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What <i>Really</i> Makes a Successful City?

When you look at things in a holistic way, a truly useful picture emerges. For Madison, it all comes together.

You see them all over the news: The Best Cities for Singles. America's Best Cities for Foodies. 2015's Best and Worst Cities for Pet Lovers. The list of lists goes on and on, often to the point of inanity that dilutes any true meaning or insight.

That's why, when we were creating our Community Progress Index, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to undertake a holistic, comprehensive examination of the 100 most populous American cities, to look beyond simple GDP measures of success and capture the entire human experience. Taking our cue from the Social Progress Imperative -- a nonprofit that has indexed progress globally since 2012 -- we sought to create an analytical framework uniquely tailored to American communities. Fifty-two individual metrics and more than ten thousand data points later, we had created an index ranking cities in five major categories: health and wellness; education and opportunity; sustainability; economic vitality; and environmental responsibility.

The results were as intriguing as they were surprising. Perhaps the greatest surprise was the unassuming but more than worthy locale that topped our inaugural effort: Madison, Wis. The Midwestern state capital has long been viewed as a pleasant place to live. In many ways, though, that pleasantness has served as camouflage, masking the city's broad-spectrum achievements. Indeed, Madison ranked within the top 10 for four out the five categories, falling a bit short only in the area of economic vitality.

To be sure, several cities bested Madison in individual metrics, often dramatically; St. Louis in business growth, for instance, and Oklahoma City in high-school graduation rates. But while these cities succeeded in some areas, they struggled in others. Madison, by contrast, was balanced and consistent in its performance, achieving at least above-average marks in the vast majority of metrics. It is a young, healthy city with an abundance of tolerance, foresight and economic opportunity.

Madison's success is not merely some happy accident. The city's political, economic and community leaders have taken a proactive role in bettering their city, often with tangible results. Environmental responsibility has been an area of particular success. The city government has been praised for its Energy Leadership Academy and efforts to promote energy conservation and best practices. Likewise, the city has taken the lead in promoting green (and healthy) transportation by providing numerous resources for walkers and bikers, including a robust trail infrastructure and an easy to find, interactive, route-planning tool. These efforts have pushed local residents to walk or bike to work at three times the national average, with a corresponding 10 percent decrease in solo automobile commuters -- all in a city that averages freezing temperatures in the winter.

There is often the notion that environmental activism and economic vitality cannot coexist. In Madison, this is simply not the case. In addition to being a leader in green energy and transit, Madison also boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the county, along with one of the highest labor force participation rates. The presence of the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus certainly bolsters these numbers, in addition to providing a steady pipeline of young, educated workers. Much credit is also due to the city's leaders. By pursuing policies that actively preempt issues before they get out of hand, Madison is ensuring that it will have a healthy business climate for years to come.

One such area is public finance. As with the state government, Madison has had to make some difficult decisions in recent years. Fiscal issues are often contentious, and three-time Mayor Paul Soglin hasn't shied away from the controversy this has created. "The challenge is getting universal alignment on disciplined decisions from the city council, neighborhood groups and the private sector," he said recently. "Financial pressures challenge our fiscal responsibilities."

For all the mayor's concerns, however, his city has actually performed admirably in this regard. Madison's credit rating remains strong even as some of its neighbors' debt has been reduced to junk status.

Now, Madison is not a city without faults. K-12 education is underwhelming for a city with such prominent universities, and economic diversity is lacking, though progress has been made on that front. For one thing, the city is "distinguishing itself nationally through its explosive growth in information technology and life sciences," says Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership. "Both can claim the University of Wisconsin as their biggest asset."

All of this goes to show that a city doesn't have to be perfect to be successful. But Madison's educated, hard-working population, its comprehensive approach to issues, and its engaged, forward-thinking leadership, both public and private, have proven more than enough for the city to thrive. For other cities, there's a lot to be learned from how Madison is building its future.

Project manager for product development at AngelouEconomics
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