island off the Seattle coast in 1965 by three dads looking for a way to keep the kids occupied during summer vacation. One of the families had a cocker spaniel named "Pickles" that was fond of snatching the ball and running away with it. That's apparently how the game got its name, and the USA Pickleball Association is sticking to the story.
When Mother Nature doesn't deliver, the snow guns will.
When it snows, Madison Parks offers cross-country skiing on a half-dozen groomed trails spread throughout the city from Cherokee Marsh on the north side to Elver Park on the southwest side.
The trails at Elver are even lighted for night skiing, with rental equipment available both there and at Odana Hills Golf Course, which offers more gentle terrain for beginners.
But changes in climate have made southern Wisconsin winters far less predictable, and cross-country skiing has suffered.
Now, following the lead of other snow-starved communities, Madison Parks has teamed with the Madison Nordic Ski Club and Central Cross Country, or CXC, to make snow at Elver Park for cross-country skiing. A 1.5-kilometer trail at Elver Park has been open to the public the past two winters, largely made possible with volunteer labor and private fundraising.
"Having that guaranteed snow at Elver for youth programs, lessons or simply skiing with friends has been a game changer," says Dean Gore, co-president of the Madison Nordic Ski Club.
Gore is hoping that the partnership between Madison Parks and the cross-country skiing community continues to grow. Having man-made snow at Elver Park this winter allowed CXC to host races in December for the top junior skiers in the Midwest and provided a venue for the Madison Winter Festival, which brought an overflow crowd to Elver on an unseasonably warm February weekend.
"The reality is that if you want to run a cross-country skiing program in Wisconsin, you need to make snow to supplement what Mother Nature can provide," says Gore.
Where: Madison Parks offers cross-country skiing on groomed trails at seven different venues: Elver Park, Odana Hills Golf Course, Yahara Hills Golf Course, Cherokee Marsh Conservation, Turville Conservation, Owen Conservation and Door Creek Park.
How Much: A cross-country ski permit ($7 daily, $30 per season) is required at Elver, Odana Hills and Yahara Hills, which offer the most consistent grooming. The other trails are free to use but receive less frequent grooming.
Fun Fact: More than 40 venues across the U.S. are now making snow for cross-country skiing, including Lapham Peak in Delafield and a half-dozen trails in the Twin Cities area.
Ultimate Frisbee and cricket have growing followings in Madison.
Softball remains a mainstay of organized summer sports activities in Madison, with some 350 teams registered to play in Madison School Community Recreation leagues.
Madison Parks counts 22 softball fields in locations across town, but there is only one designated cricket pitch within the city limits — at Reindahl Park on the northeast side. And the more than 400 registered cricket players are only expected to increase as the area's South Asian population grows, according to Eric Knepp, Madison Parks superintendent.
Madison also counts thousands of adults and youth playing in Ultimate Frisbee leagues. That sport continues to grow rapidly as well, with the professional Madison Radicals attracting fans to its home games at Breese Stevens Field.
Pete Schramm, president of the Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association, estimates that nearly 4,000 local players participate in MUFA leagues during the summer, making Ultimate Frisbee arguably the most popular organized team sport in town.
"In spring and summer, we generally have ample field space to meet our needs since there are plenty of parks with wide green flat areas and Ultimate Frisbee fields are much narrower than [those of] other sports, like football or especially soccer," he says.
But it's a different story in the fall when early sunsets demand lighted fields.
"Most of the lit fields in Madison are designed for softball, so while they work, they are not ideal," says Schramm. "There also are not many of them, so we're competing with a number of other organizations over a small subset of lit field space."
More lighted Ultimate Frisbee fields could be coming to Madison, however, with the proposed redesign of Burr Jones Field off East Washington Avenue.
Where: Madison Parks fields are available throughout the city and can be reserved if they are not already booked for an organized sports league. Visit here to reserve fields.
How much: You can reserve an Ultimate field for $30 for two hours. The cricket field at Reindahl rents for $15 an hour. Madison Parks will rent fields for other purposes as well.
Fun Fact: The name Frisbee is trademarked by Wham-O Toys, which purchased rights to the flying plastic disc from the inventor many years ago. That means it's technically illegal to use the name "Frisbee" even though it's widely used colloquially. Many devotees simply call the sport "Ultimate" and refer to the centerpiece as "the disc."
Survey Says: "What would you like to see more of in Madison parks?"
1. Acquisition of land for recreation and/or preservation
2. Natural spaces and conservation areas
3. Walking trails
4. Fields for sports activities
5. Winter facilities
6. Access to water and swimming activities
7. Dog parks
8. Recreational programs and/or events
9. Downtown parks
10. Places to reserve a shelter for family gatherings
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