This is Lincoln’s moment. Construction sites dot downtown, concerts pack the new arena, and edge growth continues unabated, seemingly oblivious to national economic doldrums. The energy running through the city is reflected in Lincoln’s consistently high rankings in magazine articles and online surveys proclaiming another top “best cities for” ranking.
Today’s energy and rankings have not always been the case. When we moved here in 1999, my family immediately took to our new city. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but even back then Lincoln felt “nice” and “right”—whatever those vague marketing taglines mean. Yet, at that time, Lincoln was not making much noise in the national rankings games currently playing out in every conceivable publication.
At that time, the only game in town was football. Our first few years here the Huskers made finishing in the top ten seem a birthright. Surely you remember? In 1999 we finished number three in the final national poll, number eight in 2000, and number three again in 2001, and those were after the national championship glory years of the mid-1990s. Back then Lincolnites would have been a little wary of top ten lists that highlighted our humble city’s greatness. But just as the Blackshirt’s fate blackened and top ten football finishes became an increasingly distant memory, the Capitol City’s star began to rise. Lincoln started appearing in, then working its way up, these various “best city for” and top-cities lists with more and more regularity, culminating with headlines boldly stating that we were the most content citizens in the land (Number One Most Content City, 24/7 Wallstreet, 2013).
As a proud resident of my adopted hometown, I am glad to see the overdue praise, but whenever I read the latest of what I think of as drive-by rankings featuring Lincoln so prominently, I often feel that they offer only a hint at some of the key underlying factors that justify such accolades. This essay explores some of deeper reasons why Lincoln belongs on these lists.
Before I delve into my perspective on what it is about Lincoln that makes it deserving of such high praise, a word about what this essay is not. This is not a dis on Omaha. I’ve learned over the past fifteen years as a Nebraskan that, in addition to the competition on the gridiron that brings the state together, a running competition between the state’s two largest cities pulls us apart. This results in a strange inability to talk about the positive elements of one without it being seen (or meant) as a dig at the other. This is not that. I’ve been blessed with work that has allowed me to engage in both cities. At the end of the day, Lincoln is a government town—dominated by its three largest employers, UNL, LPS, and the State of Nebraska, all public sector and all in a class by themselves. This is clearly not the case in Omaha. Working with innovative social entrepreneurs in Omaha, I have gotten to know and love the dynamic energy that powers that sprawling business- and solutions-oriented metropolis.
Working in both places has helped me understand that they are fundamentally different classes of cities that don’t lend themselves well to comparisons. Having come here from DC and NYC, I’ve grown to view Omaha as the smallest big city I have ever worked in. I enjoy grappling with the complex, big-city issues and the opportunities and challenges Omaha faces. Lincoln, on the other hand, is the biggest small town I have ever lived in. While fairly close in population, the two are like comparing apples and pineapples—similar sounds would suggest they are the same, but they represent very different categories.
Neither is my praise of Lincoln meant to be dismissive of small-town Nebraska. While Lincoln does feel like a small town, at an expanding 260,000, it just isn’t. Nebraska has many small- and medium-sized cities that all have their own charm and character and, for good reason, have their own champions. In many ways Lincoln’s recent greatness is a tribute to the many small Nebraska towns that every year lose some of their best and brightest to UNL and ultimately to Lincoln’s gain. But rather than commenting on other elements of the fabric of Nebraska, this is an ode to Lincoln’s moment.
So what is the secret code behind Lincoln’s consistently high rankings? In my mind, it boils down to three things. The first is education. As a classic Midwest college town, Lincoln is in many ways defined by a highly functioning, interlocking system of formal and informal education resources. While the university brought our family to Lincoln, in many ways the high-quality public schools have kept us here (Number Four Best Place to Raise a Family, Men’s Health, 2012). As a parent of young children, one of whom has completed the K–12 march through Lincoln Public Schools, it is hard to overvalue the importance we place on the strength of Lincoln’s one city/one district public school system. This unified system of school administration prevents more affluent suburbs from breaking away from the core communities and diluting the community’s commitment to quality education for all our youth. This approach (and high-quality instruction) has yielded results: With a record-high district-wide graduation rate of 87 percent and record-low drop-out rates of 6 percent in 2013, LPS is one of the best medium- to large-sized school systems in the nation and a key factor in our rising star.
Let me put it clearly: If all school systems nationally produced outcomes like LPS, there would be no clamoring about a “national educational crisis,” and if there were, it would be exposed for what I think it truly is—a power grab to wrest control over public schools, and the trillions of dollars in funding they represent, by private interests. A high-quality system of neighborhood schools that has been built and maintained over decades means that Lincoln educators can focus on what really matters—providing quality instruction tailored to the needs of individual students. Such a focus, and the results it produces, exposes the national chatter about charter schools or teacher bounties for student performance on high-stakes tests for what they are—unproductive distractions to the community-wide work of preparing all our youth for the multifaceted responsibilities of citizenship.
