Madison Colors Wisconsin Green

Capital City Takes Leadership Role in Sustainability

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Paul R. Soglin is the mayor of Madison, Wis. He began his political career as a student activist at the University of Wisconsin and was elected to the Madison Common Council while still enrolled as a graduate student in 1968. He served as mayor from 1973 to 1979 and again from 1989 to 1997. His current term as mayor began in 2011.

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Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 12:30 pm

MADISON, Wis. -- In the heart of America’s breadbasket, Madison is a blue city in a red state with a long tradition of green living.

A college town with a vast network of bicycle trails, more than 500 rain gardens and a farmers’ market almost every day of the week, Madison is a city where every homeowner has the RIGHT to install solar or wind power, and where people are free to pick and eat fruits and berries growing in public parks and green spaces.

First a Bit of History

Madison was named the capital of the Wisconsin Territory in 1836, even though the town only existed on paper. Designed by a landowner specifically for a bid to develop the capital, the city was named for founding father and fourth U.S. President James Madison, who had died earlier that year. It was laid out with streets named for each of the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution, its thoroughfares converging on the capitol building in the center of an isthmus between two lakes.

Since that time, Madison has grown to become a regional center for government, education and healthcare – recently recognized by Forbes Magazine as the city with the highest percentage of individuals holding Ph.D.s in the United States. According to, 48.2 percent of Madison's population over the age of 25 holds at least a bachelor's degree. Even at the height of the recent recession, the city’s unemployment rate was a relatively low 3.5 percent.

Madison is a liberal-leaning city in a conservative-leaning state, and city officials make no secret about having sometimes contentious relations with Gov. Scott Walker’s Republican administration on issues related to sustainability, among others. Although Barack Obama narrowly took Wisconsin in the 2012 Presidential Election, both houses of the state’s legislature and its executive branch are dominated by Republicans.

Madison’s Democratic mayor, Paul R. Soglin, is a veteran advocate for environmental and social issues. Beginning his political career as a student activist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Soglin was elected to the common council while still enrolled as a graduate student in 1968. He served as mayor from 1973 to 1979 and again from 1989 to 1997. His current term as mayor began in 2011.

“We are way past the global warming debate,” Soglin said. “Even for those who refuse to accept the changing environment, the economic reality is that every city must prepare to deal with the unpleasant consequences of climate change.” He said Madison’s current council and its electorate provide “tremendous support” for his administration’s sustainability efforts.

“If there’s any disagreement it’s about what to do first, and if there’s any criticism from the public it’s that we’re not moving fast enough,” he said.

Step One: Getting the House in Order

As in many cities, Madison’s first sustainability plan looked inward, said Facilities and Sustainability Manager Jeanne Hoffman.

“That first plan was really about making sure city operations were being sustainable. I think that was a very important first step. Before we could go out to the business community, neighborhood and stakeholder groups and ask them to be sustainable, it was important for the city itself to have a sustainability story to tell; to show the community that we weren’t asking them to do something we weren’t already doing ourselves.”

Madison’s first sustainability plan adopted in 2005 established Hoffman’s position and focused primarily on installing energy efficient lighting, insulation, HVAC systems and renewable energy in city buildings; incorporating alternative-fuel vehicles into city fleets; adopting green purchasing policies; and establishing sustainability metrics and reporting structures. The plan adopted as its foundation The Natural Step, an international framework for strategic sustainable development.

Using that framework, the city modified its policies to prepare for the next phase in its evolution toward becoming a more sustainable city, Hoffman said.

Bringing the Community into the Fold

“Our second plan, which was just adopted a few years ago, basically said, ‘We as a city have done a lot of things to be more sustainable and now we’re asking the community – other governmental groups, the business community and residents – to also take a stake in being more sustainable,’” Hoffman said. “So that second plan is much broader, in that it has recommendations and goals in areas like natural systems, climate and energy, transportation, culture and art, education, and a whole host of chapters that obviously go well beyond what the city has direct control over.”

The control the city did have, however, was in its out-dated zoning code, which it completely rewrote with the help of an ad hoc committee of stakeholders and focus groups. The new code incorporated renewable energy, urban agriculture, increased density and mixed-use development.

The city’s old zoning code included specific restrictions on installation of solar and wind energy systems in certain urban design and historic districts throughout the city.

“The old code made it possible for renewable energy to be denied if somebody didn’t like the looks of it, based solely on aesthetics,” Hoffman said. “We went through all that code and changed it, and basically made it a right to be able to install renewable energy regardless of whether you’re in an urban design district or an historical district.” She said aesthetic considerations are still incorporated, but they can’t prevent a project from moving forward as long as certain standards are met.

Green Building – Despite Obstacles

Now that the zoning code has been revamped, Hoffman said the “next big project” is to rewrite the city’s building code. But, according to Hoffman and Mayor Soglin, that’s where the city is butting heads with state government.

“In Wisconsin, the state controls most of the standards for building and construction,” Soglin said. “It preempts us in many areas. It allows developers with short horizons to go outside the city, contributing to sprawl.”

