Bound by Lake Mendota to the north and Lake Monona to the south, the Isthmus is the geographical heart of the City of Madison. The site of Madison's earliest urban settlement and first industrial districts, the Isthmus today accommodates dense residential neighborhoods, City and State government offices, museums, and commercial and retail space. It is home to the State Capitol, whose dome, visible from points throughout the City, provides the distinguishing attribute of the City skyline and a symbol for Madison as a whole. From April to November, Wisconsin farmers and city residents gather weekly on Capitol Square for the Dane County Farmers Market, known as one of the best of its kind in the country.
The Isthmus is also home to some of the City's important natural features, including the Mendota and Monona lakeshores, the Yahara River, and Starkweather Creek. Throughout Madison's history, the City has made efforts to preserve access to these natural resources for residents. With John Nolen's 1909 Master Plan for the City of Madison, one of the first city plans in the country, neighborhood parks were set aside throughout the district, including several parks and public beaches along the lakeshores. The goal of park planning has been to afford every resident access to parks or open space within a quarter mile of their home. The Isthmus itself is less than a mile wide in most places, providing district residents easy access to either lake.
Since the Isthmus is characterized by dense development, most current land use and development projects focus on maintaining or increasing density with infill development, primarily to meet the growing demands for housing downtown and near the University of Wisconsin campus. The growing Isthmus population is also generating new demand for park space, and the City plans to convert the East Rail Corridor, an underutilized industrial corridor running from the near east side to downtown, into Madison's Central Park. This park would become the largest on the Isthmus, an area which currently relies primarily on lot-size neighborhood parks and adaptive reuses of land, such as community gardens along former railroad lines, for its recreational park space.
Lakes Mendota and Monona constitute the northern and southern boundaries of the Isthmus; its western edge begins at the University of Wisconsin campus and runs east through downtown Madison and into the Near East section of town, ending at Starkweather Creek. As the original settlement area, the Isthmus contains several historical districts, including the Third Lake Ridge, Tenney-Lapham, Capital Neighborhood, and Mansion Hill. Other neighborhood associations on the Isthmus are Bassett, Marquette, Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather, State-Langdon, Eken Park, and Emerson East.
District Planning Goals
Since the Isthmus is a dense urban area, overall goals for the district focus on finding sustainable means of increasing downtown density and limiting the impacts of increasing district traffic. Many of the associations and organizations located on the Isthmus have created their own planning documents, so the district has many neighborhood plans, design oriented plans, water body plans, and facility development plans; some of these are general and some provide detailed, site-specific recommendations. Throughout the Isthmus planning documents, however, three environmental goals are consistently addressed in some form: open space, stormwater management, and street trees.
Open space is in short supply on the Isthmus, especially in proportion to the number of district residents. The East Rail Corridor plan cites the fact that the Madison Parks Division estimates the Isthmus to have a park deficiency of about 43 acres, and it describes the Isthmus as particularly deficient in active playfield space. As Madison continues to grow and promote higher density at its core, this deficiency of open space may increase.
Several Isthmus plans consider the issue of stormwater management and recommend management techniques such as rain gardens. Construction sites on the Isthmus are of particular concern because they generate substantial runoff that finds its way to the lakes. Neighborhoods have formulated stormwater goals; Williamson Street's, for example, says that "All parking areas shall use innovative design to minimize quantity of stormwater runoff and maximize quality of stormwater runoff from the parking area. Use of outdoor open space for stormwater control and infiltration is encouraged." The Tenney Park neighborhood set a stormwater management goal of "Increas[ing] street sweeping and curb/gutter improvements to reduce urban non-point runoff into Tenney Lagoon and Lake Mendota."
Isthmus plans pay special attention to increasing urban tree canopy. This goal is often presented as aesthetic in nature, though trees and vegetation can be functional in dividing separate land use areas. Some plans describe the environmental benefits of a healthy, urban tree population and provide details on tree varieties and heights.
Though not an exhaustive list, these three goals have emerged repeatedly in Isthmus plans, and they represent issues that should be addressed in any formal planning process involving the district. Providing more park and open space for Isthmus residents is a challenging task, especially when population density is to be maintained or increased through infill development. But as the dense, urban heart of Madison, the Isthmus plays an important role in achieving sustainability on a city-wide basis. Maintaining or increasing density in the district, for example, can result in energy savings and ease development pressures on the City's periphery. Recognizing both the district's role in the City and its relationship to other areas while meeting environmental standards such as impervious coverage limits within the district will be a key challenge of ecological sustainability on the Isthmus.