The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

In A New Place

View from scenic Grandview Drive in Peoria.  Source:

As I noted in my previous post, I’ve relocated to Peoria, IL to accept a new opportunity.  I’m ecstatic about the opportunity and I hope to be a positive influence on the growth and development of a wonderful region.

Folks who have taken the time (and had the patience) to read some of the earliest pieces on this blog know that an early focus here was on the status of midsize Midwest cities.  Early efforts to highlight the work occurring in midsize Midwest cities led to this post that attempts to develop a typology for midsize cities, and features on cities like Saginaw, MI and Muncie, IN.  I later abandoned that as issues like Detroit’s bankruptcy, gentrification and other matters sprouted to the surface.

But there’s a reason I chose midsize Midwest cities as a focus for the blog at one time.  For some time, I’ve recognized that, nationally and internationally, there is a revolution going on in our understanding of cities.  As humanity begins to tip the scales in favor of living an urban lifestyle as opposed to a rural one, more and more people are working to discover what makes cities tick.  This revolution is evident in the creative and innovative ways cities are utilizing bike-share and car-share systems to move people around, the explosion of protected bike lines throughout cities, and the ways that technology is being utilized to improve the user experience for city dwellers.  More and more people are finding ways to pore through the reams of data that cities produce and better our understanding of city function.  City governments are increasingly learning the value of transparency.  And this revolution leads to pieces like this that suggest that we may be moving to a point where scientists could produce models on how cities evolve.  This is an exciting period for cities.

Not all cities, however, have felt the impact of this revolution.  In the U.S., the cities that were the early beneficiaries of this revolution were the our large “global” cities, like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.  Cities next on the urban hierarchy, like Seattle, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Denver and others were next to see the benefits of the urban revolution.  Recently, the hard-hit cities of the Rust Belt, like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Cincinnati and my hometown of Detroit, are beginning to see elements of the urban revolution filter down to them.

But what of those midsize Midwest cities?  Many have yet to witness the transformations that are taking place in larger cities.  And take note — this is not to suggest that midsize Midwest cities transform themselves into Heartland versions of New York or San Francisco.  They will not be, nor should they.  But they can benefit from the experiences of larger cities to become more efficient, more transparent, more creative, more innovative, more sustainable — and ultimately, more livable.

Back to Peoria.  Here are a few observations from my very short time here so far:

Peoria is a substantial city.  Several years of living in central Indiana afforded me an opportunity to see midsize Midwest cities up close.  I half expected Peoria (and by that I mean the entire metro area) to be similar in scale to South Bend or Evansville.  I’ve found now that Peoria may be more similar to a city like Grand Rapids.  It’s probably a cliche to say so, but Peoria offers big city scale and amenities with small city sensibilities.  The longtime legacy of Caterpillar Corp., the region’s signature corporation, plays a big role in that.  So does the city’s heritage as an agricultural production and research center.

Peoria is a quintessential river city.  There is a certain vibe that river cities have in their downtowns and surrounding areas, and Peoria has it.  The street orientation to the river, the river manufacturing that takes advantage of barge traffic, Peoria has just like St. Louis and Louisville.  In fact, downtown Peoria seems like a smaller version of downtown St. Louis, and its neighborhoods remind me of Indianapolis.

Peoria has topography.  The Illinois River created a wonderful valley in this part of the state.  It’s no wonder that Henri de Tonti made Peoria the earliest European settlement in Illinois in 1691.  The bluffs on either side offer excellent views across the river.  And a flatlander like me has to wonder how I’ll get along on Peoria streets in the winter.

I’m excited to learn much more of what the city has to offer.

2 Responses to “In A New Place”

  1. Alon

    I'm curious: how dominant is Caterpillar in Peoria? Does it have the political power of a dominant employer, like a university in a university town? There aren't a lot of company towns in developed countries today, and the ones that do exist tend to be small, so I'm curious what it's like in a medium-size city.


  2. Pete Saunders

    Alon, sorry I'm so late to this. To answer your question, Caterpillar is every bit as dominant in Peoria as I've ever seen in any single-industry town, whether universities or auto companies. Caterpillar is by far the region's largest employer, employing 3x as many people as the next largest employer. Cat suppliers abound and they're doing well. Peoria has other large employers as well. Peoria is a big \”eds and meds\” town too, with 3 hospitals, one part of the University of Illinois' medical school, and Bradley University. But Caterpillar rules here and is a benevolent ruler.



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