It is in our community-wide approach to education that Lincoln separates itself from the pack nationally, and for me this is one of the key elements that make ours a great community to raise children (Number Five Best Places to Live in America, Area Vibes, 2011). Lincoln just isn’t limiting public action on education to an antiquated focus on the traditional school calendar. How could they if 80 percent of a student’s waking hours are spent outside of classrooms? Public discussions around education and youth development engage diverse actors beyond the K–12 system and how they can work together to foster and sustain the array of learning opportunities outside of the school day and year. Common sense and decades of research have shown the profound impact these nonschool hours of opportunity can have on youth success in school and ultimately in life. Lincolnites get this, and we haven’t willfully abandoned this most vital public service to the exclusive domain of classroom educators. With more actors involved, outcomes are better, the quality of life for all families improves, and people feel good about the lives they can construct (Number One City on Gallup’s Well-Being Index, 2013).
Progress in building Lincoln’s city-wide Community Learning Center system to organize these activities has garnered national accolades. Through this award-winning CLC program (Coalition for Community Schools 2006 Award for Excellence), city agencies and a list of community-based organizations too long to repeat here have partnered with LPS and local, regional, and state funders to create a rich array of learning opportunities outside of the traditional school day and year. Open to all students, these school-based programs target youth from Lincoln’s most challenging educational environments and provide those essential, expanded learning opportunities and support services for youth and working families that are, unfortunately, not evenly distributed—even in towns like Lincoln. The Lincoln Community Foundation’s role in supporting CLCs resulted in their being recognized nationally for supporting strong school-family-community partnerships (US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2012).
Other strong education-oriented programs like Bright Lights summer camps, the Folsom Children’s Zoo, the downtown Children’s Museum, and incredibly strong city library and parks and recreation programs add additional, affordable opportunities for parents to pick and choose from an array of fun, stimulating, and educational experiences for our city’s youngest citizens (Seventh-best City for Families, Wallet Hub, 2014). Our family, for example, will forever be indebted to the Dimensions Early Childhood Education program for helping our daughters get a strong start, the Asian Community and Culture Center for their summer camp that introduced them to the joys of Chinese language and Asian cultures, and, most recently, UNL Extension, for engaging them in afterschool robotics.
Ah, UNL. It was a job offer at UNL that brought us here and the charm of a classic Midwest college town (Number Six Best College Town) does much to keep us rooted in Lincoln when other opportunities surface. But UNL is more than just a Big Ten research institution and a center for the arts and humanities that works with the community to enhance Lincoln’s overall educational environment. With the city campus abutting downtown, the power of UNL has been a critical engine keeping downtown vital and the community whole. It is not just UNL and downtown—our city’s other campuses, Union College and Wesleyan University, play a similar role in keeping their adjacent neighborhoods youthful, vital, and thoughtful.
Strong Sense of Place
This brings us to the second factor that I feel underlies growing recognition of Lincoln’s strength—our strong sense of place. Lincoln is built on strong neighborhood identities. For us that has been the Near South neighborhood—an older neighborhood in the heart of the city. Affordable, like most neighborhoods in Lincoln (Number Ten Top Cities to Buy a Home, ABC News, 2011), the Near South is characterized by ornate hundred-year-old homes next to ’70s-era slip-in apartments, leading to a mix of residents from all walks of life and corners of the world. It is crisscrossed with an interconnected system of tree-lined sidewalks and trails that actually take you to destinations you want to go to—parks, beautiful gardens, grocery stores, libraries, and churches. For my family, it was nearby First Plymouth’s offering of a unique blend of world-class architecture, music, and childcare, and an inclusive and service-oriented spirituality, that sealed the deal on our move to this neighborhood.
Yet for us, the Near South is just a fragment of a larger walkable/bikeable community that reaches east to the trails behind the Folsom Zoo to the newly reenergized Haymarket in the west and north to downtown, the UNL campus, and the North 27th Street Vietnamese food corridor (couldn’t live without that), and finally south to Irving Middle School. This personally christened neighborhood contains, in my humble opinion, some of the key reasons that Lincoln appears on so many (Number Nine Most Livable City in America, Forbes, 2011) quality-of-life surveys—work, food, entertainment, and recreation.
