Neil Heinen

Heinen: Imagining Madison's future

Madisonians' input impacts city's future

Imagine Madison. So simple. So stimulating. What do we love about this city, and what would make it better? What worries us about this city and what would we change? What are our shared concerns? What are our hopes and dreams? We are limited only by our imaginations.

At least that’s the idea behind Imagine Madison, the “people-powered planning” campaign just a little more than a year old now, conducted by the City of Madison Planning Division. A new approach to the once-every-10-years updating of the city’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Madison’s goal is to gather the opinions of each and every Madisonian which will be used in planning the Madison of tomorrow—and beyond. And while falling short of the “each and every Madisonian” goal, it’s been an impressive effort that has reached deep into every corner of the city. I’m very much looking forward to the results. 

On a recent episode of the broadcast version of For The Record, which airs on WISC-TV, City of Madison Planning Director Heather Stouder and citizen leaders Veronica Vega from the Latino Family Resource Center and Aaron Perry, president and CEO of the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, described a well-designed and inclusive process that struck me as a perfect example of the citizen engagement work that the Ohio-based Kettering Foundation researches in studying “what it takes to make democracy work as it should.”

I’ve participated in that research at Kettering for 20 years. One of the democratic practices Kettering suggests that is key to citizens’ ability to combat shared problems is naming an issue in terms of what is most important to the citizens doing the work. It’s seems to me that is what Imagine Madison is doing. Kettering has identified a half dozen such practices that can enable citizens, communities and institutions to work together. In other words: democracy working as it should. And again, given the collaborative design of Imagine Madison, citizens, city government and partners—including the Bridge-Lakepoint-Waunona Neighborhood Center, home of the Latino Family Resource Center—the city planning effort is a good example. Citizens have to feel like their voices matter. A vision of how Madison 10 years from now is constructed should be a reflection of their values and what has meaning in their lives.

The Imagine Madison process included a foundational structure of six general themes, including economy and opportunity, and form and connectivity. Citizen participants were free to “name” specific issues within those themes and offer their unique perspectives. Often, those perspectives and real world experiences were richly nuanced and suggested relationships often missing when similar issues are discussed by city officials or civic leaders without the input of citizens.

Both Vega and Perry told me participants in the sessions they led identified transportation and housing as the top two issues to be addressed in the 20-year plan, especially in the next 10 years. What strikes me as so important is the insight of citizens who see the connections between transportation and affordable housing and the equitable economic growth that is part of the Madison we all imagine.

Families cannot thrive if they can’t get to the work, recreation, worship, health care and shopping destinations they need to get to. Making smart transportation choices is more difficult when housing options are limited. Jobs downtown aren’t as valuable if workers can’t get to them or afford to live near them. And, of course, all of it influences other issues like diversity, our environment and natural resources, arts, culture and historic preservation and support for local businesses. You can see how this people-powered planning thing really works.

You can take the Imagine Madison survey and offer your perspective on these issues at Planning is the work of citizens. So is imagining the future we will share.

Side Notes

Disparities in News
Speaking of the Kettering Foundation, one of my colleagues in the work I do at the foundation is University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communications Professor Sue Robinson, whose new book, “Networked News, Racial Divides: How Power and Privilege Shape Public Discourse in Progressive Communities” has just been published and is likely to cause a bit of a stir in the news industry as well as in progressive communities, including Madison. The book is a smart mix of reporting, data and academic research. And Robinson’s many recommendations and conclusions are hopeful and welcome. Read an edited excerpt from Robinson’s book starting on page 34.

‘Big’ School Friend
I recently learned that the important and effective Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County organization has a component called School Friends. Mentors are matched with a child they visit at school once a week during the academic year. BBBS needs more traditional “bigs,” to be sure. But a School Friend might be a better fit for some.


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