Columbia, Missouri is located in the middle of the middle. Founded in 1820 as the county seat and home to the University of Missouri, it had a 2015 estimated population of 119,108, and it is the principal city of the Columbia Metropolitan Area, the state's fourth most populous metropolitan area. As a midwestern college town, the city has a reputation for progressive politics, public art, and powerful journalism. The tripartite establishment of Stephens College (1833), the University of Missouri (1839), and Columbia College (1851) has long made the city a center of education, culture, and athletic competition. These three schools surround Downtown Columbia on the east, south, and north. Originally an agricultural town, the cultivation of the mind is Columbia's chief economic concern today. Never a major center of manufacturing, the city also depends on healthcare, insurance, and technology businesses. Cultural institutions include the State Historical Society of Missouri, the Museum of Art and Archaeology, and the annual True/False Film Festival.
The city is built upon the forested hills and rolling prairies of Mid-Missouri, near the Missouri River valley, where the Ozark Mountains begin to transform into plains and savanna; limestone forms bluffs and glades while rain carves caves and springs which water the Hinkson, Roche Perche, and Petite Bonne Femme creeks. Surrounding the city, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, Mark Twain National Forest, and Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge all form a greenbelt preserving sensitive and rare environments. The city has been called the "Athens of Missouri" or a reference to its classic beauty and educational emphasis, but is more commonly called "CoMo".