This week I traveled from Northville, MI to Madison, WI with a stop in Chicago, IL.
Three distinctly different places. All successful in their own way.
Northville is an old Victorian town of 6,000 west of Detroit. It has walkable streets, lots of period architecture, great open spaces and an active commercial downtown.
Madison is a college town of a quarter million inhabitants and 40,000 students. It is also Wisconsin’s capital city. It’s main artery (State Street) is car free, creating a personal vibe between commercial businesses along the street and pedestrians. Founded over 150 years ago on the isthmus between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, the city’s core remains active today and takes full advantage of its primo location on the water.
Chicago is one of the great cities in the U.S. With a population just under 3 million, the Windy City boasts amazing architecture, many vibrant neighborhoods, unbelievable cultural amenities and the palpable spirit of its people. Chicago is the A-1 living destination for scores of young college grads from throughout the Midwest who seek to carve out their own pieces of the American pie.
The three cities, by most measures, are markedly different.
Yet they share two things in common- they accept who they are, and they do what they do very well. You won’t find many gimmicks in these towns. Instead they accentuate their positive aspects to create unique experience for people.
Northville is a small bedroom community with a vibrant commercial artery. When planning for change city leaders
cling to their Victorian heritage, but leave room for modern improvements to businesses and housing stock. The result is a distinctive community that is great for families and empty-nesters. Recent changes to the city’s master plan will make it a bit more appealing for young adults as well.
Madison is one of the great college towns in the U.S. The vibrant commercial activity throughout the town is pronounced. The livability (lakes, walkability, cultural offerings, etc) is top of the line, especially in the downtown. I saw lots of streets being improved and building crews in every direction this past week. I look forward to coming back in a few years to see the progress.
Chicago is, well, Chicago. Like many large American cities there is some bad with the good. Awful poverty in certain areas and great wealth in others. Some neighborhoods in terrible shape while other
s belong on postcards. The downtown is a big plus with just about anything someone would want in a large city setting, and then some. Few big cities present themselves at the human scale better than Chicago. It feels like a big small town at times.
These places all employ good urban practices, adjusted to fit their own scales. None of them need to employ tricks or stunts to get noticed. You won’t find the world’s second largest ball of twine or a 15 foot tall rooster wearing a top hat in these cities. They simply take full advantage of who they are and pridefully show it off to the world around them.
What’s the lesson here for other cities?
Love what you are. And do it well. The advice, as these three very different places illustrate, works for everybody.