I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and I moved here without much intention of staying longer than a couple months. I saw it as a jumping off point to get to a bigger city like Chicago, so it has taken me quite a while to warm up to the town. (And it's a cold town; can you really blame me?) Now that I've been here for over a year, my eyes are beginning to open to its many strengths. Instead of simply seeing an insular community, racial divisions and a lack of cultural activity, I am starting to recognize the fascinating people around me, the racially integrated spaces that do exist, and the incredible restaurants and artistic opportunities available to me every day, for a fraction of the price I'd pay in a big city. Milwaukee is slowly becoming my home.

This contest is going to introduce you to everyday people who are working together to improve their neighborhoods and towns, with results to show for it.

When we began planning our Strongest Town contest several months ago, I couldn't help but assess my own town in light of the questions we intended to ask contest applicants.  My first instinct was to respond "Of course my town isn't strong," as I think many of you also responded when you initially heard about the contest.  Too often city builders get bogged down in depressing numbers like municipal debt and road spending. When I see the speeding cars out my window and the vacant lots in my downtown, I think, "Boy, we've got a long road ahead of us." And we do. But that's not the whole story...

While our communities' challenges are important and a big focus of the work we do at Strong Towns, so too are the positive examples. The Strongest Town contest begins this week, and it’s about just that: injecting some positivity into our discourse. It’s also about showing you some fantastic examples of towns that are making it work, with everything from tiny parklets to big budget overhauls. This contest is going to introduce you to everyday people who are working together to improve their neighborhoods and towns, with results to show for it.

The applications came from all over the country, from towns big and small. We asked them to tell us about their transportation systems, their downtowns, their citizen engagement, and more.  We had a very tough time narrowing it down to our Sweet Sixteen, but we’re pleased to introduce them today. Here are the initial match-ups:

We noticed some interesting trends in the towns who applied: many had universities or community colleges. Almost all had historic downtowns which they worked hard to preserve. One of our application questions asked how each town had dealt with a recent challenge, and many applicants answered with a story about their town recovering from recent natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding. One final commonality between these applications is that we were pleased to see that many people took our suggestion and applied as a team, getting input from city staff, community leaders and their neighbors. This is exactly the type of attitude we need to build strong towns.

Here’s how this is contest is going to work

We need your help! Today through Wednesday, we’re publishing three posts with match-ups in our "Sweet Sixteen" (two on Wednesday). Where possible, we’ve tried to match up the initial competitions between towns in the same state or region. In each post, we’ll include the answers both towns submitted for their initial applications and give you the chance to vote between each match-up. Then on Friday, we’ll tally all your votes and come up with our Elite Eight. First round voting closes at 11pm Eastern on Thursday, March 17. Subsequent rounds will begin next week, and will feature photographs, podcasts and a final webinar showdown. It's going to be an action-packed month.

Now, we don’t condone gambling at Strong Towns, but since this is a bracket competition, we do encourage you to initiate some low-key bets with your friends and fellow Strong Towns members. Maybe the loser has to help weed the community garden? Or the winner gets a neighborhood potluck hosted in her honor? Get creative. We’ve made the initial bracket into a downloadable PDF for your use. 

We hope you’ll all read the entries and vote throughout the week. Of course, we'll be running regular content throughout the week in addition to contest-related posts.

In conclusion, we want to recognize the many towns who applied for this competition, but didn’t quite make the cut. We had an extremely hard time narrowing the list and these towns demonstrated many strong characteristics too. They include: Hanover, NH, Ames, IA, Wausau, WI, Nolanville, TX, Northamton, MA, Cornwall, NY, Keene, NH, Lancaster, CA, and Charlottesville, VA. Thank you to everyone who applied.

(Top photo by Andrew Price)

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