New Ulm: The Urbanists Utopia occasionally profiles small towns and cities throughout Minnesota, case studies that show that urbanism is not a war between the metro and Greater Minnesota. On the contrary, it is often from the Main Streets of small towns that urbanists gain valuable insight.

For example, has previously profiled New Ulm because of a battle over the placement of a new school. Today I am setting aside the school issue and profiling New Ulm to provide an example of an urban small town. Using the Longitudinal Origin-Destination Employment Statistics dataset from the Census Bureau I measured the employment and housing patterns within New Ulm.

With a population of 13,522 it features an intact main street, a college (Martin Luther), a brewery (Schell’s), a river, and downtown parks. Quite a list of an urbanist’s favorite things! Another impressive aspect of New Ulm is the larger number of people who both live and work within New Ulm.



The first map shows the job locations of workers who reside within New Ulm. Some of the workers who reside in New Ulm work in one of the many other small towns surrounding it. However, 63% of the 6977 New Ulm workers work in New Ulm. For a town that is only a couple of square miles it means a large majority of residents could walk or bike to work. The southern area that is red is a more industrial area. The area in the middle of the map is downtown. Educational and medical facilities are represented by the large orange census blocks on the west side of town.


This second map shows the home locations of all employees of jobs located within New Ulm. This map shows a reciprocal of sorts of the first map. Instead of job locations of workers, this map shows home locations of jobs located within the boundary of the town. W2H_NewUlmAs expected the areas outside of downtown are the major residential areas. 45% of the 8,184 jobs located within New Ulm are filled by residents of New Ulm. Most of the census blocks are relatively dense. These are the traditional city blocks that make up almost all of the city. The large yellow blocks on the western side of the city are newer developments that are the only traces of “suburbia”. They are also less dense likely because those blocks are also where the hospital and college grounds are located.

What becomes clear in this analysis is that the ideas of urbanism is not metro vs greater MN. Instead it is about a land use that works better for people and communities.

Elliot Altbaum

About Elliot Altbaum

Elliot Altbaum is a graduate student in Geographic Information Science at Clark University. He grew up in Minneapolis and is excitedly watching it become a better version of itself.

9 thoughts on “New Ulm: The Urbanists Utopia

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele


    I wrote a letter to the New Ulm Journal editor imploring their residents to choose an urban school site rather than a suburban one should they wish to build a new school. I don’t mean to get into that debate again, but the point is this…

    There were tons of responses saying “New Ulm is not urban! It is rural!” Culturally rural? Maybe. But with a very urban land use and very urban potential.

    Our predecessors on this land, people who were settling towns on the frontier, had a much different frame for how urban and rural applied. Urban was a form, and you scaled up as you grew. It wasn’t a matter of degree — a town of 150 could have the same urbanism as a New Ulm of 15,000 or a city of 1,500,000. We need to return to that understanding, of urban places and rural non-places (which have value because of their beauty or their agricultural potential, not because of their subdivision potential).

    This is also an excellent addendum to why the whole frame of metro vs outstate is complete bunk. Much of our outstate populated places are surprisingly urban, and much of our metro is unsuprisingly sub-urban from a land use and mobility perspective. The differences seem to follow cultural fault lines more than anything. And why cultural fault lines may play well for county commissioners and legislature candidates, it doesn’t match up with the real world of land use and how we interact with our fellow humans in the physical space we inhabit.

    -An Urbanist/Ruralist

  2. Matthias LeyrerMatthias Leyrer


    I have been espousing the awesomeness of New Ulm for a long time. I lived there for 12 years and didn’t realize that it was a gem until I left.

    I actually had a dream about how great of a city it was last night. I seriously love that place.

    There’s an interesting point about new ulm that makes it so perfect. It’s boxed in.

    There’s a river blocking expansion to the east, a state park and another river blocking expansion to the south, and an airport hampering expansion to the North. They got lucky with that.

    Being a German community helped as well. New Ulm is the classic case of traditional, incremental expansion. You’re still finding subdivision requests for plots in the valley, no massive subdivisions. They tried it north of town and the artifacts of the expansion are still there, though they’re filling in now.

    Seriously. Everyone go and live there. There’s so much character.

  3. Monte Castleman

    Should note that their were plans for a US 14 bypass at one point, but those were dropped after an origin / destination study revealed most drivers on US 14 were actually going to the city of New Ulm. The new expressway between New Ulm and Nicollet seems to be on hold still, but they’re at least trying to get the new interchange done at the same time the US 14 bridge is replaced in 2018, it’s yet another 1960s structure that’s not aging well.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I hope New Ulm is never bypassed, since a bypass would go up on the hill, and it would induce/subsidize plenty of low-value sprawl.

  4. Alex

    New Ulm does have some big tract housing developments at the top of the Oak St hill, though. They were started in the 00s and have been picking up again in the last few years. I expect them to fill up and continue spreading west along Cty 27 and Hwy 14. There are some smaller developments north of town that also failed in the 00s and haven’t seemed to have rekindled.

    I’m curious, though – is 63% of workers working within the same city all that unusual? I’d expect that to be a typical number for regional centers.

  5. Monte Castleman

    Time to turn back Flandrau State Park to the city or county also. it’s just not in the same class as Itasca, Lake Vermillion, Nerstrand BIg Woods, or Gooseberry Falls. There’s lots of precedent for turning back smaller, more generic units that are in or adjacent to cities. St. Peter, WInona, Owatonna, Redwood Falls, and Austin all formerly had state parks in or adjacent to them.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Then it’s a shame the DNR “turned back” those parks. Flandreau is great because of its proximity to New Ulm – you can camp at a quiet state park, but then bike into town for dinner (big hills both ways, but still). We need those smaller, more generic state parks that don’t get crushed like Itasca and Gooseberry.

  6. Keith Morris

    No pictures? Here’s yet another MN town of just over 10,000 people that offers a much higher density of storefronts on its main street than just abput any “main street” corridor in Minneapolis and here we see a calmed one-way street (Who knew those could exist? Someone tell city council quick!) where there are bump outs with bollards to protect pedestrians from cars and angled parking to ensure the two travel lanes are narrow. They could use some super sharrows along the right hand lane just to drive the point home (pun intended) that pedestrians and cyclists get higher priority hereh, but even without them higher pedestrian traffic and numerous stops likely ensure cars are moving at a slower, more bike-friendly pace.,+MN+56073/@44.315261,-94.46083,3a,75y,321.5h,83.55t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sPw-8du5_5y-LB-q4zHiuoQ!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x87f4ff384cbc3bcb:0x811e70a935c39b9c

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I wouldn’t cite the one-way nature of Minnesota Street as a positive thing. There’s really no reason for it, and it precludes bike and even vehicular access to the downtown. As it stands, the two-lane one way configuration allows zoomzoom for cars that want to get around other cars. The reasonable driver is not allowed to set the pace. This is why I’m just short of being able to say that multilane one way streets are categorically bad, no matter how nice we try to make them (such as Minnesota St in New Ulm).

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