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Oct 1, 201901:44 PMOpen Mic

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Why Madison is one of America’s best cities

There’s no universally agreed upon definition for what a perfect city is today.

As global advisors in tourism, real estate, and economic development, our team at Resonance has worked with dozens of cities and communities around the world and surveyed thousands of U.S. households and businesses trying to answer this very question, the results of which led to the creation of our annual America’s Best Cities rankings that benchmarks the performance of cities across the country in 23 areas that travelers, talent, and companies tell us are most important in choosing a city to live, visit, or do business.

Based on our 2019 analysis, Madison is one of the 10 best small cities (metropolitan population 200,000–1 million) in the country. Ranking No. 10 overall, the city’s enviable position as both capital of Wisconsin and the site of the state’s largest university certainly fuels its No. 13 ranking in prosperity among small cities in the nation, including No. 18 for household income and the 11th-highest number of Fortune 500 companies located in the city. A hive of health care, IT, and manufacturing powered by pipelines of talent out of the University of Wisconsin creates a symbiotic, sustainable relationship between academic infrastructure and economic performance. Indeed, Madison lands in a top-three spot for educational attainment nationally for small cities.

Last week, I had a chance to visit Madison for the first time. In speaking with city leaders and organizations ranging from the mayor to the chamber of commerce, everyone is quite proud of your city, and rightly so. We’re not the first ranking out there to throw accolades your way. But what was refreshing to see was a universal acknowledgement that the city can’t rest on its laurels if it wants to be one of the country’s best cities a decade from now.

Based on our research on Madison and the factors that are shaping the prosperity of cities today, here are the five things I would suggest your city focus on in the years to come:

1. Transit

Cities in North America were largely designed around the car, which then shaped the way we live and work in our cities. It’s not sustainable. There’s a false prophesy that autonomous vehicles will solve the problems we’ve created when it comes to congestion and urban sprawl. They won’t. In fact, it’s more likely that they will make them worse as more people choose to call up a (soon to be) autonomous Uber. Proof? With the introduction of Uber, transit ridership declined in all but four cities in North America last year. But, one of the factors in our research that shows the highest correlation with the GDP of a city, total employment, and the real annual incomes of the people that live there, is the percentage of people that take mass transit to work. If you think driving your car to work instead of taking the bus means that you’re “rich,” think again.

2. Micromobility

Walking around downtown, I was surprised by the number of cyclists throughout the city. Madison is clearly a leader when it comes to cycling, but painting bike lanes is just the first step. More dedicated and protected lanes is the next, especially if the city wants to safely incorporate and adopt the next wave of micromobility technology: scooters. The introduction of scooters in many cities has been chaotic, but with the right regulations, separated lanes, and organized parking, scooters have the potential to dramatically increase mobility in our cities and help remove more cars from our streets. Madison has the potential to be a leader in this area.

3. Density

There has obviously been a significant amount of multifamily development in Madison in recent years. You need more of it. There’s only one answer to maintaining a vibrant downtown and filling in vacant storefronts in the city and that’s creating more opportunities for people to live within walking distance of them. A lot of the easy development opportunities have been realized. More difficult will be letting go of some older two- and three-story buildings to make way for larger apartment buildings.

4. Placemaking

In our research, one of the factors that shows the highest correlation with the prosperity of a city is the number of very good and excellent neighborhoods and landmarks a city has listed in TripAdvisor. Surprisingly, the number of places recommended by tourists has a strong relationship with GDP, employment, and incomes in a city. So, too, does the number of Instagram mentions. This speaks to the importance of quality of place, which can be created by enhancing programming in existing neighborhoods and activating underutilized ones throughout the city.

5. Cooperation

This last recommendation is both the easiest and the hardest. Cooperation speaks to breaking down the silos between municipal governments, chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, and your convention and visitors bureau as they come to understand that initiatives such as the ones I’ve listed above are not only good for the city as a whole, but also key to accomplishing their own specific objectives, whether that be quality of life for residents, or attracting new businesses or visitors to the city. The good news is that all of these organizations, and many others, came together in Madison during my visit. Working together more is the next step.

These recommendations aren’t unique to Madison. In fact, we discuss these with most cities we work with. The difference is that you’re ahead of the game having already made strides in many of these areas — that’s what best cities do. But can you work together to become a leader in all of them? That sounds like the definition of a perfect city to me.

Chris Fair is the president and CEO of Resonance, a strategic advisor in tourism, real estate, and economic development, and leads a team that has completed more than 100 visioning, strategy, planning, and branding projects for developers and destinations in more than 30 destinations. You can reach him at cfair@resonanceco.com.

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