The real suburbs of Dane County

The new face of fast-growing, faster-changing Dane County suburbia
The real suburbs of Dane County

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.

Survey Says
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.

Growing Pangs
In life, the only true constant is change. In modern suburbia, the constant is growth. Especially so in Dane County where, percentage-wise, suburban population growth has outpaced Madison’s.

“The most noticeable thing is a shift in the distribution of the Dane County population from being more concentrated in the city of Madison to having increasing concentration in the small cities and villages,” says Barbara Weber, senior community planner at the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission. “Madison still has the largest percentage of the population, but it’s decreasing over time, and some of the villages and smaller cities have had some pretty substantial increases.”

Weber is talking about communities like Cottage Grove and Verona, where population growth rates topped fifty percent in the last decade. They are among the reasons that suburban Dane County’s population grew at twenty-three percent overall—or nearly twice the rate of Madison’s twelve percent growth—from the 2000 to the 2010 census.

Looking ahead, the Demographics Services Center of the Wisconsin Department of Administration predicts that Cottage Grove will nearly double its population by 2035. In addition, the center’s estimates say Waunakee and Belleville will both experience population increases above seventy percent in the next two decades.

As they grow, all the suburbs seem to be doing everything possible to further define their own identities. “A lot of the smaller communities have done so much more to make their own communities full-service and to have cultural things as well as employment,” says Weber. “These are not communities that are characterless, bedroom communities; I think they have really worked on that.”

Possibly no community is working harder on that right now than Fitchburg, which overcame dismal crime statistics and not-so-great school scores to climb to the second-best spot in our rankings this year. Diversity was the key to its score, and Mayor Shawn Pfaff says it’s the key to his city’s future. Well, that and the new library.

“We’re still growing, we’re still a community in search of an identity, and that’s why diversity is such a fantastic piece of us,” Pfaff says. “Over the last year and a half we went through a very robust branding plan that included 1,500 interviews with residents, and we put together a whole long-range plan.”

The big plan calls for Fitchburg to go on a building binge, which is already under way. The aforementioned 36,000-square-foot library opened two years ago. A planned 440-acre Highway 14 interchange project called UpTown will yield a new urbanist development of residential, multifamily and higher-end retail and professional space. And that’s just one of nearly a half-dozen developments scheduled in the city.
In fact, multifamily developments are contributing more to the growth of suburban Dane County than any other factor.

“The thing that we follow a lot is the building permit activity, and we’ve seen some pretty dramatic changes over the last decade,” says the regional planning commission’s Weber. “It’s on the upswing and multifamily is what’s bringing it back up.”

Getting There
Remember when our survey showed that people didn’t care much about how close their community was to Madison? Big mistake, say the experts. Transportation plays a larger role in suburban quality of life than many people realize. And the cost and convenience of getting there and back are already shaping the future face of suburban Madison.

“These multifamily developments should not be just stuck out there on the edge of the cornfield with big parking lots,” says Jim LaGro, professor of urban and regional planning and environmental studies at UW–Madison. “Traditionally people have looked at the cost of the home, but more recent research says that people should factor in transportation cost.”

Transit is one way for commuters to offset travel costs, but transit options are limited in almost all of Madison’s suburbs. That could change, thanks to some ambitious bus rapid transit recommendations released recently as part of a major study on countywide sustainability. Sure, a BRT system is still five or so years from beginning to be implemented. But when shiny new high-tech buses do someday zoom into downtown Madison, they could be carrying commuters from nearby municipalities such as Fitchburg and Sun Prairie.

Bill Schaefer, transportation planning manager for the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board, notes still another way transportation issues affect suburban
growth: The number of people who commute from one suburb to another is also on the rise. “That is important because work trips … anchor a lot of other trips; people are likely to do errands near where they work, for example,” says Schaefer.

In other words, Madison suburbs continue to develop as destinations, not merely as satellites orbiting only around the sun of Madison. As a result, they’ve transformed high school theaters into performing arts centers. Health care providers from Dean to Group Health Cooperative to UW Health have built satellite clinics in suburb after suburb. Urban developments featuring retail and professional services are infilling old downtowns or anchoring new business and residential developments. Bike paths are being linked, one to another, even as you read this.

LaGro says this type of density—population clusters linked by efficient transportation—is how suburbs can contribute to the sustainability of the county as a whole. “It doesn’t mean that an entire town needs to look the same,” he notes, “but throughout Dane County there could be a whole system of centers where, even far away from downtown Madison, you can still get a lot of what you need in your daily life.”

Of course, small-city mayors and village presidents and chambers of commerce leaders throughout Dane County say that this has already happened. They will line up to say that if you can’t find it in their town, you don’t need it. And, as our latest survey of life in the ‘burbs reveals, they make a pretty strong case for that truth. 

Contributing writer Mary Erpenbach has deftly compiled and written each of our Rating the Suburbs surveys since 1999. Editorial intern Mary Wagner contributed to this report.