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20 Towns Similar to Ann Arbor, MI

Ann Arbor, Michigan cityscape.

Like my hometown, Ann Arbor is an inclusive city sprawled around an influential university. Both places are marked by the natural beauty that seals their reputation as sought-after places to live. If you wonder about reliving the familiar in a strange place, a curiosity about mirror cities sets in.

We profile 20 urban centers that variously echo Ann Arbor’s profile as liveable mid-sized green university towns with a tech footprint and progressive cultural edge. Ten of these cities and towns are in North America, and the rest are situated in Africa, Europe, Asia, and The Antipodes.

We begin by considering the features that define Ann Arbor, giving rise to its appeal.

A Look At Ann Arbor

Historic State Theatre in Ann Arbor.

Also known as “Tree Town,” Ann Arbor is a modern Midwest American town in the ambit of the Great Lakes. Nestled on the Huron river, it is an oasis town with a reputation as a safe place, offering a desirable quality of life.

State Michigan
County Washtenaw
Population 120.735
Surface Area 29 m2
Gross Metro Product $25.6B

 

Geography

Ann Arbor is the seat of Washtenaw County. It is the fifth-largest city in Michigan and is contained in the Greater Detroit Statistical Area.

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3% of the city’s landmass is attributable to the Huron. The land on the banks of the river is the steepest and the seat of the agriculture and fruit growing in the region. Away from the river banks, the landscape consists of valleys and hills.

Both the official name and city nickname refer to the city’s signature status as a tree shelter. It is surrounded by forest, and the city’s streets are lined with 50,000 trees. An equal number adorn the 157 municipal parks. Lakes and farmlands fill the outer surrounds.

The city’s residential neighborhoods are styled according to architectural designs that date to the 19th-century classic style and early 20th century designs. Ranch and kit houses are a popular feature. In the Old West Side of the downtown neighborhood, well-preserved 19th-century buildings are to be found.

The climate is typically Midwestern, ranging from cold, snowy winters to hot, humid summers. Snow tends to fall in the winter between November and April and sometimes starts in October.

History

The Potawatomi settled in the area around 1774, founding two villages there. Fifty years later, the settlement was rechristened by two land speculators – Elisha Rumsey and John Allen – who named the place for its lush forestry and their wives (both of whom were named Ann.)

Two years later, An Arbor became the county seat, and in 1833 was formally incorporated as a village. When Lansing won the bid to serve as the State Capitol of Michigan, the land earmarked for the Capitol was offered to the University of Michigan, which relocated from Detroit, promptly stamping its character and influence permanently over the town.

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By 1851 Ann Arbor was officially chartered as a city. Despite this, the population declined markedly during the depression of 1873, climbing in the early 1880s on the back of an upswing in European immigration.

In its recent history, the city has faced increasing urban sprawl, gentrification, and property inflation. This has led to property development ringfencing through a greenbelt program and a broader debate about how to restrict growth so as to preserve the fabric of the city.

Economy

While much of the Greater Detroit area’s economy has been devasted by the collapse of the auto industry, Ann Arbo has benefited from an inbuilt hedge. For over a century and a half, the city’s life has centered around its anchor tenant – the university of Michigan. The university directly employs thirty-five thousand workers, twelve thousand in the medical center.

Apart from teaching, Umich has spawned a thriving research industry. The three key areas are technology, medical and automotive research, much of which is driven by Umich’s $1.5B annual research budget. R&D efforts grown within the university are often spun off into independent private companies.

While Detroit has been a manufacturing hub in the car corridor, Ann Arbor continues to serve the sector through research. Toyota Motor North America has its R&D headquarters in the city, as do startups like New Eagle.

The leading tech sectors represented in Ann Arbor are Data Security, IT & Software Platforms, Software Development & Consulting, and Life Sciences. Key Companies include Atomic Object, Clinic, Saganworks, and The Terumo Cardiovascular Group.

The university’s graduate pool and local economic stimulators like Ann Arbour SPARK continue to position Tree Town as a research-driven innovative hub. Ann Arbor’s most famous corporate citizen is Domino’s Pizza, which maintains its Federal Headquarters in the city.

