The Madison Common Council met last night for the first council meeting of the new year. Notably, the council adopted a new code of ethics for the behavior of alders towards colleagues, city employees, and members of the public.
Also on the Council’s agenda was a plan called Complete Green Streets. The council approved this plan, which will guide the city’s approach to street design in Madison, making streets more friendly to bikers and pedestrians.
In effect, the new policy requires city engineers to make more room for sidewalks and bike lanes in future road reconstruction projects.
Complete Streets plans have been used in cities like Milwaukee, Des Moines, and Nashville for years. But those plans only focus on pedestrian safety, while Madison’s initiative takes Complete Green Streets a step further. So says, says Transportation Director Tom Lynch.
“Complete Green Streets is (a way) to make Complete Streets that accommodate all modes, which means they accommodate not just motor vehicles, but also bikes and pedestrians in a way that’s safe,” Lynch says. “But then green means that we understand how important our tree canopy is, as well as green infrastructure such as rain gardens, and that those also need to be accommodated in the street right of way.”
The plan applies to sidewalks and terraces in addition to roads. And last night’s passage was the result of two years of planning, which culminated last month in the release of a final, 71 page guide to street design.
In 2019, a city task force found that a little less than a quarter of the city was shaded by tree canopy, and set a new goal of 40% tree canopy coverage.
Those tree canopies, in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, also lower air temperatures when it’s hot out. That’s important, because keeping paved environments cooler during heat waves is becoming more of an issue: a UN report detailing climate scenarios predict that Wisconsin will warm between two and a half to seven and a half degrees Fahrenheit in 30 years, even with very low emissions.
Lynch says that Complete Green Streets will help the city to reach that new goal of keeping more of Madison covered by tree canopy.
“Many of us have been on recently constructed streets that are very wide, you know parking on both sides, bike lanes, and those can be 40 to 50 feet wide,” Lynch says. “Whereas some of our older streets in some of our more traditional neighborhoods are closer to 28 feet wide. If we reconstructed our streets more in the 28 feet wide, rather than the 48 feet wide, that gives us 20 feet to do other things with.”
Lynch says that, although they can’t narrow every road in Madison, they can start reconstructing streets by keeping in mind the Complete Green Streets plan.
But some Madison residents say that the plan would not be green at all. At last night’s council meeting, several people voiced concern that the plan would decrease the amount of canopy trees in Madison
Jen Plants is the President of the Marquette Neighborhood Association. She says that, under the new plan, large canopy trees would not be allowed in smaller terraces. Instead, “narrow” canopy trees would be the only trees allowed in terraces smaller than six feet, an issue that Plants says she’s had firsthand experience with.
“There’s a difference between traditional, large canopy trees that provide large amounts of shade and have a cooling effect, to the kind of lollipop trees, like the kind that was planted in front of my house when they took out the canopy tree,” Plants says. “That doesn’t provide much shade or shelter at all. I think as our neighborhood continues to grow, and there’s new construction, the chances of putting in large canopy trees just got a lot smaller because of the newly enlarged minimum terrace width now required.”
Lynch says that this is because that is the only type of tree that would be able to grow in these tight terraces. He adds that this recommendation to only allow narrow trees in the smaller terraces is not only already city policy, but it was included in the Urban Forestry Report released four years ago.
Plants maintains that she would like to see new technology allow larger trees to be planted in those smaller terraces. There are some ways to do that – one technology called Silva Cell uses a highly engineered underground infrastructure to support larger trees in paved areas – but that technology comes with a cost.
Lynch says that, while expensive, Silva Cell will be used sparingly across the city in areas deemed low on canopy coverage.
Complete Green Streets passed on a unanimous vote last night, meaning that future street reconstruction projects will be subject to the new priorities and goals. Lynch adds that city engineers are already implementing the Complete Green Streets philosophy around the city, and have applied it, though not on paper, to recent street reconstruction projects. Still, Complete Green Streets will look different for different street designs, taking into account the specifics of that neighborhood.
Photo courtesy: City of Madison