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Shorewood Hills tops new edition of 'Rating the Suburbs'

Fitchburg, Belleville, Middleton, Black Earth round out top 5

By Mary Erpenbach

Everyone knows what a suburbs 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.

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