After a lengthy and, at times, tense discussion, Madison’s City Council delayed making a decision on contracting with a consultant that would provide placemaking training to city staff and interested neighborhood residents.
Mayor Paul Soglin first introduced the $40,500 contract with the New York-based Project for Public Spaces in July following one of the city’s 10 homicides this summer. Though the proposed training is not meant to be the only solution to violence in Madison, Soglin said increased community leadership can strengthen challenged neighborhoods.
“There is a correlation between leadership, strong neighborhoods, safety and health,” Soglin said. “As a result of this, if it works, what we ought to see is greater assertion and greater leadership coming from the training.”
Under the program, representatives from the nonprofit community planning group would provide separate, one-time training sessions to city staff and neighborhood residents to establish permanent neighborhood leadership. The program would also assist neighborhood residents in identifying small-scale projects to “grow the sense of empowerment and ownership” in the neighborhood.
“The role of the Project for Public Spaces is not to come in and substitute for the neighborhood. It is not to be there for community organizing,” Soglin said. “It is to demonstrate and train how people can run their own lives and take control of their neighborhoods and invest in their neighborhoods.”
As a whole, the City Council supports the idea of placemaking or the “process of people coming together to create vibrant public spaces at the heart of their community.” However, alders expressed confusion over the purpose of the resolution with Ald. Denise DeMarb, District 16, calling it “ambiguous.”
“I think that maybe it’s placemaking, maybe it’s leadership building and perhaps it's economic development,” DeMarb said.
Ald. Mark Clear, District 19, wondered how an outside group would gain credibility in Madison neighborhoods. Ald. Maurice Cheeks, District 10, questioned whether the city should consider paying currently active neighborhood leaders instead of a consultant, and wondered how the proposal is or is not related to violence prevention.
“Violence is the greatest concern facing most of our constituents right now,” Cheeks said. “This $40,000 is clearly not a response sufficient to the needs of our constituents’ concerns.”
Ald. Matt Phair, District 20, suggested the city should focus its efforts on improving transportation, affordable housing and youth mentoring to affect root causes of neighborhood distress. He said the placemaking effort could be like a Band-Aid solution or a temporary fix.
“(The city’s focus) should be in some ways a lot broader and getting at determinants of violence and bad outcomes for folks,” Phair said.
Speaking from the podium at the front of the Council chambers instead of from her seat, Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1, argued strongly in favor of the placemaking proposal. She compared providing training to residents to teaching individuals to catch fish for themselves instead of the city making decisions for residents.
“It is giving residents the tools, the trainings that is so badly needed in our neighborhoods,” Harrington-McKinney said.
The Council decided to refer decision on the proposal until its next meeting on Sept. 19, asking that the mayor look into an expanded model that would ensure people in the community are being instructed on how to train others in the future on placemaking skills.
“I’m more interested in keeping that sort of knowledge within our community and building on that,” DeMarb said.
Also on Tuesday night, the City Council approved on its consent agenda a permit system that makes sandwich board-style signs legal. Businesses in commercial areas such as State, Monroe, Williamson and Johnson streets have used signs on public sidewalks to promote their stores, though the practice has been technically illegal.
Businesses that wish to display a sign on public property outside of their establishment can apply for an annual permit that would begin in April.
The city will monitor signs closely to make sure they are within the ordinance’s size requirement (not larger than 30 inches wide and 48 inches high) and are in an appropriate location.
Wrapping up a debate spanning several months, the City Council also settled on the makeup of an 11-member task force that will be in charge of studying Madison’s local government, its structure and the balance of power between the mayor’s office and the council.
The mayor and Ald. Sara Eskrich, District 13, previously introduced options for a task force that varied on the number of members, who appoints them and what the group studies.
After a push from DeMarb to keep the mayor's office involved in the process to ensure city leadership is on the same page, Soglin agreed to meet monthly with the task force’s chairperson and council leadership.
“What I didn’t want to have happen is get months and months down the road and have the whole thing not supported,” DeMarb said.