When Professor Yongheng Deng began teaching in the Wisconsin School of Business’s real estate program, he knew sustainability would be a highlight of his courses.
“This is a very important issue for urban communities,” Deng said.
Deng, professor of real estate and urban land economics and John P. Morgridge Distinguished Chair in Business, works with the World Economic Forum and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network on housing affordability and policy.
With support from UniverCity Alliance, Deng partnered with the City of Madison to localize sustainability issues. During the Fall 2021 semester, students in Urban and Regional Economics 420 analyzed the sustainable development component of the city’s comprehensive plan, called Imagine Madison.
Eighteen groups of students analyzed a different aspect of the plan, which includes the areas of land use and transportation; neighborhoods and housing; economy and opportunity; and green and resilient. They also connected the elements of the city’s comprehensive plan and its developing performance management framework, called Results Madison, to the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“Being able to understand class concepts in the beginning and … being allowed to actually apply that to real-world situations in the city that we’re living in is a cool opportunity,” Sam Fellows, a junior, said.
Throughout the course, the students learned how to analyze urban city and real estate markets. They discussed the determinants of real estate values, the location decisions of households and firms, land use, urban growth and agglomeration, real estate pricing, cycles, housing market and policies, and sustainable development.
Students tackled topics that the City of Madison is actively working to address, including economic inequality, use of nature in an urban setting and the availability of affordable housing. After comprehensive research, students offered concrete suggestions that could add to the city’s work.
For example, students recommended improving residents’ access to tools that ensure financial stability as a part of a holistic plan to address economic inequality. Other recommendations included adding a Metro Transit bus line on weekends to better connect downtown residents to green space and expanding use of a state housing tax credit program to boost affordable housing.
For Anika Horowitz, a freshman, the projects with the City of Madison reinforced how to use class concepts in practice.
“We all enjoyed having something that was more interactive,” Horowitz said. “It put everything we learned into perspective and taught us how to apply it to a real life situation.”
During the class, students also heard from guest speakers in the City of Madison Mayor’s Office and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) on Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s Climate Forward, Housing Forward and Metro Forward plans in addition to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
John Boor, a senior, said he was not aware of the SDGs before he took Deng’s course.
“Being able to take the class and focusing on it more from a Madison perspective and hearing speakers from the Madison area and their plans for what we’re doing for Madison’s future was really interesting,” Boor said. “For them to be able to look at our findings and being able to apply that to the future of the city is definitely a huge benefit to this course compared to others.”
While students are getting to practice what they learn, City of Madison officials said they’re also benefiting from the partnership.
Addressing the students during a poster session of their final projects at Grainger Hall on Dec. 15, Deputy Mayor Christie Baumel (BS ’01) said the partnership between UW-Madison and the city is “strong and valued.”
“There’s so much knowledge within these systems and so much fresh perspective that help us pause and think about what we’re doing with fresh eyes,” Baumel said.
Regarding sustainability, Baumel commended the students’ understanding of how sustainability does not only include the environment: “Economy, human health and wellbeing, environment – all these things are connected and interrelated.”
Likewise, Performance Excellence Specialist Kara Kratowicz said utilizing global SDGs can drive the city to be a part of the “collective impact” they can have in a community.
“I am impressed by (the students’) ability to take a look at what we’re doing as a city, acknowledge how much good work is happening and provide an opportunity to critically assess where we can improve,” Kratowicz said. “There’s opportunity here to pick up on what these students are doing and build something bigger.”
—By Abigail Becker