Is Colorado Springs one of America’s great cities?

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on October 15, 2018. It can also be found online here.

At his recent “State of the City” address, Mayor John Suthers claimed that “Colorado Springs has taken its place among the great cities of America.”

He’s not the first Springs mayor to concern himself with greatness. Mayor John Robinson wrote in 1901: “It is profitless to indulge in prophecy, but I believe Colorado Springs will be a great city (someday).”

Cities matter because, as the scholar Edward Glaeser has written, they “magnify humanity’s strengths.” So it’s worth considering at least two important questions prompted by the mayor’s assertion: What makes a great American city? And does Colorado Springs make the cut?

First, great cities can be measured in at least three ways: height, breadth, depth (or a mixture of the three). “Height” indicates size and scale—think New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. “Breadth” comes in the way of diversity or some great cultural contribution: certainly New Orleans, and maybe Miami or Nashville. And “depth” speaks to a historical moment or meaningful impact: Gettysburg for its battlefield, Santa Fe for its art and culture, or Rochester (in Minnesota) for health via the world-renowned Mayo Clinic.

Where does Colorado Springs fit on that scale? Objectively, this city has an awfully good “founding father” in Gen. William Palmer, and is home to a unique population where roughly half the local economy can be traced in some way to national security. There’s also that thoroughly American institution — Team USA — which resides here.

The city enjoys a one-of-a-kind geography as home to “America’s Mountain,” Pike’s Peak, the easternmost and therefore most prominent Front Range Fourteener. Not to mention the Garden of the Gods (twice the size of New York’s vaunted Central Park), Manitou Incline, and rocky red trails as far as the feet can travel.

But beautiful vistas alone do not a great city make, as the mayor’s speech acknowledged when he said, “we must continue the task of building a city that matches our scenery.” The mayor also hinted as his fondness for the historian David McCullough, so he may be familiar with McCullough’s 1994 speech at the University of Pittsburgh, “Civilization and the City.”

In it, McCullough proposed a partnership between that great American city and its resident university. He suggested the creation of an academic program specifically devoted to Pittsburgh — a multidisciplinary approach covering its history, economy, public health, government, urban development, social issues, and environmental engineering. In short, this would leverage the proximity of the university’s academic firepower to wield against wicked city problems, as well to inspire and educate a thoughtful cohort of committed citizens and public servants to lead the city into an uncertain future.

Why not here? Why not work with Colorado College (as long-time locals), the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (taking advantage of their yet-undefined new downtown location), and Pikes Peak Community College (as the state’s second-largest community college) — to develop academic programs at multiple levels that explicitly benefit Colorado Springs? Track talented graduates to positions in city government; smaller surrounding cities, vital to the region, like Manitou Springs and Monument, would benefit as well.

A little over a century ago, Mayor Robinson recorded that his chief concerns were infrastructure-related: roads and water. He was “convinced that our sewer system will have to be remodeled as our city grows” (a sentiment that should bring a fairly wide grin to the current mayor’s face). We ought to learn from this history because we share problems with our pioneer ancestors.

I’m not sure whether Colorado Springs is a great American city yet. I’m skeptical of any rating scheme limited to a few narrow data points or designed to sell travel magazines. I prefer to look to broader measures, not tied to stuff but to people, not tied to temperature but to contributions, and not tied to dollars but to stories. Because what matters most in a great American city is its people, the contributions they make, and the stories that result.

In the final analysis, while I may not be certain if Colorado Springs makes the cut, I believe it can if the mayor works to harness and fuse local academic power to city learning. Because one thing is for certain: great American cities learn and grow. This one should too.

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