John Nolen’s Impact on Madison, WI

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John Nolen Drive into downtown Madison | Photo by

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One of the most iconic views of the Madison skyline — arguably — is the drive into the city on John Nolen Drive. The causeway is a daily part of many Madisonian’s lives + got us thinking — who is the man behind the road?

John Nolen was a pioneer in the development of American city planning. While not a native Wisconsinite, the landscape architect is the reason for the blend of social, economic, and physical aspects of urban life with nature throughout our city + the state’s park system.

City of Madison

  • In 1908, the Madison Parks and Pleasure Drive Association contacted Nolen to assist with planning out parks in the city. The University of Wisconsin, the state, and the city were all added in to help fund the project.
  • Nolen — in Sept. 1910 — proposed a comprehensive plan for the unique state capital city in a college town — “A Suggestive Plan for Madison, a Model City.
  • The regulation of building heights around the Capitol, wider streets, trees integrated into urban life, and boundaries for residential, government + commercial life were all recommended by the architect. It’s a recommendation that can still be seen today in Madison’s layout.

State Park System

  • Continued deforestation and commercialization of the state’s natural spaces caused concern across the state + Nolen was sought out to find locations and create a reason for the existence of parks.
  • 4 parks — Devil’s Lake in Baraboo, Peninsular State Park in Door County, Wyalusing State Park, and the Dell of the Wisconsin River — were proposed under Nolen while establishing guidelines + asserting that these natural landscapes were necessary for human happiness. His proposal established a methodology for future park creation and funding.

The University of Wisconsin

  • Nolen proposed adding 1,000+ acres of land to UW-Madison — which ultimately became the arboretum and gardens throughout the school’s campus.
  • State Street was also a part of his vision. While not a pedestrian mall until 1974, the boulevard was his idea as part of the university’s integration and transformation of social life in Madison.

John Nolen Drive

  • The causeway named after the architect was not a part of the city skyline until 1967. Sand was dredged from the bottom of the lakes allowed city engineers to create the shortcut across the bay. Before its creation, drivers had to go around Monona Bay to reach the downtown area.
  • Today, the city is looking toward the future of John Nolen and the preservation of its shoreline. Bridge reconstruction, expansion of the bike and pedestrian lanes + updated traffic signals and lighting are all part of the multi-year project that is currently in the preliminary design phase.


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