This article originally appeared on urbanOut in May 2010 and gained a lot of attention in the Columbus blogosphere so I figured it should be shared on Indy’s prominent urban blog as well.
People love to compare cities and pit them against each other in an attempt to understand strengths and weaknesses of places, analyze overall regional urban patterns, and try to learn from other place’s successes and failures. One comparison I always hear, see, and read is between Indianapolis and Columbus, two cities that often get a ‘twin cities of the eastern Midwest’ tag. I find this characterization particularly interesting given that I have lived in both places for an extended period of time and have thus developed an understanding of each. While I completely appreciate this comparison, I can’t help but notice many dissimilarities as well, ultimately leading me to believe that Indianapolis and Columbus are twins on paper, yet opposites at their (urban) core.
As I said, the two regions appear very similar. Below is a breakdown of a few similarities and differences:
Indianapolis City Population: 798,382
Columbus City Population: 754,885
Indianapolis Metro Population: 1,715,459
Columbus Metro Population: 1,773,120
Indianapolis Population Growth (2009): 1.3% (22,862)
Columbus Population Growth (2009): 1.2% (22,026)
Indianapolis Net Migration (2009): 7,034
Columbus Net Migration (2009): 5,018
On top of this basic demographic data, other similarities exist, including the fact that both cities are capitals thriving in struggling states and blooming later than traditional powerhouse cities in the Midwest region, thus bucking the trend of the Rust Belt. Further, both feature similar transportation models with similar sized bypass highways, both intersected by I-70, both lacking rail transportation options, and both known for their dominant car-culture. Both regions also have a similar north-south divide, with the more prestigious, elite suburbs found on the north and the middle to lower-class suburbs found on the south. I could go on and on about other similar statistics and data (ie. each regions Hispanic population growth numbers are very comparable) but I think the point has been made: Columbus and Indianapolis, on paper, seem very similar and thus worthy of the comparison and scrutiny these two cities often face.
Ultimately though, I am more interested in the similarities and differences of what makes the two regions unique – their urban cores. From this perspective, I find the two regions quite dissimilar, both in physical form as well as social attitude. Below is a breakdown of a few key physical differences between Columbus and Indianapolis:
Indianapolis – Strong downtown, overall weak neighborhoods, mainly single family, wood-frame, housing, very spread out (as a metro).
Columbus – Weak downtown, overall strong neighborhoods, numerous brick-style row houses, relatively dense by Midwest standards (as a metro).
On top of these physical disparities, I believe the two cities have different attitudes that ultimately manifest themselves in each cities respective urban core. Columbus has an urban spirit not found in Indianapolis, resulting in places like the Short North, German Village, Victorian Village, and Harrison West – all independent oriented, arts inspired urban neighborhoods that feel authentic, progressive, and on-the-go. Indianapolis’s core is centered on its CBD – a regional center that celebrates conventions, sports arenas, shopping malls, and more traditional dining options that appeal to a wider audience. Places like Mass Ave and Fountain Square do bring their own uniqueness to the table, but they lack a sense of sophistication, urban intellect, and cosmopolitan outlook found in Columbus’s core. And ultimately, these attitudinal differences make the urban experience in each city quite dissimilar and unique in their own right.
There are a few reasons why I think these differences exist. First, Columbus has Ohio State, one of the nation’s largest universities and a significant source of energy and excitement towards progressive, urban-minded ideas and ways of life. Indianapolis has IUPUI and Butler, but each simply can’t compare to the size and strength of Ohio State. Second, Columbus has to compete with Cleveland and Cincinnati for attracting people, money, and resources, thus forcing them to ‘up their game’ and create neighborhoods that can compete with Mt. Adams or Clifton in Cincinnati and Ohio City or Tremont in Cleveland. Indianapolis has no such competition within the state. Third, Columbus’s gay and lesbian population is larger and more concentrated than in Indianapolis, providing a bigger population base that is more likely to live in urban cores. And fourth, Columbus is made up of a lot of ex-Clevelanders where Indianapolis has a large ex-Indiana rural population, providing Columbus a population base that is inherently more urban-minded.
What I find most interesting about these differences outside of why they actually exist is what they mean for each regions future. It is my belief that these differences will ultimately prove to be a huge economic and social advantage to Columbus since the American population increasingly desires more urban, unique, and diverse neighborhoods. In time, I expect Columbus to overtake Indianapolis in population and in-migration growth numbers, erase the ‘on-paper’ similarities, and become a true Midwest standout city.