In response, Soglin said, the city has “penciled in” $3 million to provide incentives for developers who maintain greener standards, with particular emphasis on advanced insulation technology, low-volume toilets, green roofs, LED outdoor lighting and modernized water softeners.

Funded in part by a U.S. Department of Energy Solar American City grant, Madison hired a “solar advocate” to help businesses and residents navigate the complex steps necessary to finance and install solar energy. A bulk-purchasing program allowed groups of homeowners to install solar energy at a low negotiated price.

The city has also grappled with the state on power purchase agreements, which are not currently allowed in Wisconsin. These agreements, allowed in many states, make it possible for third parties to finance renewable energy installations and sell the energy back to public entities for a long-term negotiated rate.

“We did a lot of research and tried to suggest to the statewide policymakers that opening up (power purchase agreements) would be a win-win,” Hoffman said. “It would provide green jobs as well as low-cost renewable power to the state. But, we have a political structure that isn’t going to consider those kinds of changes right now. If you think about it, it really shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but in the current political environment it becomes one,” she said.

Local Foods for Everyone

Madison is also encouraging residents to think differently about their lawns and public green spaces. Urban gardens are now allowed in terraces between the sidewalk and the street in residential neighborhoods. Another recent ordinance allows individuals or groups to plant fruit trees and berry bushes in public parks, provided they care for the plants and allow anyone to pick and consume the fruits and berries.

“That’s going to have a pretty significant impact on the city, because there are a lot of residents that live in apartments and diverse neighborhoods that don’t have direct access to fresh produce,” she said.

“Gardening is a really big deal in Madison. We have many, many farmers’ markets all over the city. Basically, every day of the week you could do your shopping at a farmers’ market. All of our farmers’ markets are very traditional, in that almost all of the food is locally sourced. Even the processed items like bread and pasta use ingredients that come from local growers,” Hoffman said.

Madison and the Dane County area have a robust network of urban gardeners and community-supported farms that provide food stocks for the markets and many area schools, hospitals and restaurants. Many of the farms are food cooperatives that sell shares to area residents before the growing season begins. This gives them investment capital to plant and harvest the crops, which are then delivered to shareholders’ homes throughout the harvest season, Hoffman said.

“One of the grocery stores in town has a mobile market – a refrigerated tractor-trailer with produce in it that goes to parts of the city that have less access to food… so everyone can have access to fresh produce,” she said.

…And Cheese, of Course

Wisconsin is known for dairy products, and Madison officials say the area dairy industry has embraced sustainability in a big way. The area is home to Organic Valley, a nationwide dairy food co-op that sells food from more than 1,800 farms that avoid synthetic and potentially harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

Many larger dairies are using anaerobic digesters to harvest methane gas for energy and to provide compostable bedding for cattle, Hoffman said. Dane County has also built a large manure digester north of Madison and is in the process of building a second facility to process manure supplied by area farms.

Caring for Madison’s Water

Surrounded by four large lakes, one would think the city of Madison would have plenty of potable water. But, looks can be deceiving. In fact, water quality concerns have prompted the city to initiate a number of water conservation and pollution control programs.

Madison’s water utility is in the process of installing “smart meters” that have already helped identify leaks in the system and “saved a lot of water,” Hoffman said, as has the low-volume toilet replacement program.

Madison hopes to create 1,000 rain gardens in the city, and is more than half way to achieving that goal. Each time a residential street is reconstructed, residents are given the option of having a rain garden installed in their terrace, Hoffman said, and the city has installed many large bio-swales in city parks and greenways.

Hoffman said the city requires developers to include sustainable stormwater management features in new and renovated developments over a certain size.

The city is partnering with Dane County, the local sewerage district and the state Department of Natural Resources to extend funding for watershed restoration projects into the rural areas feeding into the city, she said. Projects include putting roofs over livestock feed lots, fencing off livestock access to stream beds and building bio-retention facilities to protect against floods and destruction of natural habitat in the waterways.

The primary objective is to reduce the amount of phosphates and metals that find their way into the lakes and the underground aquifers that supply Madison’s drinking water. Hoffman said significant progress has been made, but more work needs to be done to improve the health of Madison’s iconic lakes.

Recycling, Reusing and Reducing

Madison has a long history of recycling. Programs include curbside collection of plastic bags, pots and pans, hand-held power tools, faucets, small kitchen appliances, and all the usual paper, cardboard, metal, glass and plastic products, said Recycling Coordinator George Dreckmann. In the past 20 years, the city has sold more than 25,000 home compost bins, and its drop-off site accepts items such as cooking oil, electronics, polystyrene, scrap lumber and a host of other items.

In 1999, the city diverted 52 percent of its waste from the county landfill. It implemented single-stream recycling in 2006, which increased its diversion rate to 57 percent. A 2010 ordinance controlling construction and demolition waste got the city to 66 percent, and by 2012 it was diverting 69 percent of its collected waste, Dreckmann said.

