Madison-based sustainability projects motivate Wisconsin School of Business students

From housing and Bus Rapid Transit to bike paths and climate change strategies, Wisconsin School of Business students and City of Madison leaders gathered in Grainger Hall to discuss the city’s sustainable and economic development strategies and actions.  

The undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in Real Estate 420/720: Urban and Regional Economics studied the sustainable development component of Madison’s comprehensive plan over the Fall 2023 semester. On Dec. 13, 2023, they had the opportunity to share their findings and recommendations with city leaders and staff. 

“It was much more motivating to know our ideas might actually be taken into account,” said Julia Hoch, a junior studying real estate who offered recommendations on bike paths in Madison, reflecting on her final project.   

Students gather around a poster and discuss it with a city official.
Real Estate student Alexis Fernando explains her team’s Poster project to City of Madison Deputy Mayor Christie Baumel during the poster session. (Paul L. Newby, II /UW-Madison Wisconsin School of Business)

City of Madison Deputy Mayor Christie Baumel said she looks forward to the poster session, which is in its third year, and appreciates the students’ insights.  

“Literacy in sustainability and how cities go about their work is so important for everybody, especially in real estate,” Baumel said, addressing the students. “To me and other folks from the city, this is more than just hearing your end of semester presentation. You are a part of the community and hearing what’s important to our community is a key part of our job.” 

Professor Yongheng Deng takes a photo with a student during the poster session.
Professor Yongheng Deng, left, takes a photo with a student during the poster session. (Paul L. Newby, II /UW-Madison Wisconsin School of Business)

With support from UniverCity Alliance (UCA), Professor Yongheng Deng, John P. Morgridge Distinguished Chair Professor in Business, partnered with the city to provide a learning experience that is deeply connected to the Madison community. Deng is also a member of UCA’s advisory board.

Deng said the students’ group projects address the important issues of sustainable development by linking City of Madison priorities, and the neighborhoods the students are studying and living in to the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

“The projects provide students the opportunities to influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom,” Deng said.  

City of Madison Performance Excellence Specialist Kara Kratowicz, who is also a member of UCA’s advisory board, and Sustainability & Resilience Manager Jessica Price spoke to the class during the semester. 

Real Estate student Ashley Albertson explains her team's Poster project to Kara Kratowicz, Performance Excellence Specialist with the City of Madison, during the poster session.
Real Estate student Ashley Albertson explains her team’s Poster project to Kara Kratowicz, Performance Excellence Specialist with the City of Madison, during the poster session. (Paul L. Newby, II /UW-Madison Wisconsin School of Business)

Kratowicz emphasized that student voices are important to informing the city what the priorities and interests of a younger generation are and can impact how the city provides for residents. 

“The City of Madison appreciates the thoughtful efforts of students to provide ideas on how to improve equity and sustainability in our operations,” Kratowicz said. “We learn from their efforts and bring forward those insights to improve service delivery as a result.”  

Students learning from the city, and local leaders gaining insights from students – two-way learning – is what UniverCity aims to foster on campus and in communities across Wisconsin. 

“This is the kind of experience that can change a student’s trajectory in college. Seeing how their work can improve the city where they live shows the power of community-based learning,” UCA Managing Director Gavin Luter said. “I hope more groups across the university take a play out of (Deng’s) playbook: think about how to make your class responsive to city needs.” 

Distilling complex, local issues 

Deng divided the 80 students into 17 groups to consider how elements of Madison’s Imagine Madison Comprehensive Plan, Vision Zero initiative, Complete Green Street Program, Connect Madison Economic Development Strategy, and the Mayor’s Housing Forward agenda align with equity, sustainability, and inclusion principles. 

The students also connected the elements of the city’s comprehensive plan and its developing performance management framework to the SDGs. These global goals offer a strategic framework that integrates economic, social, and environmental factors. 

“I found myself feeling more like a city official rather than a student because I knew it wasn’t going to get tucked away in a drawer somewhere at the end of the semester,” said Jack Ogren, a senior majoring in finance and real estate. “It made it feel more professional.”  

The students used comprehensive data, interviewed stakeholders, and collected case studies to inform their analysis and recommendations. Across the topics studied, the students offered a number of suggestions to city staff, including creating a housing fund for students, implementing a socioeconomic scoring system for bike projects, and identifying a housing development site, among others.  

Several groups studied affordable student housing in Madison, which teaching assistant Heejin Yoon said is “one of the issues becoming more urgent.” Yoon, who is a fourth-year PhD student focusing on real estate and finance, has been the TA for the course for two years. 

“This is really a great opportunity for me as well, not only on the teaching side but getting to know topics people are interested in,” Yoon said. “The students really worked hard, and Professor Deng and I were very impressed with their work this year.”  

For out-of-state students like senior Marissa Trapani, their Madison-based projects helped them broaden their perspective beyond the campus area. 

“When you’re in college, you have a university perspective. I became more aware about the growth of the city through this project,” said Trapani, who is from California and studying real estate.  

GREM student Sanghyum Cho, center, explains his team’s project to Madison Deputy Mayor Christie Baumel. (Paul L. Newby, II /UW-Madison Wisconsin School of Business)

Students in the Global Real Estate Master Program, designed for non-U.S. graduate-level students and alumni from top international business schools, described making connections between Madison and their hometowns.  

“At the start of the semester we were worried about how we were going to contribute to the Wisconsin community,” said Terry Cho, who is from Seoul, South Korea. “After we studied some lessons and talked, we thought that real estate in general has a common degree … it was a really good opportunity that we have our areas of expertise back in Asia and can use them in the Wisconsin area.” 

Tommy Zhang, who is from Beijing, China, added: “It’s a very diverse classroom. We learn from each other.”  

Meanwhile, students from the Madison area, like senior Meredith Conley, gained historical context for how their hometown has changed over the years and an appreciation for the development process. 

“It’s easy to be that neighbor who doesn’t want something in their backyard but when you understand the process behind it, now you understand there’s a reason why that space hasn’t been developed or is being developed in a different way,” said Conley, who is studying real estate and urban land economics.  

For Ald. Bill Tishler, District 11, the students distilled what questions he should follow up on with city staff. 

“As an alder, I’m presented with all kinds of information and data,” said Tishler, who is also a member of UCA’s Advisory Board. “What the students are doing is taking some complex city issues, pulling them together and presenting them in a very easily digestible way.” 

—Abigail Becker