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Culture

Like its economy, Ann Arbor’s cultural life is shaped by the liberal arts university at the heart of the city. This is a young city whose median age of 27 is eleven years lower than the federal average. The verdant outdoors are a second determinant of the recreational life of the place.

Umich houses a number of performing arts groups and facilities. It has museums of archeology, art, science, and natural history. The University Musical Society, founded in 1879, is a prolific performer – hosting five events per month throughout the year.

This includes international artists in theatre, music, and dance.

The area styles itself as an urban oasis with a densely forested urban landscape. This leads to big-city attractions, as well as wide-open spaces for scenic trail exploration. Outdoor activities include canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, tubing, and kayaking on the Huron River.

The county impeccably maintains over one hundred and fifty parks, which provide opportunities for picnicking and hikes. The adjacent city of Chelsea lies to the West and is a portal to mountain biking trails that wind through expansive parks.

College sports are a big part of the city’s cultural life, with the crown jewel Michigan Stadium -known colloquially as “The Big House” – representing the world’s largest American Football stadium. Basketball and Ice Hockey are sports with a popular following in the town.

The city’s politics tilt to the left of the center, with it often being referred to as “The People’s Republic of Ann Arbor.” In the 1960s, it was a hub of resistance to the Vietnam war. Off the Umich campus, the 1974 city council victory of Kathy Kozachenko was the first US election of an openly gay public servant.

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The city has a long history of openness to marijuana, passing charter amendments in 1974 to lessen the penalties for possession. Subsequent consistent actions have positioned the city as a hub for medical marijuana.

Its denizens are referred to as “Ann Arborites” or “townies.” Apart from “Tree Town,” the place is also referred to as A2.

Attractions

Ann Arbor’s cultural attractions straddle the arts, outdoors, cuisine, and civic life.

Arts & Culture

Apart from an array of smaller galleries and museums that make the town’s cultural pastiche, a few key institutions stand out:

  • University of Michigan Museum of Art: This museum houses an art collection representing 150 years of curating. It is a beautiful building that serves as a venue for events.
  • University of Michigan Museum of Natural History: In 2019, this museum opened a new facility in the Biological Sciences Building. It was designed to showcase research, offering the public views of ongoing live laboratory activity.
  • Kelsey Museum of Archeology: With a focus on Egyptian, Classical, and Near Eastern archeology, this museum houses more than 100,000 artifacts, 1,500 of which are on permanent display. The UMich graduate program in Classic Archeology and Art is headquartered here, and three special exhibitions are presented each year.
  • Hands-on Museum: This is an innovative and modern interactive museum in which visitors from all ages can immerse themselves in science and technology education through presentations based on STEaM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics) methodology.

Downtown Districts

City life unfolds over four main districts:

  • Kerrytown: This district sits on the Northside of downtown and showcases a history that dates back to the mid 19th Its tree-lined, walkable streets house delis, artisanal craft shops, eateries, and vintage markets. It is named for Kerry county in Ireland and maintains a similar old-country charm.
  • State Street: This is the main hub for the city’s artistic interface. It houses the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and the University Musical Society, as well as the Michigan and State theatres – hosts to the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which kicks of the visual arts calendar each year. It is home to one of the four fairs that constitute the Ann Arbor Arts Fair.
  • Main Street: The heart of Ann Arbor’s vibrance, Main Street has a variety of eateries, meeting venues, music joints, and galleries. Its book shops are sought after, with Literati and Crazy Wisdom popular choices. It has a busy bar scene and regular Taste of Ann Arbor events, showcasing the town’s cuisine.
  • South University: This is the area where the civic interface is most clearly influenced by the university. The historic part of the district was fashioned in the 1920s and 1930s, based on striking Tudor Gothic architecture. The international student population has marked the diversity of the culinary offerings in this part of town. It is easy to explore on foot.
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Farmers Markets

Washtenaw County houses fourteen farmers’ markets that are active during the summer and spring. The farm-to-table movement accesses home kitchens, dining rooms, and restaurants, bringing farm fare straight to diners.

The Pittsfield Township And Westside Farmers Markets target family consumers. White Lotus Farms and provides artisanal handicrafts. The broader farming community offers models of sustainable cultivation with local sourcing.

Outdoors

As a civic arboretum, Ann Arbor offers a spread of activities in its greened exteriors.

