2014

Top 100 Best Places to Live


Our first annual ranking

Click here for the Top 100 Best Places to Live 2015 list.

Big cities tend to get all the love. We here at Livability know that there are great stories to be told in smaller places, too. Our ranking of the 2014 top 100 best places to live focuses on small to mid-sized cities and what makes them great places to live and work. We worked with trusted partners, stellar advisors, and the best public and private data sources to develop our ranking. The cities on the list excelled in our criteria. These towns are places where residents are able to take full advantage of a wide variety of amenities and offerings - everything from parks and museums to different commuting options to hospitals. Spend some time getting to know them and when it comes time for your next move, maybe you'll think small.

 

600 = The city’s overall score, based on the weighted sum of the eight component scores.

Ranking Criteria

The LivScore for each city is a composite of nearly 40 data points. Those data points were grouped into the eight categories below. The methodology gives a good overview of how we calculated the score. But how do demographics, amenities and education actually influence livability? How can transportation make a city a best place to live? Read these stories for a more detailed discussion.

Amenities

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You leave your house sometimes, right? 

No, seriously. How can a city be a best place to live without offering its residents options for entertainment, culture, healthy living, and recreation outside of their own living and dining rooms? 

Amenities are more than just fun. They’re serious business, can draw money-spending tourists, and help cities – especially smaller cities and towns – differentiate themselves and craft their own identities. Livability took several amenities into consideration for this section of the ranking including farmers markets, golf courses, parks, weather (as measured by January and July temperature differentials), and the role of arts in the community. 

Let’s start with physical amenities. Many of the cities at the top of our ranking, like Boulder and Salt Lake City, have a variety of terrain, which make for breathtaking views and open opportunities for recreation. Access to water – from streams to oceans – can also make areas more habitable. 

Parks can break up the landscape, and in areas with slightly more density, can play a vital role where yards might be at more of a premium. Parks often have shared resources like pools, community centers and playgrounds, which open up access for people who have neither the money nor space to accommodate them on their own. They become gathering places and hosts to festivals, picnics, and fireworks. Likewise, going to a farmers market can be a pleasant outing and a chance to run into friends and family. More, it can help plug a needed gap in smaller places with fewer choices for healthy eating. 

Having a good climate so that you can enjoy all the outdoors has to offer year round is important, too. In our Ipsos survey, nearly seven in 10 said climate was extremely important in choosing a city.

We also examined the role of the arts in the community. Recent studies, including ones discussed in the new book published by the Brookings Institution, Creative Communities, have shown that increased cultural production can lead to an increased gross domestic product of an area, as well as higher wages across all the industries in that town. The book’s editor, Michael Rushton, tells Livability.com that it’s good public policy.

“If you’re making an investment of cultural amenities, these are things that can benefit most of the people of the city rather than just trying to attract one particular employer," Rushton says.

Arts are also important for their impact on developing creative and innovative communities.

Carol Coletta, the Knight Foundation’s vice president for community and national initiatives and former head of ArtPlace and CEOs for Cities, told Livability.com that arts are important for innovation, and engaging artists and creative people in all aspects of public policy planning can yield great benefits.

"It's important to have your perspectives challenged,” Coletta says.

“When you are in something stimulating, innovation there tends to be a lot of spillover from firm to firm to firm. Cultural districts impact related industries,” Rushton says.

To measure the role of arts for our Index, we worked with the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, which produces the research about the number and size of arts-related businesses in U.S. counties. As one of the unique data sets we worked with, Americans for the Arts shared its list of more than 600 arts-related industries, and we were able to apply its methodology to the city level for the first time. 

Finally, we have said that utilization was one of the guiding principles for our ranking, and we wanted to make sure that not only are there opportunities in the cities for exploration but that residents are taking advantage of them. We used data from Esri to fill in that gap. 

Cities with more amenities and more people taking advantage of them scored the highest. The average score across all the cities we measured was 46.

Coletta notes that arts can have a great return on a relatively small investment. “Arts engage the community and make it a better place to live," she says.

In her work with ArtPlace, she was sorry to admit that she was surprised by the degree to which smaller cities and towns were engaged in creative enterprises. “They’re not just smaller versions of other cities,” she says. “These towns have a uniqueness.


Demographics

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Sesame Street understands livability. One of the classic show’s most memorable songs got to the heart of a key issue: “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” In the song, the idea is to introduce kids to people they are likely to meet each day, like postal workers, teachers, newspaper vendors (sadly dated material) and more. But the segment gets at an important fact about where we live: We’re not alone. 

The fundamental makeup of the community impacts how we interact with it. Is the population generally older or younger? Is it diverse in terms of race and ethnicity? Is it diverse in terms of income and education? 

