Madison, Wisconsin

Aug 1, 2005
Outside Magazine
Madison, Wisconsin

Green Acres: Madison's John Nolen Bike Path    Photo: Zane Williams/courtesy, Madison Tourism

POPULATION: 208,000 // MEDIAN AGE: 30.6 // MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $223,000 // AVERAGE COMMUTE: 18.3 min.

It's easy to fall for Madison. Wisconsin's capital is like a girl who aces all her finals, paddles a mean J-stroke, knows how to tap a keg, and doesn't realize she's a knockout. (Oh, yeah, she can also milk a Guernsey.) The appeal starts with location. The town sits on a two-mile-long isthmus between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, rippling expanses perennially dotted with sailors and paddlers (or ice-fishers and ice-yachters, depending on the season). A city-sponsored 30-mile web of paved trails—well lit, snowplowed, and biked year-round—combines with walkable streets and first-rate bus service to make car-free commutes viable; there's even a Paddle to Work Day, in June. Along with its natural assets, Madison offers myriad urban pleasures: thriving co-ops, ethnic menus, clever entrepreneurs, and all the other trappings of post-hippie capitalism. The University of Wisconsin's 900-acre flagship campus, 40,000 students strong, is a microcosm of the larger populace—brainy and left-leaning, tolerant and determinedly unprovincial. Factor in a dozen or so beaches, some 250 parks, Big Ten athletics, and an enormous farmers' market and you've got the complete package: Berkeley with bratwurst.

PROGRESSIVE CRED // Madison has a long heritage of open-mindedness. It was the first U.S. city to launch curbside recycling (in 1968); today, there are waiting lists for residents who want Madison Gas & Electric to supply a portion of their electricity via wind power. More than 70 percent of Madison's traffic signals run on energy-saving LED fixtures, and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is determined to keep green space a priority: He's vowed to open five new parks a year—maintained, of course, without chemical pesticides or fertilizers—and he's kept that promise during his first two years in office. Wisconsin ranks third in the nation in number of organic farms, and community-supported agriculture—a system in which consumers buy "shares" of a local farm and the food it produces—are high on the Madison agenda.
LIVABILITY // Madisonians are wired and literate; last year Forbes called the city a "seedbed of biocapitalism" for launching 120 biotech firms in the past decade. Largely because of UW's influence, startups and spinoffs are common. A cross section of innovative Madison companies: Epic Systems (medical-records software), Cellular Dynamics International (stem-cell research), and Planet Bike, a cycling-gear outlet that donates a quarter of its profits to velo-friendly causes. Houses are still reasonable, although last year the area's median sailed past the $200,000 mark.
YOU'LL LOVE IT IF // You like your mom-and-apple-pie, cheesehead midwestern vibe served with a shot of coastal hipness.