  • Huron River: Officially the US’s 18th National Water Trail, the Huron snakes through Ypsilanti, Dexter, and Ann Arbor. It offers a padding trail of 104 miles and winter activities that include snowshoeing, skiing, and ice skating. In the warmer months, kayaking, canoeing, and riverbank picnicking avail.
  • Fishing: Small-mouth bass are plentiful in the Huron, and the Ypsilanti-based Schulz Operations provides a full range of fly fishing gear. Fishing areas are spread through state and city parks, and tours are available to learn the terrain as well as the craft.
  • Hiking and Trails: The verdant surroundings offer more than forty hiking trails of varying levels of difficulty. Birdwatching opportunities abound. Favored paths are Bird Hills Trail, Nicols Arboretum Loop Trail, Saginaw Forest Loop, and Lillie Park South Trails Loop. Some of these feature bike trails, and overall they’re a treat for walkers with an arboreal interest.
  • Parks and Gardens: In the array of public parks and gardens, the Matthei Botanical Gardens offer a rare showcasing of biodiversity. Fuller Park contains athletic areas and a 50-yard outdoor pool. The Sharon Mills park seats a historic mill on the banks of the River Raisin.
  • Golf: Eagle’s Crest offers a Short Game area for practicing. A magnificent full course is available at Fox Hills. Putting aside, Bandermer Park features a disk golf course for frisbee lovers.
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10 Similar US Towns

Residents or visitors who like the Washtenaw feel may be inclined to seek it elsewhere. Guided by an impression of the town, we profile ten US locales that reprise the ambient spirit of the arbor. Like Ann Arbor, each is unique in its own inimitable way.

1. Berkeley, California

Berkeley, California university building campus.

State California
County Alameda
University University of California
Population 124.321
Surface Area 17.7m2
Gross Metro Product $B8.2B

Named after an empiricist philosopher, this town nestles against the ridge of the Berkeley Hills. It is viewed as one of the most socially progressive US cities and hosts one of the world’s largest religious study institutes. The town has a small, diversified economy, with Bayer and Siemers among the few top employers.

2. Ithaca, New York

Stunning architecture in Ithaca, New York.

State New York
County Tompkins (Seat)
University Cornell
Population 30.569
Surface Area 6.1m2
Gross Metro Product $6.4B

Ithaca sits in a valley abutting Lake Cayuga. The economy is dominated by education, agriculture, technology, and tourism. The Moosewood Restaurant and Ithaca Farmer’s market are leading businesses.

Ithaca is home to a bustling live music scene spanning many genres and including international artists.

The Lab of Ornithology and Cayuga National Centre provides public access to science.

3. Corvallis, Oregon

Aerial shot of Resser Stadium, Corvallis, Oregon.

State Oregon
County Benton
University Oregon State
Population 54.426
Surface Area 14.3m2
Gross Metro Product $5B

Corvallis lives at the join of the Willamette River and the northwest foothills of the Oregon Coast Range. Bald Hill looks out over the town. Oregon State Uni is the main employer, with print and health tech companies occupying top slots. Forbes has ranked the town as business-friendly.

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McDonald State Forest is the key outdoor access point.

4. Lawrence, Kansas

Bloch School of Management building in Kansas City.

State Kansas
County Douglas
University Kansas
Population 94.932
Surface Area  34.26m2
Gross Metro Product $4.5B

Lawrence lives at the border between the Osage Plains and the Dissected Till Plains. It lies between the Wakarusa and Kansas Rivers, with several creeks intersecting, coloring the city’s various parks. The varied architecture includes styles from the Romanesque, Gothic, Revival, Victorian, and Tudor styles.

Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Hallmark Cards have a strong commercial presence.

5. Oxford, Ohio

Oxford, Ohio geography map.

State Ohio
County Butler
University Miami
Population 23.035
Surface Area 6.68m2
Gross Metro Product $24B*

*County aggregate

This college town hosts a large number of festivals and events throughout the year. The Uptown Music Concerts and Oxford Wine Festival are top on the list of events. Education and libraries dominate employment in this town. Twentynine miles of hiking trail is accessible via two forests lush with maples, beech, and oak, offering vistas of Lake Acton.

