The ultimate gauge of a city’s success isn’t its economy, crime rate or schools (though those are important).
It’s whether people choose to live there.
And on that measure, Madison and south-central Wisconsin are doing quite well, the latest census figures show.
Madison added 36,631 residents — a 16% increase — over the last decade, for a 2020 population of 269,840. That makes Madison the state’s fastest-growing larger city. The Madison metropolitan area similarly picked up 75,361 residents to reach 680,796, a 12.4% boost, making it Wisconsin’s most attractive region for new arrivals.
So don’t let the bad news about the pandemic, gunfire or polluted lakes convince you the capital city’s best days are behind it. They’re not. Madison remains a wonderful place to live. Why else would so many people keep choosing to call it home?
But healthy growth requires planning to get ahead of potential problems, including gridlock on Madison’s narrow Isthmus and soaring home prices.
A faster bus system called “bus rapid transit” will get more people where they need to go. While putting two expensive permanent stations on State Street is shortsighted, the greater system deserves strong public support to boost ridership and deter traffic congestion.
Encouraging taller and denser development, where appropriate, will help ease housing costs for workers. So will incentives for affordable units in new buildings.
Madison also must do more to welcome newcomers. People of color now make up more than a quarter of the city’s population, according to the latest census numbers. As Madison diversifies, events such as Mad Lit — which showcases Black artists and entrepreneurs every other Friday night on the top of State Street — can make Madison more engaging for transplants.
Not every part of Wisconsin has more people. Richland County, for example, about 60 miles northwest of Madison, posted the state’s largest decrease at 4%. Some counties in northern Wisconsin similarly lost population. It’s no coincidence that many of these rural areas lack high-speed internet, which makes it harder to keep and attract young people and businesses.
State officials prioritized an expansion of faster digital connections in their latest budget, which should help.
Milwaukee declined 3% to 577,222 people, its lowest population since 1930, according to the census data. That’s unfortunate. Hopefully the city’s recent NBA championship and the return of big events such as Summerfest will help spur a rebound.
Overall, the state’s population rose 3.6% to 5.9 million over the last decade. That was slower growth than the national average of 7.4%, though average when compared to surrounding states. Most troubling is a 4% drop in the number of children in Wisconsin. That makes it harder to maintain our workforce and support aging retirees.
The Madison area accounted for more than one-third of Wisconsin’s growth over the last decade. Madison’s economy is less dependent on state government and UW-Madison than it used to be, which is good.
Let’s keep the momentum going and plan ahead so more people can call our wonderful city home without diminishing its charm.