Illinois Sister Cities Draw Students and Culture Fans to Central Illinois
While Illinois may be best known for the bustling city of Chicago, another must-see community with rich history and contemporary appeal sits about 130 miles to the south. Champaign and its sister city, Urbana, are home to the University of Illinois, or simply U of I. However, beyond the university, Champaign has a distinct personality that reflects its placemaking excellence.
With 87,000 residents, Champaign ranks as the 9th largest city in Illinois. With another 42,000 residents in Urbana, the area is a population center in the heart of Illinois. The region appealed to French settlers in the early 1800s with its fertile farmlands who made their homes near Champaign and the settlement of Urbana, just two miles away. To transport their crops across the prairie to sell in other towns, Urbana farmers relied on the railroad network in Champaign. The small gap between the two towns later proved to be the perfect place for the founders of the Illinois Industrial University to build the institution that would later become the University of Illinois.
While much of Champaign-Urbana’s modern history centers around the story of western expansion and development, many Native American tribes predated the arrival of the French, likewise drawn to the region’s fertile soil. The University of Illinois named its athletic teams, The Fighting Illini, to honor the Illiniweck (or the Illini) tribe, which consisted of several smaller tribes that occupied the entire Mississippi River Valley, including the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, and many others.
To preserve other aspects of its history, Champaign recently established an African American Heritage Trail. Dedicated in 2021, its mission is to educate and celebrate 170 years’ worth of African American history of Champaign County. Featured landmarks include the Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the community’s first Black churches, and Homer Park, in Homer, Illinois, which served as an amusement park and site for church outings, religious revivals, and other celebrations in the early 1900s.
Much of Champaign’s contemporary story focuses on the University, a booming economic engine for the local community, supporting more than 13,000 jobs, according to a 2016 report. To attract new businesses, the City of Champaign Planning and Development Department offers incentive programs in targeted districts to support businesses owned by women, minorities, and socially disadvantaged groups.
As the major economic driver of the area, the University of Illinois helps shape the region’s character. With some 50,000 students enrolled, the U of I carefully considers its impact on the environment and boasts a sustainability plan that serves as a model for other campuses. Within the next year, the university plans to implement five separate projects to support the community: The Green Certification Act, Illinois Climate Action Plan, Environmental Leadership Program, and the campus sustainability contest and challenges. Their focuses range from teaching undergraduate students about environmental policies and corporate sustainability for future careers to conserving light energy by turning off thousands of forgotten lightbulbs across campus. The university aims to reach carbon neutrality or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and it appears to be well on its way to accomplishing this goal.
Beyond the university, cultural and recreational opportunities abound in and around Champaign-Urbana. In the warmer months, the University of Illinois Arboretum and Allerton Park in Monticello, Illinois, (18 miles from Champaign) are popular with locals. The arboretum is home to the Japan House, which celebrates Japanese culture with frequent events, including an annual Matsuri festival.
Allerton Park was named after the artist and philanthropist Robert Allerton, who both owned and designed this unique green space, which features 14 miles of hiking trails, formal gardens with unique statues and sculptures, and Allerton’s century-old mansion open to the public for events and lodging. Another local spot, The Virginia Theatre, has been a community fixture since the early 1920s. Today it still shows films and occasionally hosts musicals. Like most college towns, Champaign-Urbana teems with local bars and restaurants, plus a highly regarded art museum and an ice arena.
While the U of I certainly places these midwestern twin cities on the map, they retain their own appeal and showcase excellent placemaking qualities and distinct community character, making the region a compelling destination to visit, live, or work.