Ahuska Park

A study of Monona's Ahuska Park, shown here in 2006, is one project being done for the city by UW-Madison students in the new UniverCity Year program. 

Capital Times archives

A new partnership with UW-Madison promises to deliver Monona officials a wealth of information on how to improve the city’s transportation infrastructure, housing and amenities.

Late last month, university officials announced that Monona will be its first partner in a newly created “UniverCity Year” program, which aims to help understaffed municipalities on projects by tapping into faculty expertise and creating educational opportunities for students.

Local municipalities have enlisted the help of UW students and faculty for projects before.

For example, the university’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning began a pair of studies for Fitchburg last fall about a neighborhood center for the city’s lowest-income area, and a possible “Fitchburg Agriculture Route” that would enhance a 4.5-mile section of the Badger State Trail by showcasing the city’s agricultural heritage.

But Jason Vargo, an assistant scientist with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Global Health Institute, said the UniverCity Year program is different in that it will pull from a variety of disciplines across campus.

“Hopefully the breadth will be much greater,” said Vargo, who is coordinating the UniverCity Year program. “The university can sometimes be seen as an impenetrable fortress. You know they have all this expertise but you don’t necessarily know how to access it.”

UniverCity Year is based on the University of Minnesota’s Resilient Communities Project, which was founded in 2012 and has targeted a different area around the Twin Cities each year since its inception.

Monona came to be UniverCity Year’s first partner when Vargo met Mayor Bob Miller at a Rotary Club meeting in Madison, where the two discussed collaborating. As the UniverCity Year idea developed, Vargo decided Monona would be a good pilot city for the project because of its proximity to campus.

Vargo has worked with the city to identify a few projects where the university can assist the city’s small staff in studies that would otherwise go undone or require hiring of expensive external consultants.

The projects include an analysis of Ahuska Park, just off the Beltline, that will enlist the university’s college of agriculture, turf science program and others.

“That’s where the farmers’ market is held and countless other events. It’s really getting used and it’s at capacity. We want to keep using it, so how might it be best used in the future?” Miller said of the study.

UniverCity Year will also examine options to expand senior housing, provide a city-wide Internet service and make the city better for public transit, pedestrians and bicyclists. All of those study needs are currently being incorporated into classwork for the 2016-17 school year.

In its 2016 budget, the Monona City Council authorized $10,000 for each of the housing, Internet and transportation studies. It approved up to $20,000 for the Ahuska Park study. But even at $50,000, Miller said the city is getting a deal.

“I just signed a contract for $120,000 for professional services and when we outsource some of our engineering needs, it can be hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Miller said. “I don’t ever see us being able to dedicate $100,000 to study our transportation needs. This is dimes on the dollar.”

Vargo said students benefit from the program because they will receive feedback from more than just their professors, and they will be exposed to professional opportunities. But he said there’s also value to the university in creating collaboration across disciplines between faculty.

Moving forward, the program is likely to issue a request for proposals in the fall that will allow other cities, villages and towns to compete for the university’s services during the 2017-18 school year.

“It’s really the Wisconsin Idea in action,” Vargo said. “We’re going beyond the boundaries of the university to put expertise to use in the community.”

‘It’s really the Wisconsin Idea in action. We’re going beyond the boundaries of the university to put expertise to use in the community.’ Jason Vargo
UniverCity Year program coordinator
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