Two groups, one goal: Madison residents emerge as sustainability leaders

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Sustain Dane smART mural painted on the Zion City Community Outreach Center in South Madison. Photo by Laura Schmitt

By Laura Schmitt

MADISON, Wis. — How does a community tackle the daunting task of creating a sustainable future?

In the city of Madison, two organizations are proving there is not one prescriptive way to go about reaching such a goal. Rather, the Sustainable Madison Committee and Sustain Dane are showing a combination of top-down legislation and bottom-up creativity might be the most effective way to create a greener future for all city residents.

The Sustainable Madison Committee, a city-appointed commission that meets monthly in the Madison Municipal Building, writes its plan for a sustainable future in legal ink, drafting and revising a comprehensive document that seeks to implement sustainable practices across the city.

The local non-profit Sustain Dane’s plan can be found painted in vibrant murals on the sides of local neighborhood buildings, believing hands-on work in the community is key to effecting change in citizen’s lifestyles.

While their approaches to sustainability may differ in execution, both the Sustainable Madison Committee and Sustain Dane share a common theme: each organization consists of dedicated residents seeking to make a sustainable future for Madison a reality.

Designing a vision – Sustain Dane brings paint and progress to local neighborhoods

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Darbo-Worthington smART mural painted on the Salvation Army on Darbo Drive in Madison. Photo By: Laura Schmitt

Founded in 1997, Sustain Dane is a small organization dedicated to promoting sustainability in schools, businesses and neighborhoods. By implementing innovative initiatives across sectors, Sustain Dane hopes to shape a community that can be a model for other cities throughout the nation.

Lauren Beriont, the director of the Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative at Sustain Dane, believes sustainable living must start on the small scale, and the best place to begin that process is in neighborhoods.

“The neighborhood initiative is all about working with individuals to increase their capacity to be sustainability champions,” Beriont said. “We help them recognize what they can do in their own niche to make it more sustainable. ”

A new program a part of the Neighborhood Initiative is smART, which brings together sustainability, Madison and art to help community members design their vision for a more sustainable future.

The program was launched in 2014 and begins by identifying neighborhoods that desire to learn about living more sustainably.

Sustain Dane partners with neighborhoods by holding workshops and community conversations to discuss issues most important to the residents. At the end of the program, the participants design and paint a community mural that embodies their discussions and vision for a sustainable future.

“What’s so cool about the murals is that it serves as a representation of the neighborhood’s vision, but also raises awareness about sustainability for people who might just be passing by,” Beiront said.

The smART program is a year long partnership, and Sustain Dane works to find leaders in each neighborhood who will carry out the mission of sustainability even after the program ends.

“What is critical to neighborhood-based work is that it is built on trust,” Beriont said. “We approach each initiative as an equal partnership instead of an imposing force that is dictating what it means to be sustainable. We talk to leaders about what they love about their neighborhoods, identify what they are already doing right and then build upon that.”

The smART program has worked with three neighborhoods since 2014, most recently South Madison and the Zion City Community Outreach Center.

According to Beriont, the major concern South Madison residents expressed was getting the opportunity to tell their story and show the larger Madison community their ongoing sustainable efforts.

“Many of the people in South Madison or somewhat lower income neighborhoods are already living sustainably,” Beriont said. “There is often the belief that the people who are sustainable in Madison are the hippies who have the financial resources to do so. What we recognized in South Madison was a lot of the people were already living very sustainably and frugally, although not always by choice.”

Sustain Dane held workshops with the South Madison community where approximately 300 residents showed up to discuss the future of their neighborhood. At the end of the workshop sessions, 100 people picked up a paintbrush to create a mural that captured their discussions and goals over the course of the partnership.

The smART program also partnered with the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood, which primarily expressed concerns about food access and sovereignty. To address such issues, Sustain Dane sees itself as a facilitator between neighborhoods and larger institutions.

“Oftentimes there is a gap between the needs of a community and the institutions that have the power to address the issues,” Beriont said. “Sustain Dane brings these two programs together to better understand one another so that real progress can be made.”

Addressing issues through sustainable, legal action

The Madison Sustainability Committee is one of the institutions Sustain Dane communicates with to ensure that the concerns of citizens align with the municipal plans that are enacted through the City Council or various municipal departments.

Mayor Soglin tasked the committee to draft a comprehensive sustainability plan in 2009 that addresses ten major categories ranging from transportation to health and culture. The plan was passed by the City Council in 2011, and the committee is currently reviewing it to consider revisions, updates and narrow down four key topics to focus on in the upcoming months.

