Building Community

Madison Planning Division’s new director, Heather Stouder, found a passion for building more equitable and sustainable cities through travel, starting a family of her own, and Madison’s unique needs and opportunities.

I was born in Indianapolis and grew up on a cul-de-sac in a central Indiana town with one high school. As the oldest of three girls involved in sports, music, and other activities, I had a comfortable, stable, and busy childhood with loving parents. Our family was fairly apolitical at the time, but we attended church regularly—even multiple times per week. 

Like so many people in that time, place, and situation, I learned to suppress early inklings that I might be gay, because I just couldn’t imagine it as a viable way to be. In most ways, my middle school, high school, and early college years were wonderful, and I developed strong and lasting friendships during each chapter of my young life. That said, the inner tension I faced regarding my sexuality, my safe and homogeneous surroundings, and a near obsession with sports led to very self-absorbed teenage years without too much thought about other people or the world around me (my sister nailed it many years later in a toast at my commitment ceremony, recounting how much she admired my “cool indifference” to boyfriends as a sign of strength). 

While many people thrive, grow, and evolve close to home, my recollection is that I only began thinking critically about the world and my place in it as I was exposed to new places. I certainly recognize the privilege behind many of my most impactful experiences. A few distinct ones during my twenties gradually led me to the field of Urban Planning, primarily through the lens of sustainability, and later, racial and environmental justice. I saw different ways of living, and developed a better understanding of how our surroundings impact our choices and vice versa.

Expanding horizons  

I stayed close to home to go to college at Butler University. While I was only a half-hour drive from home, living in the heart of Indianapolis offered new perspectives and opportunities. I worked a few part-time jobs and focused on coursework as a biology major hoping to attend Physical Therapy school in the future. My thinking and goals began to change during a semester in Sydney, Australia, where I enjoyed walkable urban living outside of a college campus for the first time. I regularly walked to small shops for convenience purchases and took the bus (with a ridiculously giant hiking backpack) to stock up on staple foods every couple of weeks. At age 20, this was literally my first experience with public transit, and I really grew to appreciate the somewhat ironic freedom and simplicity of life without a car. 

I landed a babysitting job for elementary-aged kids whose parents were environmental lawyers with a personal focus on sustainable urban living. I—someone for whom recycling was a relatively new concept, being driven everywhere as a kid was expected, and “Minute Rice” was the only grain I could pull off—was suddenly responsible for walking two kids back to their solar-powered remodeled townhome after school, cooking dinners with fresh ingredients, and composting. I only once exploded a glass dish not meant for the oven. 

Within a month after college graduation, my first girlfriend broke up with me, I came out to my parents, and decided I would volunteer for AmeriCorps before likely heading to graduate school for Physical Therapy. Coming out was rocky at first, but my family dealt with it in the best ways they possibly could, and fairly quickly became strong supporters of this element of my life that was so new to them. I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, ended up staying for three years, and completely changed my mind a few times about what to do next. 

Pacific awakenings  

During my time in Oregon, I spent a year doing outdoor environmental restoration work and trail-building in the Portland metro area, exposed to a good mix of rainy weather and new perspectives from the many other recent transplants in the same program. I then spent a season working on a small community-supported-agriculture farm, and finally a third year with a non-profit organization focused on garden education and garden-building in some of Portland’s lower-income neighborhoods at the time. 

Even though it was so incredibly different from where and how I grew up (think “Portlandia” on a shoestring budget) I felt at home in the Pacific Northwest and created wonderful memories with remarkable people. I soaked it in—literally and figuratively—as I began to consider ways to get more deeply involved in pushing for better cities and sustainable food systems.

In 1999, during my first year in Portland, I met my amazing wife, Jordan, when she came to visit for a week with a mutual friend. Within several months, we were making occasional back and forth visits, and about a year later, she moved in “temporarily” with me and my two male housemates (at the time, we certainly weren’t expecting a long-term relationship, but nearly twenty years later, here we are, thanks to patience and the ability to evolve well together). 

By then I had decided I would be moving to Madison in late 2001 to start a Master’s program in Environmental Studies (I quickly added Urban and Regional Planning, and emerged after three years with a Joint Master’s degree). As much as I loved the Pacific Northwest, I was a Midwesterner at heart, and thought Madison would be a great place to spend a few years. Jordan, who would be staying in Portland for a while, drove with me to Madison through Canada and helped me settle in for a couple of days before heading back. I distinctly remember driving in on East Washington Avenue and noticing the underutilized property that is now almost an extension of the downtown!