Lincoln’s interconnected system of parks and trails, to take one example, is a leading factor for our enviable position atop many lists of healthy cities (Number Five Best Cities for Women, Women’s Health and Number Three Health Rank, Men’s Health, both 2012). I came to Lincoln an occasional runner, and because of the extensive trail system (and a great annual marathon attracting 12,500 runners), that hobby has blossomed into a lifestyle that defines our entire family, one that, if it doesn’t add years to our lives, has already contributed an enhanced quality to the years we have shared. Parks and trails are just one factor (others include air quality and affordable care) that have led to accolades (Number One Healthiest Small City, Daily Finance, 2012 and Top Ten Cities for Affordable Health Care, 2012) recognizing the overall high quality of life all Lincolnites enjoy.
Lincoln residents also all share in relationship to what is now a booming downtown. Blessed with UNL’s city campus to the north and the state capitol and related government services to the south, downtown has retained its role as a vital hub unifying a growing city (Top Ten Best Mid-sized Community in America, Fourth Economic Community Index, 2012). Downtown’s newest addition, the Pinnacle Bank Arena and the related West Haymarket residential and retail developments, have added an accelerator to an already bustling downtown scene. Not that downtown was ever really down—a forward -looking policy kept cinemas concentrated there alongside bars and the kind of niche retail, including secondhand bookstores (A Novel Idea), clothing shops (Black Market, Family Thrift), local food (special callout to newest excellent entrants to downtown’s food scene, AmuManu Ramen Bar and Sebastian’s Table), and art stores and galleries Lincoln needs to retain its eclectic, college-town edge in the face of the inevitable surge in national chains that come alongside our rising prominence. Combine those amenities with booming employment opportunities (Number Ten Best Cities for Jobs, Forbes, 2011) revolving around a rapidly expanding tech startup sector, and downtown Lincoln provides plenty of justification for some of those high rankings and a motivation to relocate here.
Indeed, affordability and high quality of life are drawing increasingly numbers of foreign residents to Lincoln (Number Three Cities that Embody the American Dream, The Street, 2011). Strangely, we’ve found that there is something about Lincoln that has created a platform for more genuine interaction with other cultures than we experienced in the diversity-touting Upper West Side of Manhattan, where we lived prior to moving to Lincoln. Our interaction with diversity in our NYC neighborhood primarily revolved around crowded subway rides and playgrounds where you would see working-class immigrant women taking care of affluent babies. We were delighted by the more genuine feel of the multicultural interaction that greeted us here where multiple generations of families from around the globe played side by side on Hazel Abel Park’s swings and shoppers from different economic classes shopped together at Russ’s Market on 17th Street. Indeed, our first and closest friends in Lincoln were our Iraqi neighbors, part of the “Iraqi Six,” refugees whose bizarre legal limbo landed them in Lincoln and into the apartment next door. We lived through September 11 and the seemingly inevitable march to the Second Iraqi War together and, over backyard cookouts with kids and conversations over steaming plates of halal Iraqi delicacies, grappled with radically different historical perspectives on the violence that shattered the all too brief post-Cold War peace. Embracing diversity requires more than just numbers.
Lincoln’s connection to Middle Eastern violence continues with the recent march on the Governor’s Mansion by a large group of angry Yazidis, urging American action to protect their relatives back home fleeing the latest round of violence plaguing the Middle East. This most recent tragedy shows how connected Lincoln is to the shrinking global community. Why the surge of refugees, like the Yazidis, to Lincoln? Low unemployment (Third Lowest Unemployment Rate by City, Forbes, 2012) and cost of living (Number Eight Most Affordable Places to Live, MSN, 2011), including very affordable housing (Number Four Most Affordable Housing, Wallet Hub, 2014) and strong community-based support, have all helped Lincoln become a top destination for refugees. Clearly, it is not the weather. These attributes attract both refugees and make it a highly attractive destination for Americans seeking a spot to start anew (Number One Best Place to Launch a Second Career, US News and World Report, 2011) in recent tough economic times. It has been a symbiotic relationship—while Lincoln’s attributes may have enticed newcomers to our city, the cultural diversity they bring with them (and the pho and bahn mi our great Vietnamese restaurants like Vung Tau and Bahnwich ply) have greatly enriched the entire community.
Lincoln’s growing population of immigrants underscores the reality that in today’s shrinking world, progressive communities like Lincoln benefit from well-managed, long-term investments yielding strong education systems and a well-established sense of community. Those things don’t just evolve by accident. And they don’t happen by a singular focus on tax cuts and reduced government spending. In today’s highly competitive global economic environment, successful companies, countries, and communities must plan for their growth and make wise investments that help differentiate them from the pack. This leads me to the third point that I feel has made this Lincoln’s moment—intentionality.