6. Madison, Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin aerial view.

State Wisconsin
County Dane
University Wisconsin-Madison
Population 269.840
Surface Area 94.03m2
Gross Metro Product $52B

The only US state capital on our list, “The City of Four Lakes,” sits on an isthmus abutting lakes Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa, and Mendota. The city’s Native American effigy mounds represent the dentist cluster in the Union amid richly varied civic architecture. Biotech and Health IT have driven recent economic growth.

7. Boulder, Colorado

Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado.

State Colorado
County Boulder
University Colorado; Naropa
Population 108.250
Surface Area 27.4m2
Gross Metro Product $30.2B

Naropa – America’s first Buddhist university – combines with the University of Colorado to give this town its hip college feel. The city is surrounded by open green space, and a building ordinance prevents the erection of tall structures that obscure the view. Artisanal movements, science institutes, and tech companies are the major employers after the university.

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8. Ames, Iowa

Ames, Iowa, aerial view of Jack Trice Stadium.

State Iowa
County Story
University Iowa State
Population 66.427
Surface Area 27.7m2
Gross Metro Product $6B

The Iowa State University started with the Farm House, which currently serves as a National Historic Landmark and museum. Over 60 historic buildings dot the campus. Iowa Creek and the South Skunk River pass through the town, which was founded as a station stop in 1864.

Today Ames consistently scores high on quality-of-life metrics.

9. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

Champaign, Urbana, McFarland Carillon.

State Illinois
County Champaign; Ford; Piatt
University Illinois
Population 231.891
Surface Area 23.25m2
Gross Metro Product $44B

Champaign-Urbana (“Churbana” to the locals) is one of the US’s greenest cities. The largest on our list, it has more of an urban feel than its peers. In spite of its size, the town is bereft of traffic congestion and urban sprawl.

It is cradled by a farming community and offers a spread of cultural activities.

10. Blacksburg, Virginia

Glen Alton Recreation Area in Blacksburg, Virginia.

State Virginia
County Montgomery
University Virginia Tech
Population 42.620
Surface Area 19.77m2
Gross Metro Product $8B*

*Blacksburg-Christianburg-Radford District

The truest of our college towns, students outnumber non-students 2-1. The town lives in the twin shadows of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains. Virginia Tech acts as an innovation magnet, with Honeywell, MOOG, and the National Weather Service part of the town’s tech contingent.

Over 100 countries are represented during the annual International Street Fair.

10 Similar International Towns

Searching further afield, we now profile ten global towns that echo the flavor of Ann Arbor. More so than their US counterparts, there will be a loss in translation, but adjusting for continental cultural differences, we might glimpse the reflection of the arbor. The global scope allows a diverse reinterpretation of Washtenaw.

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1. Lund

Lund, Sweden Grand Hotel building.

Country Sweden
University Lund
Population 91.940
Surface Area 10m2
Economic Sectors Tech; Biotech; Pharma

The Oresund strait separates Lund from the Danish capital Copenhagen. Greenery is provided by four enclosing parks, which contain trees, lakes, and playgrounds. Architecture and cultural traditions date back centuries, with the 4-yearly Lund Carnival having started in 1834.

The town is renowned for amateur choirs and literary figures. Founded in 1085, Scandanavia’s oldest school – the Cathedral School – graces the city.

2. Debrecen

The famous church in Debrecen, Hungary.

County Hungary
University Debrecen
Population 201.112
Surface Area 178m2 *
Economic Sectors Education; Agriculture; Health

*Includes county

The Calvinist College, founded in 1538 after the Reformation, established Debrecen as a European cultural center. It is the site of the Bela Bartok International Choir Competition and basks in a humid, continental climate.

Educational institutions include a school of rock music in the city. Main attractions include the Reformed Great Church, Deri Museum, and the Flower Carnival.

3. Minamuonomu

County Japan
University International University of Japan
Population 61.624
Surface Area 225.7m2
Economic Sectors Seasonal tourism; Agriculture

This college city is bounded by Lake Okutadami and the Northern Echigo-Sanzan mountains. The Uono River snakes through most of the town, with the popular Yuzawa ski resort in the south.

As part of Japan’s koshihikari (rice-growing regions), the area is abutted by large paddy fields, peppered with numerous onsen (hot springs.)

