Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
News & Events

SoHE Centers of Excellence Host Event Aimed at Planning in Madison

Recently, the Centers of Excellence hosted a fun, exciting, and impactful day of collaboration aimed at shaping a stronger, more connected future for Madison’s neighborhoods.

The UW-Madison School of Human Ecology (“SoHE”) Centers of Excellence focus on applied, multi-disciplinary, community-based research and scholarship — often looking at issues through the lens of individual, family, and community well-being.  In recent years, we’ve become interested in exploring more the way that designed spaces and environments play a role in our lives and communities, our “human ecology”.  Our SoHE community includes many Design Studies faculty and students, and there are many opportunities to connect between the work they do on the 3rd floor– using studios, drawing tables, and models — with the work of other human ecologists in our building and in the broader Madison community.

Thus, we were excited when Madison was selected to host the 2017 Environmental Design Research Association Annual Conference at our beautiful Monona Terrace. For 48 years, the EDRA Annual Conference has served as an international convening of collaborative, multidisciplinary designers and scholars, built around advancing and disseminating research, teaching, and improving an understanding of the relationships among people, their built environments, and natural eco-systems.

We were even more excited when our own Design Studies faculty member Jung-hye Shin was selected as a Chair of the 2017 EDRA Annual Conference. Partly inspired by discussions we had been having at SoHE about community engagement, Dr. Shin and her committee members decided this year to focus this year’s theme on “Voices of Place,” invites socially motivated design professionals and researchers to come together with a shared belief in creating environments that matter to people and where people and their needs and input matter.

The EDRA Conference presented a valuable opportunity to explore the convergence of scholarship, city planning, and community voice.  The Centers of Excellence submitted a proposal for an all-day intensive session that would focus on our own community of Madison.  EDRA selected our proposal and we were honored to receive an invitation to host the session.

Flash talks covered multiple aspects of life in Madison.

Here’s what we did:

The planning team chose to use three core activities to form the day’s agenda. The morning consisted of short flash talks from presenters with wisdom to share from academic perspectives, neighborhood and community experiences and expertise, and from the public sector — spanning a range of disciplines including architecture, community organizing and capacity building, food systems, arts and culture, urban planning, youth engagement and programming, city and regional and neighborhood infrastructure, and more.  EDRA attendees who were largely unfamiliar with Madison gained a brief but rich overview of our community — its strengths and its challenges. Additionally, the unconventional lineup of presenters created an opportunity for people from various parts of the community, the city, and campus who are all doing good work that relates to community spaces to connect, contrast and start a conversation.

There was a great feeling in the room that the conversations amongst individuals committed to a better community would lead to new ideas and new collaborations.  

If you are interested in obtaining the PowerPoint presentations from this fantastic line-up of academic, community-based, and public sector presenters, please contact Mary Beth Collins at mecollins@wisc.edu.

EDRA- Site 2, South Park St
Imagery @2017 Google. Map data @2017 Google.


The afternoon session involved site visits to two Madison community sites. One site was in Madison’s east side Darbo neighborhood and the other was off of South Madison’s South Park St — both are in areas of Madison where access to resources and quality of life is more challenging than in other parts of the community. Both sites are surrounded by meaningful community assets and include natural resources such as creek frontage. Additionally, both are sites where there is opportunity for community-driven planning in the near term.

Tours at both sites were jointly led by Madison City Planning Department staff and attendees who lived and worked in the neighborhood, giving participants the opportunity to see the same neighborhood from multiple perspectives.

After the site visits, attendees returned to Monona Terrace for a wrap-up charette. Everyone — speakers, attendees, city planners, and session planning staff — participated in activities that suggested future processes and priorities for both site neighborhoods and the great region as a whole.

Here are some key themes that were shared in this rich day of exchanges:

Madison’s growth offers opportunities and challenges. Representatives from the City of Madison Planning Division shared their approaches to planning and community engagement work to date; and shared what is on the horizon for our neighborhoods, city, and the greater Capitol Region.  Increases in population present distinct challenges, particularly when considered in conjunction with the desire to maintain authentic neighborhoods, offer affordable housing, and create reasonable employment and transportation pathways for the full spectrum of community members.

Architect and designer Mike Ford presents at SoHE’s EDRA gathering.

A “Tale of Two Madisons.”  While some enjoy the “livability” that is often lauded in our community, we know others face a starkly different reality.  Violence, lack of access to healthy food, and a lack of affordable housing define some neighbors’ experiences.  These themes in “liveability” are deeply connected to the disparate outcomes and experiences we see in other aspects of “human ecology” in our community.

