Density has long been an important feature of thriving cities. High density neighborhoods favor pedestrian walkability over the use of automobiles and provide more efficient use of infrastructure.

Madison, Wisconsin is currently debating how to increase its downtown density, while still abiding by the city’s building height rule. No building in the downtown vicinity can exceed the height of the capitol dome. As the capitol dome was built in 1917, this height rule has since created the unsurprising predicament of more urban sprawl. If the city can’t build up, it must build out.

The capitol building in Madison, WI.

In 2010 a group of design professionals came together to create “Design Visions” for downtown Madison. This document aimed to increase sustainability, boost density, build on the downtown’s historical and regional context, and supplement the city’s Downtown Plan. Density issues were one of the major problems the group wrestled with. Finally they turned to Florence, Italy for help as both cities limit height to emphasize their respective domes. However, Florence has about half as much land as Madison, a larger population, and few buildings taller than six stories. So how exactly do they do it? The answer all boils down to consistent, moderate density.

Urban sprawl has a tendency to increase downtown traffic, and it detaches citizens on the city’s fringes from downtown life. If density were to be increased, so would livability and walkability. In order to avoid further sprawl, Madison aims to create high density mixed-use urban areas with pedestrian friendly streets. Specifically, the city hopes to redevelop parts of its Mifflin Street neighborhood. While the neighborhood is in a prime location, adjacent to both the capitol and University of Wisconsin campus, the housing there is extremely deteriorated. This area would be perfect for green, high density, and pedestrian oriented development.

A view of downtown Madison and the Mifflin Street Neighborhood from the capitol building.

The design professionals, who created the “Design Visions,” hope to redevelop 10.4 million square feet in this neighborhood to provide housing and commercial space for 22,000 residents. This would avert the development of 8.6 square miles of urban sprawl. Not only would this prevent sprawl, but it would also increase a sense of community, decrease commuting needs, and promote a vibrant, walkable downtown area.

The proposed Mifflin Street Neighborhood redevelopment.

While Madison is a small city, it has always dreamed big. It is one of the leading green cities in the nation, and sustainability has always been one of its highest priorities. In the years to come, Madison hopes to use Florence as a compass for further revitalization not only in its Mifflin Street neighborhood, but in many other portions of the downtown as well.

Does your city have urban sprawl issues? How could they be improved?

Credits: Images by Kaylie Duffy. Data and other images linked to sources.