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The Real Suburbs of Dane County
BY MARY ERPENBACH
Everyone knows what a suburb is:
... great schools, starter mansions, lawns that look like the first tee at Nakoma. And of course, everyone is wrong.
In fact, if it were a television program, The Real Suburbs of Dane County would be more complex, more interesting—and a lot more fun—than a stereotype. Although the part about great schools would still be true.
Case in point: our two top-rated suburbs. Shorewood Hills, which garnered best-of honors in the report we did back in 2004, repeats this year as Dane County’s highest-scoring suburb. Yet as an old-line community of gracious Cape Cods, lakeshore frontage and a top-ranked elementary school, this village differs in almost every respect from Fitchburg, which this time came in second-with-a-bullet by thirteen points. Incorporated only thirty years ago, Fitchburg has launched a branding campaign, embarked on a dream-big growth plan and already boasts the most diverse population of any suburb in Dane County.
Then, too, Madison suburbs are très trendy. You can see examples of edible public landscaping or new urbanism’s cousin “agriburbia”—increasingly popular in suburbs nationwide—blooming in almost every community featured here. Other trends, such as the alarming rise in suburban poverty, while not as prevalent, have crept in nonetheless.
Much has changed since we first began rating the suburbs fourteen years ago. Suburban populations have swelled. The National Mustard Museum moved from Mount Horeb to Middleton. Epic turned Verona from Hometown USA into the worldwide headquarters of health care software. McFarland built a beautiful new library. Also, home values skyrocketed despite the Great Recession; it might not be up by much lately, but overall home appreciation in the suburbs is pretty impressive.
But at least two facets of suburban life here are exactly the same as they were then. There is still no North Beltline to serve commuters in communities like Waunakee and Dane. And suburbanites remain in denial about the fact that they live in suburbs.
Yes, Virginia, it is a Suburb
Wait, the hamlet of Dane at the northern edge of the county is a suburb? Yes, according to the definition we used in our original 1999 feature—and are using here. As a refresher, a Madison suburb is a Dane County village or city with a population of one thousand or more, economically intertwined with a nearby major metropolitan area. Which, in this case, is Madison.
So the village of Dane, which reached our population threshold in 2010, is now a suburb. Maple Bluff and Shorewood Hills are also suburbs; it’s true they’ve long been pocketed inside the city that makes them suburbs, but they’re incorporated villages in their own right.
Belleville makes the cut even though its municipal limit shades into Green County, because more than one thousand of its residents live in Dane County. Cities such as Sun Prairie, Fitchburg and Monona, which share a border with Madison, are suburbs. So are communities farther away, like DeForest, Black Earth, Oregon, Deerfield, Mazomanie and Cambridge.
In all, twenty-two municipalities fit the bill. Combined, they account for more than a third of Dane County’s population, or two-thirds as many people as live in the city of Madison. Yet most of these outlying
residents think of themselves not as suburbanites but as belonging to a community with a tangible identity separate from Madison.
“I have never used that term, ‘suburb,’” said Dan Ramsey in 1999, when he was mayor of Middleton and we were writing one of our earliest rating-the-suburbs reports. His city topped the rankings that year and, still, Ramsey protested: “I have never thought of us as a suburb.”
He could have been speaking for most residents of every Dane County suburb, then and now, and it’s easy to see why. Not one suburb qualifies as a true bedroom community, offering residents only tract housing and existing devoid of its own vibrant culture and unique identity.
Instead, most of our suburbs were born completely unrelated to Madison. They were farm towns or railroad stops or lakeside vacation spots, for instance. Each has a rich heritage story, and members of the same families have lived in many of them for six generations or more. But while their historical roots may have little to do with the capital city, the growth of these communities was and continues to be shaped by proximity. In other words, they’re suburbs.
People in suburban Dane County care about public safety and property taxes and school success. They want municipal governments to spend money on parks and cultural offerings. And they are concerned about diversity—as in, they consider it a good thing and they’d like more of it in their communities. Surprisingly, not many people care about the existence of a public swimming pool.
We know all this because we hired the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Center for Urban Initiatives and Research to conduct a comprehensive survey of suburbanites as part of this exclusive report. Municipal swimming pools came in dead last, said people who were asked what mattered to them about where they lived. Perhaps even more surprising, commuters didn’t bother much with how near or far they lived in relationship to Madison.
When we’d finished asking our neighbors what factors mattered most, we gathered statistics to reflect how each community measured up. We compiled crime rates and school scores and home sale histories and figures related to seven additional categories, so that we had ten sets of data for each community. Then we gave the numbers to demographers at the UW–Madison Applied Population Lab, who standardized them for useful and appropriate comparison. They also applied weights to each (based on our survey results) and, finally, tallied the scores.
The result? Ratings you can rely on and a community-to-community comparison of how Dane County suburbs stack up when it comes to the good life in the quirky, sophisticated, charming, bustling, new-tech, bucolic, cosmopolitan—and that’s just Stoughton!—communities beyond the city limits of Madison. You know, the Real Suburbs of Dane County.