“Hip Hop Architecture” and other new ways of thinking about the history of planning designed spaces can help us shape the processes and participants for planning in the future.  It is essential to “Stop, Collaborate, and Listen!”  End-user experience should be front and center in planning, and that means a different participatory approach must be employed, with different voices at the table.

Cultural spaces and experiences that resonate with all community members are important and currently lacking.  New cultural experiences and spaces must be nurtured in order for youth to have positive spaces to socialize and be healthy. Such spaces are vital to get a diverse mix of adults and professionals to find a home in this community.

Green spaces and playspace are still needed for many neighbors and children in our community.  Community spaces where folks can gather and share are still needed.  There have been successful efforts to use existing resources for community activities such as neighborhood festivals that can be instructive in looking at communal space.

Many neighborhoods, including both neighborhoods included in the site visits, lack equitable access to transportation. Many neighborhoods could offer new pathways or be viewed in the context of meaningful pathways for safe and efficient walking or bicycling.

Urban agriculture and food production are full of promise in our community. Thankfully, this is an area where Wisconsin has a strong record of successful collaborations among key constituents from neighborhoods, community organizations, the University, UW-Extension, and local government agencies.  Food is a platform for exploring other themes such as community-building, employment, education, sustainability, family relationships, health, social justice, and community capacity-building.  Current projects including but not limited to Neighborhood Food Solutions and the South Madison Farmer’s Market, Mentoring Positives, and the Madison Public Market present platforms that may be useful for future work.

The expertise and perspectives of youth in our communities can and should be invited into our processes as much as possible.  Research shows that youth engagement benefits processes and promotes life-long civic engagement, as well as can open doors to future career choices and leadership for youth.

Much more community perspective — including neighbors of all ages —  is needed for each space to make progress on any vision.  We may need to find new, creative ways to get this input.

We can do so much better in Madison at approaching community challenges!  With the assets of the University and many committed community groups and members, we have more resources to leverage in facing “grand challenges” than many other communities.  How do we better engage those resources?



Attendees, including ‎Planning Division Director Heather Stouder, participate in a mini-charrette.

Follow ups we committed to:
1. For both the Darbo site and the South Madison site, there are common themes that could be addressed with site plans — accessibility to green space, work opportunities, affordable housing needs, need for community space, distinguishable and culturally rich music and arts activities, play-and-learn space, urban ag + food production activities, entrepreneur vending space, access to healthy food, authentic spaces for youth to gather.
2. South Park/Wingra site has some particular connectivity challenges and the larger area could theoretically develop over time. . .  perhaps starting with a little vibrancy in the open space could be a way to get started.
3. Darbo site will be considered in context with a larger planning process that has been underway — promising opportunities to expand on open market and food production activities already being explored there.
4. Continued sharing between communities and neighbors near both sites could be a fun and beneficial way to learn and grow together. There is history of campus and city planning collaboration in both areas and lots of lessons to learn from as well as potentially valuable partnerships.
5. Some “tactical urbanism” steps to activate and get some small wins in the near term could be a good strategy to get the ball rolling. (see resources/links below). In the sites we’re talking about, some simple mowing, path-making, providing some plastic chairs, bench materials, paint, playthings, etc — that community orgs and members could place and transform space as they see fit. . . . these could be some approachable, immediate next steps.
6. We will keep a network going. Hedi LaMarr Rudd has proposed an idea for a next gathering echoing suggestions made by Dr. Jim La Gro earlier in the day. Those invited today plus others can be included — consider adding business representatives.
7. We will share this blog “report-out” widely in our various organizational networks and through social media!  We’ll also continue to explore social media tools that we may be able to use to keep this network going, and invite others in for future similar activities.  The City Planning Department will be invited to tap into this network on an ongoing basis but community members are also welcome to initiate more visioning, proposals, and projects.

Additional  information of interest:

Maps created by Dr. Jason Vargo — reflecting metrics of community well-being in various parts of Madison: https://univercity.wisc.edu/edra/

Janet Sadik Khan TED Talk on Bold Experiments to tackle challenges and create noticeable change in complex environments: https://www.ted.com/talks/janette_sadik_khan_new_york_s_streets_not_so_mean_any_more

Guide to Tactical Urbanism: http://tacticalurbanismguide.com/

Information on Nashville’s grassroots tactical urbanism organization, “Turbo”: http://www.turbonashville.org/about-turbo/

An international example of tactical urbanism strategies in Ethiopia: https://globaldesigningcities.org/2016/12/13/safer-streets-happier-people-addis-ababa-goes-perilous-pop-permanent/