DOWNTOWNS

Top 10 Downtowns

The best downtowns transform the way we live, linking communities and engaging residents.

In the past two decades there has been a resurgence in America’s downtowns. This redevelopment isn’t just taking place in our largest metropolises. Small towns and mid-size cities are also experiencing a renaissance. The key in many places has been the expansion of housing options in previously retail-dominated stretches – which helps food and retail businesses survive and compete against their mall counterparts on the outskirts along the highway.


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The cities and towns on our Top 10 Best Downtowns all exemplify the best trends in redevelopment. Some, like Alexandria, Va., are centered around a historic district that has survived for literally centuries. Others, like Pittsburgh, Pa., have seen their fortunes come and go and now come again. Still others, like Evanston, Ill., seem to be just now hitting their stride and coming into their own.

So how do we choose the Top 10?

As with all our lists, we start with the data on more than 2,000 small to mid-size cities. Using figures provided by Esri, the Census Bureau, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other sources, we look for places with low vacancy rates, new development and an influx of people into those new space. We look for the culture and nightlife that make cities great places to spend time outside the house – are there farmers markets, arts, parks, and do people take advantage of them by dining out and going out? Is this place growing and thriving both in terms of rising population and rising incomes? Are people there both day and night to give the town a feeling of vitality around the clock? And finally we add in factors that we typically include in all our lists, including the city’s Walk Score, measures of affordability and a diversity index. We want to find places that can work for everyone. We include some population parameters – we’re looking for places that are more than just a quaint Main Street.


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Once we’ve crunched the numbers to create a shortlist, our editors hone that down to the Top 10 based on our research, experiences and a desire to create a list that’s diverse in terms of geography and size of the cities. As we report out the list, further changes can be made to the lineup and the specific order. The resulting list, therefore, is a combination of art and science brought to you by Livability's editorial team. 

Now it’s your turn. How do you think we did? Any unsung gems we missed? 

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CLICK ON THE PHOTOS BELOW TO READ MORE ABOUT WHY THE CITY MADE THE LIST 

Ranking Criteria

Vacancy rate • Projected population growth • Affordability • Recent housing gains • Number of parks • Number of arts-related businesses • Resident engagement • Population density • WalkScore • Daytime population

10. Evanston, IL Population 75,603
9. Colorado Springs, CO Population 442,040
8. Plano, TX Population 275,645
7. Tempe, AZ Population 169,816
6. Boise, ID Population 214,196
5. Pittsburgh, PA Population 305,928
4. Bellevue, WA Population 134,630
3. Greenville, SC Population 61,734
2. Santa Monica, CA Population 92,169
1. Alexandria, VA Population 149,315
DOWNTOWNS

10 Best Downtowns

The best downtowns consistently change as our lifestyles, priorities and work patterns evolve.

For decades in the U.S., our downtowns were places where we worked. We would drive in during the morning rush hour and drive back out during the evening rush hour. Suburban malls had drained our downtown cores and our Main Streets of retail and department stores. We had essentially sucked all the people out of downtown.

Thankfully, that's changing in cites big and small as downtowns are again being recognized as a place where people can congregate, enjoy shopping and dining, walk, bike and, most importantly, live. Check out our infographic The Demographics of Living Downtown, to get an understanding of the type of people living downtown compared to the suburbs, and how that's changed through the years. 

With downtowns undergoing a resurgence, how did we choose the Top 10 Best Downtowns for 2015? As always, we start with our focus on small to mid-sized cities, and we dive into the data. Our analysis took into consideration increasing housing values and populations to find cities that are growing and thriving. We looked for areas with new construction because cranes are often a great sign of economic and cultural recovery. We found downtowns with vibrant arts scenes and walkable streets. 

Finally, our well-traveled editors weighed in with their own opinions. The data drives our short list, but our journalistic judgment helps determine the final rankings. 

Our list showcases a range of downtowns in terms of size, style and nature. From the riverfront skyscrapers of Pittsburgh to the distributed squares of Somerville, to Evanston's newly condoized city center, these 10 cities are a great cross-section of America's revitalized downtown landscape.

See who made our list of Top 10 Best Downtowns in 2014. 

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CLICK ON THE PHOTOS BELOW TO READ MORE ABOUT WHY THE CITY MADE THE LIST 

Ranking Criteria

Vacancy rate • Population increase since 2010 • Percentage of new homeowners • Daytime population • Projected median household income • Walk Score • Entertainment options • Arts/Cultural attractions

10. Evanston, IL Population 75,603
9. Somerville, MA Population 78,595
8. Lincoln, NE Population 269,726
7. Fargo, ND Population 113,464
6. Alexandria, VA Population 149,315
5. Salt Lake City, UT Population 190,679
4. Greenville, SC Population 61,734
3. Indianapolis, IN Population 841,449
2. Minneapolis, MN Population 399,950
1. Pittsburgh, PA Population 305,928
DOWNTOWNS

10 Best Downtowns

Our picks for the best downtowns of 2014 include cities undergoing significant improvement. We looked for downtowns with declining vacancy and growing populations. These places are attracting new residents and businesses while creating a vibrant scene that draws tourists and unites the greater community with a sense of pride.

The best downtowns foster creativity, inclusion and innovation. They showcase what is good about a community by offering a diverse array of local architecture, art, lifestyles and things to do. Great downtowns unite residents from all walks of life, even those in the suburbs, by providing places to connect. Above all, the top-performing downtowns must maintain a high level of energy and give all residents in a city a reason to come on down.