As the late community champion Roger Larson reminded me when we first moved to Lincoln, as far as public education goes, “we drink from wells that others have dug,” and our responsibility is to pay forward the high-quality education system that previous generations provided us and our children. Lincoln embodies that sense of intergenerational responsibility for a variety of well-delivered public services (Number Four Best Run City in America, MSN, 2013). Thoughtful management, planning, and deliberate engagement to galvanize the community around a long-term vision has helped Lincoln move into an elite league of cities with their long-term financial house in order (Number One Most Fiscally Fit Cities in America, Men’s Health, 2012), while at the same time providing services needed to support families and grow the economy.
In many ways our good management practices flow from the fact that we still derive a large part of our income here from the soil. Many of my neighbors in the heart of the city are one generation away from the land and practice a modesty that is sadly out of step in other American communities today. Perhaps because of this proximity to the challenges of farm life, there is a more broad-based appreciation of the labor behind the work that fuels Lincoln’s economy. A self-reliant lot, we still proudly point to the fact that we paid for our state capitol in cash, on time, during the height of the Great Depression.
Prudent management is only one-half of the equation. Lincoln was also foresighted enough to seize the moment when opportunity presented itself, using its strong fiscal standing to finance a serious dose of public spending when the economic downturn slashed spending in other communities. Taking advantage of favorable bond markets and demographics, Lincoln passed a series of forward-looking bonds (Haymarket Arena) and infrastructure projects (school improvements, Innovation Campus, and Antelope Creek) that helped keep construction and other trades going during the depths of the recession and, in the process, avoided the downturn in the labor market (Number Three Cities with Lowest Unemployment, Forbes, 2012), while it laid the foundation for the private sector-driven growth we are current enjoying. Keynes would be proud.
Again, those investments didn’t just happen. They were the product of thoughtful leaders making reasoned appeals to above-average intelligence voters (thanks, LPS and the forty-one thousand people enrolled in some form of higher education) to support public investment in infrastructure, including education.
They also reflect a commitment to strategic planning. Many commentators noting Lincoln’s rise like to compare us to Austin twenty-five to thirty years ago. As a recovering Texan, I can see the allure of such a comparison: Both share their state’s flagship university, state capitol, and a certain laid-back buzz. But hyper-planned Lincoln will never go the way of haphazard, organic, “keep Austin weird” development. We like our capitol clean and tidy, thank you (Number Nine Cleanest Cities in America, Forbes, 2012). That is not a bad thing when you look at how the freewheeling, unplanned development has made getting around in sprawling Austin almost impossible, where they average forty-one hours wasted in traffic annually. One of Lincoln’s greatest attributes is that you can pretty much get anywhere in twenty minutes. With my Near South address, I can even walk to work in twenty minutes or bike there in five on our newly expanding downtown bike corridor. Safe drives and short commutes (Number One on America’s Best Drivers Report, 2012) play a large role in our high quality of life. Less time in traffic means fewer pollutants emitted, a key factor in keeping our air clean (A-, American Lung Association, 2012) and children healthy (Number Three Best City to Raise a Baby, Parents, 2012).
Planning policies have protected and nurtured other key elements of Lincoln’s civic fabric. Our forward-looking theater policy, which prevents multiplexes to be built anywhere but downtown, helped reinforce downtown’s role as the region’s entertainment center. A housing policy that supports distribution of low-income housing throughout the community, even in our newer fringe developments, has prevented any one area of the community from developing a concentrated pocket of intergenerational poverty and the desperation that goes along with that designation. A newly unveiled policy to shift our energy diet toward more renewable sources despite short-term costs typify a willingness to pass up short-term gain for long-term, community-wide benefits. Such policies, and many others, have cumulatively resulted in thoughtful growth (Number Ten Best Cities for Jobs, Forbes, 2011) that bucked national trends and creates a unique sense of place that benefits all Lincolnites.
There are two characteristics about the places we enjoy—they are made up of things we like, and we like them because of the things they evoke in us. I love traveling because I get to visit unfamiliar sites and experience new sensations but also because traveling takes me outside of my personal comfort zone and evokes in me the sense of discovery. In a different but similar manner Lincoln has given me that balanced ledger of things I enjoy: meaningful work, healthy lifestyle, and material comfort at the same time it allows me to participate in activities, like being an engaged parent or a member of my community, that make me feel good about how I am living my life. Living in NYC, I felt like I was caught in a classic paradox—living in one of the world’s greatest cities but unable to enjoy it because of the price tag that goes along with having all the cool goodies (and address), requiring that you work all the time, leaving you no time to enjoy your life in that NYC address.
Not so in today’s Lincoln. As my ever so partial, and personal, listing, and those of numerous other magazines and online best-of lists illustrate, Lincoln has thoughtfully developed more than its fair share of things to enjoy, and these attributes come gift wrapped in a more relaxed pace and affordability that allows us all to actually enjoy them. In today’s hyper-paced world, that is a unique combination, and one worthy of the attention we are now receiving. Enjoy the