Two years ago, the city started a pilot food-scraps collection project with 550 households and six restaurants participating. Plans are now in the works to build an anaerobic digester to take that program to full-scale implementation, Dreckmann said.

The digester will be used to process food waste and other source-separated organics like dirty paper napkins, plates and pizza boxes.

“It’s the largest single piece remaining in our waste stream,” Dreckmann said of the food scraps. “We landfill about 45,000 tons of material on an annual basis within the city – the part that the city collects – and this digester will take care of somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand tons. So, between 30 and 40 percent of what we landfill we’ll be able to pull out with this program.” That should take the city’s landfill diversion rate to about 80 percent, he said.

Energy generated by the digester will be used to power a new fleet maintenance facility and provide natural gas to fuel some city vehicles, Dreckmann said.

In the next few weeks, Madison will begin a mattress and box spring recycling program, too, he said.

Dreckmann’s goal is to make Madison a zero-waste city, but he said waste diversion projects have been slowed by the fact that landfill tipping fees are still relatively low in Wisconsin, as compared to other parts of the country.

“When you’re paying $100 or more per ton to dispose of your material in a landfill there are lots of options that are less expensive than that,” Dreckmann said. “But when you come to Wisconsin, where you’re paying $40 per ton, it becomes much more of a challenge to make diversion strategies cost effective.” He said tipping fees are expected to increase when the county implements a planned landfill expansion in the next few years.

A Bicycle Culture

Madison adopted its first bicycle transportation plan in 1975, the result of a 1972 resolution co-sponsored by young alderman and future mayor Paul Soglin.

“So we’ve been working on consciously accommodating bicyclists in our transportation system for at least 40 years now,” said Pedestrian and Bicycle Coordinator Arthur Ross.

Since then, the city has been developing “complete streets,” even before the term complete streets came into fashion, Ross said. “We used to call it ‘routine accommodation’ then. In the normal course of developing your streets, you’re including sidewalks and bicycle facilities.”

What’s changed over the years is that bicycle paths and lanes used to be scattered throughout the city as disparate pieces. Today, the focus is on interconnecting those systems, making traveling by bicycle a legitimate option for those commuting to work, school, shopping or other destinations.

Bicycle usage in Madison has tripled since the early 1980s, when records first started being kept. Ross credits the interconnections.

“As things become more and more connected and networked, use goes up and up,” Ross said. “People start to say, ‘Hey, you mean now I can ride my bike from here all the way over to there?’ And use just goes up dramatically whenever that happens,” he said.

Today, Madison has 46 miles of bike paths, 112 miles of bike lanes, 7 miles of curb lanes and 116 miles of designated bike routes within the city limits. These connect to a vast network of regional and suburban systems throughout the Madison area.

In recent years, city designers have focused on retrofitting “loop and lollipop” neighborhoods by interconnecting cul-de-sacs with bicycle paths that allow people to move efficiently through residential areas without increasing vehicle traffic. New developments are returning to more of a grid design to allow for that interconnectivity, Ross said.

Other aspects of Madison’s bicycle transportation system include: All metro buses are equipped with bike racks; snow is plowed from bike paths in the winter; there are police and first-responder crews on bicycles at various locations throughout the city; a bicycle parking ordinance requires certain new developments to provide off-street parking for bicycles; the city uses a variety of innovative traffic control features to protect the safety of bikers and pedestrians; and the city has about 30 Madison B-cycle bike-share kiosks where users can swipe a credit card or pay an annual membership fee to rent a bike, returning it to any of the kiosks when they’re done using it.

Sustainability in Business and Education

Sustain Dane is a regional comprehensive sustainability organization begun in 1997 as an informal group of scientists, researchers and activists in Madison and Dane County. Since then, it has blossomed into a catalyst for bringing together civic leaders, businesses and educators in support of a wide variety of sustainability projects.

“By nature of the fact that we don’t work on a single issue, we’re more about working with sustainability champions to remove barriers and meet people where they are,” said Interim Executive Director Jessie Lerner. “We partner with all of these different groups either programmatically or strategically to facilitate a collaborative process,” she said.

Sustain Dane acts as a nonprofit “resource broker” to help area businesses reduce waste and energy use, increase employee engagement, and create a sustainability strategy. It works with the Madison Metropolitan School District and area colleges to initiate sustainability projects involving students, staff and administrators

Now in its fifth year, the group’s MPower Business Champion Program uses an EPA Climate Showcase Community Grant to provide businesses with sustainability support.

In the schools, Sustain Dane is helping drive a campaign to save the Madison district $70,000 by reducing lighting expenses by 5 percent. It also helped shepherd into existence the Badger Rock Middle School, an environmentally-based charter school that teaches students systems thinking and civic responsibility through real work in the school and community.

It also works with the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission on initiatives funded by a $2 million, three-year Sustainable Community Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that is intended to develop a broad partnership to prepare plans for sustainable regional transit and development corridors in the Madison area.

Sustain Dane also hosts an annual sustainability conference and helps organize other events, workshops and campaigns throughout Dane County and the region.

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