Karl van Lith, the chief editor of the sustainability plan, believes having a committee composed of 15 residents dedicated to sustainability allows for the needs and concerns of citizens to be addressed more directly.

“Lots of residents are very tuned into the environment as well as connectivity,” van Lith said. “We’ve done a lot to make the city neighborhoods more walkable, which helps lead to health benefits and reductions in obesity. Energy efficiency and local food has also been a major focus for the committee, which is inline with a lot of the citizen’s concerns.”

Last year, the committee drafted an Energy Work Plan that addresses issues of energy management and how to involve community stakeholders in the conversation. According to van Lith, the plan also proposes creating a position in the city solely dedicated to looking at issues concerning energy.

The Energy Work Plan is scheduled to reach the city council in the beginning of the summer.

Richard Heinemann is an energy attorney who first volunteered to join the Sustainable Madison Committee in order to lend his expertise in energy to the larger community.

“I wanted to play a role in helping conserve Madison’s natural resources and making the city more efficient,” Heinemann said. “The committee is able to play a direct role in representing the concerns of residents while taking steps to address them.”

Heinemann is among several committee members who come from a background in the private sector. Stacie Reese, the director of the Business Initiative at Sustain Dane, is also a member of the Madison Sustainability Committee and works to bring the values and mission of her organization to the wider public.

Bringing Sustain Dane and the Sustainable Madison Committee together

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Local art sold at the Dane County Farmers’ Market depicting Wisconsin Argiculture. Photo By: Laura Schmitt

As the director of the Business Initiative at Sustain Dane, Reese oversees the Mpower Business Champions program, which is designed to help local businesses implement sustainable practices throughout their workplace.

The program is entering its 8th year and has mentored over 80 businesses. MPower is funded in part by the city of Madison’s sustainability budget.

Reese’s work is a mixture of creativity and legalese, bringing the two together to enact change in the business community.

“A lot of the times organizations are curious about sustainability, but they don’t know where to start,” Reese said. “We provide businesses with the tools to address sustainability from a variety of angles.”

MPower works with 10 to 15 businesses that apply to partner with Sustain Dane over the course of a year. Sustain Dane helps to educate, implement and measure sustainability in the workplace.

“There are lots of ways to implement sustainability in business,” Reese said. “It can be a matter of talking to the CEOs about saving money, forming a green team to think about environmental impacts, or looking at sustainability through a health and wellness lens for their employees.”

Reese’s work with Madison businesses has allowed her to bring the concerns of the business community directly to the city through the Sustainable Madison Committee.

In addition to drafting legislation regarding sustainability, the committee also serves as a board to ensure various city departments are working to be sustainable.

According to Reese, Madison Public Water Utility recently presented to the committee about lead in pipes.

“In face of the Flint water crisis, Madison was able to show we were a couple decades ahead of the curve when it comes to lead in pipes,” Reese said. “In the ’90s we replaced millions of miles of pipes and were able to stand up and say, ‘hey, we took care of this at a much lower cost to the city and the residents if we had waited to address this problem today.’”

According to van Lith, Madison has made many strides in sustainability including being certified as a Platinum Bike City, reducing the city’s kilowatt hours while managing to grow, being the first municipality in the state to implement curb-side recycling and making neighborhoods more walkable to promote healthy habits among residents.

“We are way ahead of the game,” van Lith said.  “Of course we have to keep thinking about if we are meeting the needs of people now and also the next generation, but we have a good story to tell.”

Map Depicting Locations of smART Murals

The Madison Sustainability Plan: What Does It Entail?

The sustainability plan passed in 2011 is designed to achieve the overall vision of “creating a self-reliant, peaceful community that relies on renewable, local resources and is able to adapt to changing environmental, social and economic changes overtime,” according to the document.

The ten overarching categories addressed in the document include natural systems, planning and design, transportation, carbon and energy, economic development, employment and workforce, education, affordable housing, health and arts, design and culture.

Each category describes a vision for Madison and then proposes a set of actions that can be executed to achieve those goals. In the area of planning and design, one of the proposed goals is to promote and foster local food systems. A few of the actions listed to achieve that goal include planting low-maintenance fruit and nut trees in public areas, continue allowing chickens, honey bees and other species within city limits and encouraging the use of community garden plots throughout the city.
According to Sustainable Madison Committee member Karl van Lith, a possible major area of focus for the upcoming months is economic development and natural systems. In order to address the goals in each area more fully, the committee will break up into small groups that are each responsible for fleshing out the actions tied to each goal. The committee hopes to spend about three months on each focused category with the hope of enacting as many of the actions as possible.


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