Gathering input and weighing priorities: The multifaceted role of a city planner

Cap Times' panel “How many new apartments does Madison need?” filled High Noon Saloon in January. (Cara Lombardo/Madison Commons)Cap Times' panel “How many new apartments does Madison need?” filled High Noon Saloon in January. (Cara Lombardo/Madison Commons)


















As a city planner, I frequently find myself struggling to effectively explain what I do for a living to those who ask. Perhaps that’s because the role of a city planner is multifaceted and ever-changing. This is especially true in diverse, urban environments where many groups of people have different priorities for the city. City planners must be responsive to this input, which means our job requires adaptivity.  

The easiest way to illustrate what planners do is through the lens of compromise on a project.

In its simplest form, our job is to gather input from stakeholders, weigh the needs and wants of those of stakeholders against the economic constraints and political interests of municipal government, and ultimately design a compromise that ensures project outcome is a net positive for the neighborhood or community as a whole.

This was especially clear at a panel discussion held in January called “How many new apartments does Madison need?” The discussion, prompted by the influx of new apartment buildings in downtown Madison and hosted by the Capital Times, consisted of six panelists with different backgrounds and varying perspectives on whose needs new development in Madison should address.

Panelists included: Natalie Erdman, the City of Madison director of community development; Otto Gebhardt, a local developer; Carmen Gosey, a UW-Madison student; Martha Rummel, a downtown Madison alder; Brenda Konkel, the executive director of the Tenant Resource Center; and Andra Ghent, a real estate professor in the Wisconsin School of Business.

In addition to providing an informative conversation about the state of housing in Madison, the panel offered an inside look at the different forces and stakeholder interests a city planner must balance.

Nationally and in Madison, more people are choosing to rent housing rather than buy, more are choosing to live in cities rather than suburbs and more are choosing to live alone. In Madison, these shifting preferences are driving an explosion of housing demand unlike anything the city has ever seen.   

Erdman, as the City of Madison representative, was appropriately seated in the middle of the panel, flanked by stakeholders with a wide range of interests, perspectives and ideas for the housing shortage. Intentionally or not, her seat at the table reflects the often difficult position of city planners.

As more people choose to live in and around downtown Madison and demand access to amenities like parking and fitness rooms, rents rise and developers propose higher-density developments in order to maximize the number of units. At the same time, neighborhood advocates might express concern that proposed developments will alter the culture or density of their area. Others might question why more affordable or multi-bedroom units are not being prioritized.

Gathering public input is an essential part of a city planner’s job. In urban areas like Madison, public input levels tend to be highest when new high- or moderate-density residential developments are proposed near existing single-family neighborhoods. This happened when developers proposed projects on South Park Street and in the downtown area referred to as “Miffland” near West Mifflin Street. 

This range of opinions on appropriate density and scale of multi-unit housing was demonstrated at the discussion. Otto Gebhardt, the developer behind the Constellation and Galaxie high-rise buildings on East Washington Avenue, reasoned that the increase in demand for units downtown necessitates taller buildings with more units in each building, which makes sense. 

Brenda Konkel, as the executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, focused on the fact that creating more units downtown wouldn’t help those who are unable to afford downtown rents. She argued that people who rely on public transportation are being priced out of the downtown area, where it is most viable to live without a car. Ensuring access to quality public transportation for all residents is a struggle for most major cities.

In an example of cooperation and mutual understanding between neighbors, developers and the city planners, neighborhood alder Martha Rummel spoke of the public input and guiding process that occurred with residents of the Capitol East District and Gebhardt Development during the planning phase of the Constellation building. Rummel credited the city-adopted Capitol Gateway Corridor Plan for making working with potential developers easier. The plan, which reflects the values and principles that residents and the city would like to see in the area, gives developers a set of guidelines to use and offers residents the opportunity to have a say in the future of their neighborhood.

Planning a new development or deciding how to arrange a neighborhood is a time-consuming, complex and imperfect process. Outcomes won’t always result in all parties being happy–in fact, most final products are series of compromises. A planner’s most important function is to ensure that those impacted were given a voice and that the process and outcome is equitable. Although the panelists may have not agreed on the priorities or solutions for solving the city’s housing shortage, an honest discussion by city stakeholders is invaluable for planners like Natalie Erdman.

Alex Morganroth is a planner for the City of Beloit and currently lives in downtown Madison. What he enjoys most about living and working in southern Wisconsin is the combination of close proximity to great events, food and beer in cities like Madison, Beloit and Milwaukee and the abundance of magnificent state and county parks.