For the most part, our top 10 lists are data-driven – more science than art. The Top 10 Best Downtowns 2014 list, however, is a bit of an exception. Yes, we started with data including improvement in retail and office vacancy rates, population gains, income growth, unemployment, the ratio of people who live and work in the downtowns, and the overall livability of the city. But numbers alone can’t tell you what makes a downtown great. For that you need to see the skylines, hear the street sounds and talk to people who've been there. We took a look, talked with our well-traveled staff and made our picks.

It takes decades of careful planning, political alignments and dedication to create downtowns that attract new residents and visitors. We gave considerable weight to population growth and the ratio of residents to jobs in a downtown area because urban center experts suggest these are the most telling signs of how a downtown is doing.

"The way to have a really vibrant downtown is to have residents there who can support the businesses and provide that life on the street to make the area seem more lively and safer," says Sheila Grant, editor of Downtown Idea Exchange and Downtown Promotion Reporter. "We think they are the most vital part of the city. They give everyone in the outlying areas a sense of community and heritage."

Take a look at our picks for the best downtowns. (And take a peek at our latest best downtowns list.

Ranking Criteria

Population growth • Ratio of residents to jobs • Income growth • Home vacancy rates • Affordability of housing • Retail and office vacancy rates

10. Birmingham, AL Population 212,211
9. Eugene, OR Population 159,615
8. Bellingham, WA Population 82,944
7. Fort Lauderdale, FL Population 173,570
6. Frederick, MD Population 67,421
5. Alexandria, VA Population 149,315
4. Provo, UT Population 115,345
3. Indianapolis, IN Population 841,449
2. Providence, RI Population 178,680
1. Fort Worth, TX Population 796,614
DOWNTOWNS

10 Best Downtowns

Downtowns across the country are seeing a resurgence of restaurants, shops, offices and residential development. We've picked out the best downtowns, places that offer amazing amenities and high quality of life.

Begun more than a decade ago, a downtown district renaissance continues across American cities with restaurants, shops, offices and residential development popping up within city centers hollowed during the era ruled by shopping malls and suburban development from the '60s to '90s.

To help pick our Top 10 Downtowns for 2012, we contacted Christopher Leinberger, director of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University, who told us the best downtowns not only reflect the 21st century "knowledge economy" by the types of businesses and services located there, but also have solid plans to succeed in an "experience economy" – what many urban planning scholars believe is the next redevelopment opportunity for America's downtowns.

In this new experience economy, people will value most the memories a place creates above its other qualities, so a downtown's activities, aesthetics and overall atmosphere will be more important than ever. With that in mind, we set out to identify downtowns especially poised to offer the best experiences to residents and visitors, show signs of economic growth, and have community leaders with clear plans for continued improvement to these districts.

We first considered what would be the optimal population for a "best experience" and took a middle-of-the-road, Goldilocks approach of "not too big or small." That way, we narrowed our list of cities to those between 100,000 and 300,000 people.

Then, to assess the current success and potential for these downtowns, we analyzed economic growth, unemployment and downtown vacancy rates, the distance between homes and downtown amenities, and residents' average income levels. Our sources include the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Labor, Areavibes.com, Walkscore.com and Yelp.com.

For more on great downtowns across the United States, check out our best downtowns in 2011.

Ranking Criteria

Population 100,000 to 300,000 • Economic growth • Vacancy rates • Average commute • Unemployment rate

10. McAllen, TX Population 136,993
9. Hollywood, FL Population 146,791
8. Provo, UT Population 115,345
7. Lincoln, NE Population 269,726
6. Stamford, CT Population 126,592
5. Little Rock, AR Population 196,943
4. Boise, ID Population 214,196
3. Alexandria, VA Population 149,315
2. Charleston, SC Population 127,694
1. Fort Collins, CO Population 153,292
DOWNTOWNS

10 Best Downtowns

Check out our picks for the Top 10 Downtowns and see which city matches your vibe.

A good downtown, whether it anchors a big city or a small town, acts a little like an addiction.

Go once and you can't resist going back for more.

In our search for the best downtowns, we considered the mix of entertainment options they had to offer, the planning that went into their design, and the beautiful architecture and green spaces that inspire interaction.

These downtowns are well thought out, walkable and easy to navigate. There's a range of flavors to be found in upscale eateries and casual cafes, while indie theaters, glossy off-Broadway productions, and family-friendly museums offer residents and visitors endless ways to spend their days. Buildings that have stood the test of time or showcase the edge of modern architecture add to the appeal, with parks and open spaces allowing a break from the city scene.

So whether you're looking to relocate in a city setting or just prefer to spend a day exploring all a downtown has to offer, this list of 10 best downtowns is sure to have a scene that suits your needs.

Be sure to check out our most recent Top 10 Downtowns list as well.

Ranking Criteria

Good entertainment options • Well planned design • Unique architecture • Green spaces • Walkability

10. Franklin, TN Population 72,639
9. Eugene, OR Population 159,615
8. Chattanooga, TN Population 174,483
7. Fort Worth, TX Population 796,614
6. Louisville, KY Population 608,732
5. Savannah, GA Population 142,919
4. San Antonio, TX Population 1,413,881
3. Burlington, VT Population 42,570
2. Winston-Salem, NC Population 236,642
1. Indianapolis, IN Population 841,449