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Every time a developer buys farmland, is it inevitable that bulldozers, pavement and roofs will follow? We don’t think so. We think that citizens working together with their municipal government can stop sprawl and preserve our food security in the years to come. Read the following “article” for an inspiring vision of Fitchburg’s “Northeast Neighborhood,” currently fields and trees, but slated for development.

Editors Note: Here is our alternative vision that we first published in 2006. It's a vision, written as if it had already happened. It still could happen, if we find the leadership and the generosity to make it a reality.

Fitchburg, Wisconsin 2009: "A Package Deal”
A High Density, Mixed-Use Corridor City with a Rural Backyard

FITCHBURG, WI, May 21, 2009 - This city of 28,000 on the edge of Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, was formerly a bedroom community whose name was synonymous with “sprawl.” A city only in name, it had no school, no post office, no library, and no downtown.

Today, progress is being made towards building a downtown, with a high density, mixed-use neighborhood (Quarry Hill) right across the street from the City Hall, and a committee is working towards building a library.

But perhaps the most innovative project is Green Tech Village and its nearby “back yard,” that contains community gardens, an organic farming school complete with a 250-acre working farm, and a new indoor/outdoor farmers’ market.

Green Tech Village straddles a recently revived rail line that brings passengers into downtown Madison in only 10 min., or south to the bustling village of Oregon in 8 min. This “corridor city” was inspired by the “Corridors and Wedges” regional design popularized by Prof. Phil Lewis of the UW at Madison. His idea calls for high density, mixed-use development for a mile on either side of a passenger rail line leading into a large city like Madison.

To the east of the rail line is the bulk of Green Tech Village, which contains 1850 dwelling units, mostly town homes and apartments, many of them above retail establishments. The northern section of GTV contains high tech industry, where many of the residents work. To the west of the rail line is a sliver of high density development, and then Swan Creek, a medium density development with single-family dwellings, town homes and retail.

Altogether, this Urban Service Area houses 6000 people in 2740 dwellings. In the old style of development, the neighboring parcel to the east, which comprises the NE corner of Fitchburg’s land, would have been developed as single-family homes on half-acre lots. In the second half of the 20th century, when gas was cheap and global warming was unknown or considered a distant threat, planning commissions and city councils generally had the attitude of “if the developer bought the land, he can do what he wants with it.” Miles upon miles of sprawl was the result, and Fitchburg was a prime example of it.

A Development for the Future

But by 2006, when a developer bought 251 acres in the northeast corner of Fitchburg, (called the “Northeast Neighborhood” by city planners) things had changed. As the city held planning meetings to decide the fate of this agricultural land, gasoline had recently doubled $3 per gallon, and the country was suffering from extreme weather (Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, unusually fierce tornados and hailstorms, and record hot summers) that most people attribute to global warming.

Fitchburg residents began to tell the alders that they wanted their development decisions to help, not hurt the climate, and they indicated their desire to preserve farmland and open space in a citywide survey. Together with a citizen’s group, the West Waubesa Preservation Coalition, the city council came up with a plan that made sense for the future.

One hundred acres of community garden plots now permit thousands of local residents to grow a portion of their food close to home. And apartment dwellers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the opportunity. Even homeowners with enough yard space for a garden enjoy the social aspect of gardening next to others, sharing knowledge and vegetables. Since the huge gas price increases of 2006 and 2007 increased the price of produce trucked in from CA and FL, Fitchburg residents are grateful to have a way to grow food for their families.

“Thanks to our forward-looking alders, we have gardens to cultivate, and a bike path over Highway 14, so I can get here in 10 min. on my bike” says Maureen Jacobs, a resident of Green Tech Village. “I don’t need a car, because I take the train to work and play in Madison, I can ride my bike one and a half miles to my garden, I can get to my dentist in Oregon on the train, and I hear that there’s a plan to revive passenger rail to Janesville, and later to Chicago! I’ve cut my carbon emissions by 2/3 since I moved here from the west side of Fitchburg!”

