Smile Politely

Chambana is a city

Photo of downtown Champaign at Night. Photo is a black sky with a building lit up in the background and an artistic effect where the redlights and taillights of cars are pulled out to the side of the image.
Sam Logan

Nobody loves to complain about Champaign-Urbana and its shortcomings more than people who live here, us included. One common portrayal,  as illustrated in a recent Reddit post, is that C-U is a charmless flyover town consisting of cornfields, strip malls, and not much else. But frankly, that assessment does us all a disservice not only because it’s simply untrue, but it becomes an argument for accepting why we lack certain services and amenities that one might otherwise expect in a “real” city. That energy doesn’t help when we are trying to recruit more talented professionals to move here and join our ranks.

We’re attempting to settle the argument about what manner of settlement C-U actually is (spoiler: it’s a city — well, two cities!) and use that as a framework to consider not just what we wish we were doing better, but also what amenities we have that make it great for its size.

Champaign and Urbana are separate entities with distinct municipal governments. People often conflate or separate the two based on whim and convenience. We will do the same as we talk about issues in the context of C-U writ large, except in instances where an issue is specific to only Champaign or only Urbana, in which case we will be explicit.

To settle the argument of whether or not Champaign and Urbana are cities is actually very easy. Just go to their respective government websites which are for “The City of Champaign” and “The City of Urbana.” The thing is, a city can largely be defined by self-perception of the residents who live there. Of course there are degrees of urbanization which vary from country to country, but a city is a “human settlement of notable size” which calls itself a city. 

So why is there the persistent impulse to call us just a college town. What is it that we lack that people expect cities to have? 

Airport Woes

People expect cities to be convenient for travel to other cities. Most major cities have an airport and we are no exception. That said, our airport has appallingly limited food options (a situation that we are happy to report will improve this spring) and is shockingly inaccessible by public transportation. Our award-winning MTD bus service will only take you as far as the Savoy Walmart, which is a 35 minute sidewalk-less trek away from the airport. There used to be a bus service to the airport, but when the U of I dropped its aviation program in 2015 it also ceased to be willing to pay its one-third share of the cost of the bus service. We think it’s time to revisit this decision.  

Driving there is an option but you will have to pay $7 per day parking fee. While that may not seem like much, it’s free to park at the Bloomington-Normal airport, which offers more flights from more airlines, and is only about an hour away. 

On the other hand, if you want to skip the fuss and fly out of O’Hare or Midway in Chicago, the availability of shuttle service to the Chicago airports is woefully inadequate. While nobody misses Suburban Express’s racism, Peoria Charter reduced its service schedule during the pandemic and it has never fully recovered. Even Amtrak doesn’t provide a reliable alternative due to frequent delays and lack of a direct route to airports. 


Despite what some business owners both in Champaign and Urbana assert, C-U is not lacking in parking. As we mentioned in our 2019 editorial, the situation is complicated by having three city centers (Downtown Champaign, Campustown at the University of Illinois, and Downtown Urbana) in one community. While it’s easy to dismiss the claim that parking is an issue in Urbana, where almost half of the central business district is covered in parking lots, Downtown Champaign and Campustown are another story.

A recent article in C-U Citizen Access began, “Champaign’s population of about 89,114 only has 1,871 parking meter spaces provided to the public, an average of one parking spot for every 47 Champaign residents — and that figure doesn’t account for visitors and Urbana residents.” The article goes on to share quotes from business owners who assert that a lack of parking is driving away business. Yet there is a huge parking deck on Hill Street, several public lots, and the Clark Bar was recently demolished to make yet another parking lot, this time a private lot for Christie Clinic. 

It might be more constructive to say that the issue isn’t a lack of parking, but rather a lack of convenient or accessible parking made worse by the City of Champaign consistently treating Downtown like a crime zone. People don’t feel safe having to walk a few blocks to their car when stories are out about hired private security being necessary to stave off crime. The reality is gun violence is going down and was never really concentrated in the Downtown area to begin with. 

Campustown parking is actually a nightmare, but it’s unclear that adding more spaces would solve the problem. A more practical solution might be to revisit the petition to make the Green Street area a pedestrian zone, or expand bike lanes. 

Arts & Entertainment

As would be expected of a city, we are fortunate to have the Krannert Center for Performing Arts, the Virginia Theatre, and even State Farm Center, which often host performances of internationally touring music, dance, and theater performances (among other things). What we lack, however, are enough smaller venues to accommodate all the local and regional creativity. 

With the closing of the Art Theater and the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum over the last several years, we also lack an indie movie theater and a children’s museum, two features that one might expect to find in a city. These and other vacant spaces continue to be a reminder that there is a need for revitalization and growth, especially in Downtown and Midtown Champaign. While Urbana deserves credit for the development of the downtown area and continuing investment in public arts, Downtown Champaign is larger and has the potential to serve many people living in our twin cities and surrounding communities. This is why investing in arts and entertainment spaces made our 2024 wish list.

Social Services for the Homeless

Despite some recent progress in both Urbana and Champaign in the last few years opening new shelters for the unhoused, we still do not have enough shelter spaces available for those who need it. Especially for women and children. This was especially poignant over the last week when a severe cold snap made it dangerous for folks to stay outside. In a public Facebook post shared on January 14, Cunningham Township Supervisor Danielle Chynoweth wrote: 

Wednesday we counted 36 people actively living outside in CU. In two days STRIDES expanded by 20 and Cunningham Township Supervisor’s Office put 14 temporarily in hotels with case management. Yesterday we paid the $15, 4 more people needed to remain in Days Inn […] I am so grateful to our Angel Donors, funders, staff and partners that we could do this but is this really what emergency response should look like? 

[…] When you call for fire EMT or police help, they don’t have to cobble together a solution. Why does homeless services?! Local police are asking for an increase in staff by the dozens – and yet we only have two part-time street outreach workers. Think about that as we go into deep freeze.

Both Champaign and Urbana need to step it up in providing services to the unhoused in our cities. 

Having hit some of our most common complaints about the shortcomings of our community, we want to end by saying that for all the things we wish we could improve, there is a lot to be grateful for when it comes to our cities. 

We have access to top-tier health care, a world-class university that attracts world-class arts and performances, a relatively low unemployment rate, and a fabulous array of local businesses and restaurants. We get to look forward to PYGMALION, Ebertfest, Friday Night Live, CU Folk and Roots, and our own CU PrideFest every year, among many other huge community events. We are so much more than “just” a college town. We are twin cities with three downtowns and so much potential that we hope we can live up to in the coming years. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

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