Most observers do not associate the Midwest with urban success, but quite the opposite in fact. But while there are plenty of places that are legitimately suffering, there are also plenty of success stories out there that don't always get the mindshare or press they deserve.
First on my list of Midwest success stories is Des Moines, Iowa. This is a smaller,, largely under the radar city, but it has emerged as one of the strongest performers anywhere in the United States. This city defines the term “easy living”, while still managing to be home to major industries like insurance. Being smaller has proven an asset here, as Des Moines has avoided many of the large scale boondoggles like pro sports stadiums cities sometimes engage in to try to prove they are “major league”.
Instead of competing for bragging rights, Des Moines instead has grown its job base significantly during the “lost decade” of the 2000s. Between 2001 and 2009, it added over 25,000 jobs – a healthy 8.9% clip – and boasts a close to rock bottom (for these times) 6.5% unemployment rate. Des Moines metro grew its population at 15.5% between 2000 and 2008, nearly double the national average, belying the notion that no one wants to live in Iowa. Despite this growth, labor shortages remain a long term local concern. That's called a nice problem to have.
Indianapolis is another standout, with a profile closer to the Sun Belt than the Rust Belt. It grew its population at a rate 50% greater than the national average, and also had strong net in-migration,with almost 65,000 net people deciding to pack up and move to Indy. Its demographic and economic stats are very comparable to Portland, Oregon, the urban policy poster child. In fact, Indianapolis actually added more jobs than Portland – where job growth has been largely in the suburban periphery – last decade thanks to an aggressive pro-business attitude and local industry clusters like life sciences, motorsports, and internet marketing.
Indianapolis may also be the least expensive major housing market in America, but it maintains a full range of urban amenities and is only three hours drive from Chicago for those things it lacks. This is one reason Business Week just named the large suburb of Fishers the best affordable suburb in the United States. Indy has also quietly established a position as an urban innovator, with unique to the nation projects like a downtown urban trail. It is also a leader in modern roundabouts, with suburban Carmel having 5% of all the modern roundabouts in the entire United States.
Head east on I-70 and three hours later you'll arrive in Columbus, Ohio, Indy's “twin city”. Like Indianapolis, an artificially chosen state capital, Columbus is thriving in a struggling state. Like Indy, it also has strong population growth and net in-migration, and a below average unemployment rate. It's home to powerhouse Ohio State University, which boasts the nation's largest college campus, and stunning historic neighborhoods like German Village. Columbus is home to a thriving LGBT community, and the second largest gay pride parade in the Midwest after Chicago, one of the top ten in the country, attracting over 100,000 attendees.
West along I-70 is Kansas City. Described as a “zone of sanity”, Kansas City avoided the housing boom and thus largely the bust, remaining another affordable and attractive place to live. It too has had strong population growth and net in-migration, along with below average unemployment. The city is the second largest rail hub in the United States after Chicago, but lacks that city's legendary rail congestion. Unsurprisingly, rail carriers are investing heavily there. With rail connectivity to Mexican ports, and sitting along I-35, Kansas City is looking to be one of the winners of NAFTA. Plentiful fountains and miles of lush parkways make Kansas City a lovely city. It is also a cultural hub, with the respected Nelson-Aktins Museum at the high end and the thriving Crossroads Art District on the grass roots side.
Madison, Wisconsin is one of the rare Midwest cities that actually gets national respect. Its location along a narrow isthmus creates a charming physical setting and compact urban core. Home to the University of Wisconsin, its progressive credentials are unimpeachable. But it is also an economic success story, with strong job growth of 6.6% from 2001-2009, along with impressive population growth. Part of this is the university's powerhouse researchers, who attracted the likes of Google to open an office. The city is also the state capital. Despite being a smaller city, it boasts amenities worthy of America's elite metropolises, including super-high end denim retailer Context Clothing and the luxurious Candinas Chocolatier.
Despite its reputation for frigid weather and its geographically peripheral location, Minneapolis-St. Paul offers both economic strength and high quality of life. Its residents embrace the recreational opportunities provided by numerous nearby lakes, including several inside the Minneapolis city limits, as well as the winter. The region was early to the starchitect game, with Frank Gehry designing the metallic Weisman Art Center before the Bilbao Guggenheim. But it's not all fun and games there. The region has an unemployment rate well below average and a GDP per capita well above it. It is home to numerous household name firms like Target, Best Buy, and 3M. And it is a center for the medical device industry.
These six cities show that there's a lot more to the Midwest than rusted steel mills, shuttered auto plants, and abandoned houses. It is also home to healthy cities and thriving suburban communities that are outpacing the nation demographically and economically. These places offer affordability and a high quality of life, but still manage to feature many more urban amenities and innovations than commonly assumed. These characteristics make them well-positioned to be among the urban winners in the 21st century.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.