4. Glasgow City

An urban Scotland town in Glasgow.

County Scotland
University Glasgow; Glasgow Caledonian; Strathclyde; Royal Conservatoire
Population 612.040
Surface Area 68m2
Economic Sectors Diverse

Ann Arbor is out-leaved by “The Dear Green Place,” which has more green space per capita than any other European city. The first UK city to get UNESCO’s City of Music designation, it hosts over 130 music events per year.

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It sits on the banks of the River Clyde, with the River Kelvin twisting through.

5. Salamanca

Salamanca city square, Spain.

County Spain
University Salamanca
Population 143.978
Surface Area 9.7m2
Economic Sectors Education; Tourism; Agriculture

Cradled by several hills along the run of the Tormes River, the 900-year-old university centers a town declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Salamanca University is the third oldest in the Western world.

The university dominates economic life, with eighty percent of jobs occurring in the education and service sectors. Holy Week features solemn processions through the city.

6. Palmerston North

UCOL new building, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

County New Zealand
University Massey
Population 84.639
Surface Area 29.7m2
Economic Sectors Education; Research; Defense

Palmerston North is bounded by the Tararua and Ruahine mountain ranges, near the North bank of the Manawatu River. The town has a rich cultural life, with independent galleries, museums, and performing arts companies. The Cathedral of The Holy Spirit establishes Palmerston as a cathedral city.

The birthplace of GlaxoSmithKline, Palmerston North, has a reputation for business innovation.

7. Makhanda

County South Africa
University Rhodes
Population 67.264
Surface Area 25.1m2
Economic Sectors Education; Tourism

Formerly “Grahamstown,” this secluded college town hosts South Africa’s largest arts fair, the National Arts Festival. It is home to the National English Literary Museum, the National Library for the Blind, and the International Library of African Music.

The city rests against the slopes of the Suurberg mountains, adjacent to the source of the Kowie River.

8. Wollongong

Sea Stanwell Tops, Wollongong, Sydney.

County Australia
University Wollongong
Population 219.798
Surface Area 221m2
Economic Sectors Mining; Manufacturing

The city wedges between the Illawarra Escarpment – a sandstone precipice – to the West and the Tasman Sea to its east. The Wollongong Conservatorium of Music and the Merrigong Theatre Company lead the city’s rich art offering.

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There are seventeen beaches and many parks. Bushwalking on nearby Mount Kembla and Mount Keira complement rock fishing, swimming, jogging, and skating as popular “Gongster” pastimes.

9. Thika

Thika, Kenya residential house.

County Kenya
University Mount Kenya
Population 279.429
Surface Area 26.8m2
Economic Sectors Agriculture; Coffee

Mount Kenya Uni was founded in 2008, making Thika the youngest college town on our list. Fourteen distinct waterfalls make a breathtaking spectacle at the town’s edge. Thika sits on a plain which tilts towards the Kenyan highlands. The Chania and Thika rivers meet at its Northwestern edge.

10. Akureyri

Akureyri, Iceland mountains landscape.

County Iceland
University Akureyri
Population 18.191
Surface Area 53m2
Economic Sectors Ports; Fishing

Founded by the Norse Viking Helgi, this town has diverse natural geography. It sits on a fjord, surrounded by tall mountains with the Glera River flowing around. Folk culture is prevalent, with an annual medieval festival held in the summer.

Conclusion

For the traveler hooked on Michigan’s jewel city, similar destinations beckon in the United States and the world at large. Any one of the 20 profiled places can stake a rightful claim to be Ann Arbor’s sister city, where any denizen of Tree Town would feel the echoes of home.

References:

Money.cnn.com – BEST PLACES TO LIVE Money’s list of America’s best small cities

Annarbor.org – Home Page

Michigan.org – Ann Arbor

Purewow.com – The 25 Best College Towns in America

Wsj.com – Ann Arbor and Warren: A Tale of Two Economies

Bestcollegereviews.org – 50 Best College Towns America

Forbes.com – Ann Arbor, MI

Japanvisitor.com – Ochanomizu Area Guide

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4icu.org – Mount Kenya University

Economy.id.com.au – Wollongong City

Theculturetrip.com – 11 of the Best Places to Study Abroad in Latin America

Young.scot – Explore Your Scottish University Town