School Teaches Sustainable Farming Practices

Mark Selling is a 17-year-old resident of Swan Creek. Unlike his neighbors, who ride a bus to school in Madison, Mark rides his bike 2.8 miles to the Organic Farming School in the NE neighborhood. Together with 39 other students from the school districts of Madison, Monona, Oregon, and Stoughton, he learns farming while helping to run this 250-acre organic farm. Core curriculum such as English, Math and History are integrated into the overall theme of sustainability through organic farming.

They learn to grow row crops, to raise cattle, sheep, goats and chickens for meat, to run a dairy operation using cows, sheep and goats, and to raise poultry for eggs. A 75-acre orchard produces apples, pears, plums, peaches, grapes, berries and hazelnuts. Bee keeping, cheese making, and goat’s milk soap making are also on the curriculum. And all of this is done according to organic standards, which means that their products command a high price.

Unlike most schools, which only use money, this school also brings in money. Students in the marketing course staff the attractive farmers’ market (located on Hwy MM, a 2-lane road on the farm’s western edge) 3 times a week, and more income comes from the stall fees charged to local farmers, who are grateful for a local outlet for their products. Meat, dairy products, and produce grown on the farm expand students' horizons in school lunchrooms across the county.

Though certified teachers teach all the classes, they are often joined by local organic farmers eager to pass their knowledge on to a new generation of farmers. Says Ted Olsen, a farmer in the town of Dunn, “I used to stay up nights worrying who could take over our farm when we’re gone, 'cause our sons aren’t into farming. But through this school, I’ve met wonderful kids who are doing an internship on our farm now. When I’m ready to retire, I’ll have plenty of choices of well-trained organic farmers to sell to.”

Principals at area high schools are grateful for one more option for kids who aren’t happy being in a classroom 7.5 hours a day. Though the school only has 40 students, other farms in the area, inspired by the example, are approaching school boards and offering to host farm schools. Says Linda Mayerhof, principal of the Organic Farming School, “As oil stocks are depleted, gas prices are increasing, and our former habits of growing food with massive inputs of oil (for tractors, fertilizers, and processing), and then shipping it an average of 1500 miles to the consumer, are obviously not sustainable. We are proud to be training the people who will be growing local food for local people.”

Garden Plots and Farmers Market Bring Neighbors Together

Gardeners at the adjacent community gardens also benefit from the school’s adult education programs. Classes in the evenings and on weekends teach the same curriculum as the high school, and many novice gardeners are now selling their extra produce at the farmer’s market.

A degraded wetland on the property was restored with the participation of local residents and ecology students at the UW. Now it is used for school trips to study wetlands, from kindergarteners to college students.

The funds to start the new school came from area school districts, with generous funding from 5 companies and foundations dedicated to organic farming. The US Dept of Agriculture paid half of the development rights on the land. Various conservancy groups and the town of Dunn, which borders the property, paid the other half. And the developer donated some of the land to the school, for a large tax credit.

Today, tens of thousands of visitors visit Fitchburg every year to admire and learn from this inspiring example of a sustainable neighborhood. Because almost none of the land in the NE neighborhood has been set aside for parking, 2 new businesses have sprung up in Green Tech village. One is a biodiesel-fueled shuttle bus, which takes people from the train station through Green Tech Village, Swan Creek, and the Northeast Neighborhood. The other is a bicycle rental and pedi-cab service, which is unaffected by fuel prices, and offers visitors a truly sustainable way to learn about sustainability.

The 2006 city council that broke with the past pattern of sprawl has earned the gratitude of Fitchburg residents and people around the world. Says visitor Mary MacDonald of Ontario, Canada, “I can’t wait to tell our planning commission back home about this! You have given us a wonderful example!”

-Written by Phyllis Hasbrouck, Chair of the West Waubesa Preservation Coalition