‘Voices of the Lake: Lake Monona’s waterfront’ is a community-driven vision to transform Madison, Wisconsin’s lake edge into an accessible, activated and ecologically healthy waterfront park. The landscape architect-led multidisciplinary team created an aspirational and actionable master plan that reimagines 1.7 miles of shoreline as an ecologically and culturally vibrant lakefront community park—with stronger and safer connections to downtown, expanded recreational opportunities, park destinations, trails for all users at all speeds, improved water quality, and enhanced nearshore and aquatic habitats. The plan, which will be implemented in four phases, is notable for its commitment to sustainability, cultural history and meaningful incorporation of public feedback. A Story Walk weaves together park districts and serves as a wayfinding element. It celebrates and amplifies community dialogues and cultural stories, in particular lending voice to the Indigenous origins of Madison through quotes and graphics. The design blueprint for Lake Monona’s waterfront was informed by extensive outreach, including a record-breaking number of responses to a community survey.
‘Voices of Lake Monona’ is a visionary blueprint to transform 1.7 miles of shoreline in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, into an accessible, activated waterfront park. A once-in-a-generation opportunity, the master plan is a community-endorsed and feasible vision for revitalizing the capital city’s engagement with its lake. The redevelopment will forge connections to the water, expand recreational options, improve water quality, and provide an ecologically healthy shoreline for wildlife. Currently described as a “heavily used but bland lakefront,” the waterfront is already a draw, but a significant grade separation between Downtown and the lakeshore, and traffic along John Nolen Drive, makes getting there both difficult and dangerous. The 37-acre linear park is envisioned as an inclusive community destination for residents and visitors that will boost the downtown economy and ecology of Madison’s unique isthmus environment.
Geomorphic and Indigenous History
Madison is a thriving capital city with a history that is inseparable from its lakes. Millennia ago, Madison’s system of five lakes was part of a single water body, Lake Yahara. This freshwater lake and the fertile land around it became home to the first human inhabitants of the area, the Ho-Chunk Nation. Along with its geography, the relationship of this isthmus-based city to the lake has evolved significantly. The Lake Monona of today is largely defined by human usage.
In anticipation of one of the largest redevelopment projects in Madison’s history, the planning effort was driven by public opinion and integrated an extensive community engagement process to understand and respond to the priorities of Madison’s residents. An online survey gathered public input on preferred design concepts and specific elements to be incorporated into an overall master plan. During a two-month public feedback campaign, the design team benefited from passionate community interest to inform the vision for Lake Monona’s revitalized urban shoreline. A record 2,400 survey responses were received and analyzed–well over the previous record of 1,800 responses to a past Madison Parks Division survey for a comparable planning effort.
The following themes emerged from conversations with community members about the city’s and lake’s future and were integrated into the plan.
- Water Dialogue: Create a Living Edge Along Lake Monona’s Shoreline
- Nature Dialogue: Inspire Generational Stewards
- City Dialogue: A Place for All to Connect & Be Connected
- Community Dialogue: Enhance Equitable Access to Parks
- Culture Dialogue: Start with the Sacred Voices
- Architecture Dialogue: A Balanced Perspective
Healthy Ecologies and Community Infrastructure
The proposal prioritizes the establishment of an ecologically vibrant living edge along Lake Monona’s Waterfront. This living edge framework is a restoration strategy that will protect and provide a nearshore habitat for amphibious life. Pocket wetlands will enhance the shoreline for birds. Areas are proposed for freshwater mussel release and monitoring. The piers and Log Jam Gardens provide a protected environment for numerous fish species along with opportunities for environmental education. Water quality will be improved through green infrastructure, including previous paving, rain gardens, bioswales and wetlands to capture and clean stormwater before it enters Lake Monona. Once the lake’s edge is established, pedestrian infrastructure will be overlaid to create stronger and safer connections to the downtown core and south Madison neighborhoods. Improved intersections widened walking paths, and separated bike lanes will create a new waterfront that is accessible to all people.
Park Zones and Destinations
Destination areas will bring new programming to activate Lake Monona’s waterfront throughout the year. East of Monona Terrace is Law Park Ledge, an elevated park over John Nolen Drive that connects back to the city and creates new space for a playground, amphitheater, community center, restaurant and boathouse. This is a place to celebrate what is uniquely Madison, like viewing the free water ski lake performances by the Mad-City Ski Team. An upland beach protected from strong wave action and debris, will attract swimmers and sunbathers, while also providing access to the restored lake edge. Sloping gardens and lawns lead to the boardwalk. At the Community Causeway, multi-use trails are designed for users of all ages and speeds. The newly designed parkway improves safety by reducing traffic speeds and improving bike and pedestrian crossings. Rain gardens and wetlands will clean stormwater from the roadway. West of the convention center, The Lake Lounge completes the axial connection to the Wisconsin State Capitol with an iconic pedestrian bridge and showcases the lake with areas for gatherings, fishing and food trucks. Floating canoe-shaped planting beds in the lake improve water quality and create new habitat for aquatic species. At Olin Park, Olin Overlook is an elevated canopy walk and interpretive nature trail offering an immersive experience among abundant tree and wildflower plantings. A new nature-oriented community center will provide opportunities to learn about the successional forest within the park and offer incredible views back to the city. As temperatures drop, winter programming emerges on Lake Monona. The plan anticipates activities on the ice and plantings with winter color. The Trail for All Speeds will be heavily used in all seasons.
The ‘Voices of Lake Monona’ plan is woven together by the Story Walk, a wayfinding element and physical representation of each of the guiding principles and community dialogues. This unifying ribbon links park districts. It morphs and shifts in scale across the site, manifesting as a graphic on a sidewalk, or as ephemeral carvings in ice, or even as quotes on a wall that connect the past, present, and future of the Monona waterfront. Story Walk is a device to share the voices of the lake—from the Indigenous and sacred to the ecological, historical and cultural. The team engaged Ho-Chunk Nation leaders to listen, interpret and amplify their stories, and to understand what is sacred to their people.
Phased and Aligned Implementation
The landscape architect-led team considered current and future construction projects, available funds, and funding opportunities in proposing a phasing strategy. The 1.7-mile-long plan is divided into four distinct zones and phases that take into consideration concurrent City and private projects. Phase 1, Lake Lounge, meets the top priorities of the community to restore the living edge of the lake, and creates a strong pedestrian connection from downtown Madison to Lake Monona’s shoreline. This phase’s emphasis on green infrastructure allows for the wetland strategies to be tested while its wide range of open space programming allows the community to explore all Lake Monona has to offer. The phased transformation of the waterfront over the next two to three decades aligns with City of Madison planned improvements to John Nolen Causeway, including bridge and storm sewer reconstruction, lane configuration and cross-section changes slated for 2026.
A multidisciplinary team of local and national landscape architects, architects, engineers, and ecologists collaborated closely with the community to create an ambitious but actionable and feasible master plan for Madison’s waterfront. Through on-site visits, extensive community conversations, analysis of community feedback, and technical due diligence, the landscape architect-led team has created a vision for a captivating shoreline that contributes to community, ecological and economic health of Madison, and amplifies the diverse voices of this city by lake.
Documents and Media
Planning Docs (if applicable):