Fast forward through several moves, trips, and jobs, and we’re both here, working in Planning (me) and Public Health and Racial Equity (Jordan). We’re raising our son who has grown from infancy to kindergarten in a flash and keeps us both on our toes. We both highly value our work, family time, and friendships, and like many, we constantly strive to find a good work-life balance. 

The complexities of good planning  

I came into the Planning field with the simple perspective that urban living is a great and sustainable way to live. Cities—with the density of people, events, and places—typically have a variety of choices for housing, jobs, and transportation. Good planning is important to ensure that cities work well for all people. 

Planning was fascinating because of its complexity and the many overlapping systems it involves—natural, legal, political, financial. I was drawn to it because I felt I could make a difference in the way cities impact people’s lives, and help make them more attractive, efficient, and functional places to live and thrive in. Historically, cities have been the source of a lot of environmental and public health problems, but I’ve long seen them as the best place for solutions, and wanted to be a small part of that. As I moved through school and into my professional career, of course things became more complex. 

Each planning and development decision in Madison involves power and politics, people and place. Often, my colleagues and I are right in the middle of tension among residents, developers, and city decision-makers. As planners, we need to always keep the broad public interest in mind, and maintain objectivity as we do our best to provide information and recommendations on planning and development issues. 

Often, the most prominent voices working to influence decisions about change are from people with the time, resources, and energy to organize, attend public meetings, and make points that they feel protect their interests. We attend occasional meetings where hyperbolic and sometimes painful things are said about how a development—particularly much-needed affordable housing and sometimes apartment buildings in general—might impact the immediate surroundings. Much of the time, this is not the case. 

Many across the city understand and embrace changing neighborhoods, desire more affordable housing options, and simply care a lot about getting the details right. In any case, these are often the voices of white homeowners. While it is important to continue listening to all people who care passionately about their neighborhoods, we need to continue efforts in Madison to listen and act on a broader set of voices—renters, people of color, people with lower incomes—and to bring a citywide perspective to neighborhood discussions. 

A changing cityscape  

Madison is steadily growing, and at this time, over 90% of all new Madison residents arrive as renters. We’re anticipating 40,000 new households (70,000 new people) over the next 20 years, and where and how that growth happens will impact the city’s fiscal, environmental, and social health in the decades to come. 

Madison is a great place to live for most people, but like many other cities on similar lists, we must listen and work hard to ensure that people of all races and backgrounds can thrive here. At a basic level, we need housing choices affordable for all income levels, we need to foster places where employers can locate and grow, and we need to maintain and improve our multi-modal transportation system. 

To accommodate growth in a sustainable and equitable way, we’re taking the long view and working on many fronts, including the following:

Continue to work for great infill. As evident from the many cranes on the skyline over the past several years, the market is very strong for infill redevelopment in central Madison. In many ways, infill is what we strive for, since it occurs in places already well served by transit and other amenities and uses public infrastructure efficiently. We know that our central neighborhoods are evolving, and continually work to balance input from current nearby residents and historic preservation goals with citywide needs and the perspectives of new residents who may only be able to live in a neighborhood once additional housing opportunities are constructed. With each decision, we need to try to ensure that infill and redevelopment in the central city is inclusive for all types of households and that the neighborhoods it is part of remain great places to live.

Get growth right the first time. As we continue to push the edges of city limits, we’re working to create more “complete” and vibrant future neighborhoods with good street connections, a mix of housing types, and places people can walk to (very different from the car-centric, homogenous neighborhood I grew up in). As the city expands, the land on our periphery is finite, and since we really only have one opportunity to get it right, we need to ensure that it is used as carefully and efficiently as possible in the long term.

Support complete neighborhoods. To the extent possible, we need to use planning and economic development tools to attract more investment in areas where residents don’t currently have many options for how to get around, different housing types, or convenient places to walk to. Many of Madison’s late 20th century neighborhoods and commercial areas are still pretty car-dependent. While evolution of these areas may happen more slowly, they present a lot of opportunity for incremental and equitable growth over time.

Choosing home  

While I don’t attribute my education and career choices to being queer, it certainly was a major factor in my decision to broaden my horizons in my twenties, leaving central Indiana to live in and experience new places. Further, many life decisions Jordan and I have made together have been heavily influenced by it. 

Most importantly, we carefully chose central Madison as a place to live, strengthen friendships, and raise a child. Very different than either of the places where we were raised, we know Madison is a great place grow up as a kid with two moms, attend strong and diverse public schools, and connect and be shaped by a wide variety of people and perspectives. 

We’re privileged to have this choice to make, and quite happy here. Wherever life may lead us in the future, we’ll continue to work toward equitable, inclusive, and sustainable cities—places where all people have access to options to live well and fully.

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