Overall, there is increasing diversity throughout the United States, however it’s also increasingly likely that you’ll live next to someone like yourself. According to Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, cities and their suburbs are becoming increasingly isolated along economic, educational and cultural lines.

Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart argues that we’re also segregated by political preference. More and more of us live in counties and towns that are less and less politically competitive. The eventual outcomes of most elections are known long before the ballots are cast. As you can probably guess, he believes this to be a bad thing.

Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution tells Livability.com that the roles of cities and their leaders are changing. The problems they are facing are increasingly complicated. Their jobs are not as simple as putting more cops on the street to reduce crime in between attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies and riding in parades. 

“Now, you’re really seeing mayors and their business/civic/university allies focusing on the fundamentals of the trade economy: manufacturing, innovation, skills, exports,” he says.

These aren’t just big-city issues. Wichita, Kan., with a population under 400,000, is a leading exporter in the U.S.

Urban centers are competing with their own suburbs and neighboring states for jobs and corporate headquarters. It’s not a zero-sum calculation. There are definite winners and losers, but smaller towns have many advantages that can be exploited.

Complicated problems often need complicated solutions. In The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies by Scott Page, a clear case is laid out that diversity of opinions leads to better decisions for businesses, governments and societies. He isn’t merely looking at racial and ethnic diversity – although he touches on it – he’s looking at diversity of education level, socio-economic status and more. The wider the range of ideas being considered, the more likely one of them is the correct solution. 

Along with helping find better solutions, demographics also pose their own problems. Aging populations in some cities mean that city agencies have to shift their service offerings. They can lead to a declining tax base or changes in an area’s housing market. On the other end of the spectrum, a baby boom in an area can cause huge shifts in the schools. One Chicago public school, for example, graduated 12 sixth graders and welcomed 10 times that many kindergartners as the demographics of its neighborhood shifted.

So in keeping with our principle that we wanted cities that are livable for everyone, we analyzed several measurements of diversity along racial, ethnic, foreign-born and age-based lines using data from the U.S. Census. 

The average score across all the cities we measured was 50. The cities that scored well in this area are well suited to thrive in today’s challenging conditions.


Economics

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James Carville once had to remind then-candidate Bill Clinton’s staff of something most of us take for granted: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It’s true in politics and it’s true in livability. On the personal level, what good is having great culture, amenities, housing and schools if you can’t afford to take advantage of them? On the city level, a robust economy means having the ability to invest in creating a better place to live.

There are few cities that can truly separate the living world from the working world, except maybe resorts and retirement communities. Even resorts and senior centers are employee-heavy organizations. Therefore, we would be remiss in talking about places that are great places to live without focusing also on the economic opportunities in the cities. 

Our core principles for the Index include affordability and accessibility, so we examined income inequality using the Gini index as calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau. If a city had high inequality, one could argue that means more diversity, which is a plus, but it also means that the area is likely failing to provide economic opportunities for its residents. We also looked at population and income growth forecasts, employment, incomes, and variables related to cost of living. The average score across all the cities we measured was 50.

That gave us a pretty well-rounded picture of the financial climate of a city today and a bit of a peek into its future prospects. We wanted to reward cities that were growing and thriving, not just getting by.

Livability and a robust city economy have a symbiotic relationship. Many traits of livability have strong correlations with such economic indicators as GDP, wages and innovation. Cities with strong economies, and the businesses and leaders that drive those economies can afford to invest in the kind of amenities and infrastructure that will draw more workers and more businesses. And the cycle repeats.

In the end, as our Ipsos survey showed, people care more about the economy and job prospects of a place than any other factor – both in terms of evaluating where they live currently and places they would consider relocating. In many ways, therefore, if you get the economic setting right, the rest will fall into place – and vice versa.


Education

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We want to love where we live. That’s part of why we’re not a very mobile society. We have our habits, our networks (and sometimes our mortgages) and our jobs. Each year about one in eight households moves, but that varies a lot by age and other factors. A sizable majority stay within the same county or metro area.

So why do we move? We get new jobs, or want to be closer to family and friends. Sometimes, we just want to trade up to a better home or trade down to something more manageable. But often it’s demographic changes that lead to relocation. We hit retirement age or graduate from college. One major driver is having kids. That can immediately lead to a move for a larger living space. And five years in, those with options will often pack up the condo, apartment or house in search of the best school district possible. 

That’s one reason education is important for livability. But education occurs at all levels, so we examined indicators for public schools, colleges and universities, and the education levels of the adults in the city. Cities with higher-rated public schools, more colleges and universities, and well-educated adults scored best. The average score across all the cities we measured was 40.

Let’s start with the public schools. We used data provided to us from GreatSchools to measure the quality of public schools in a city. As the oldest of the millennial generation move into their 30s and begin forming their own households, getting married and having kids, will denser cities be able to retain them? After all, the millennials are the best-educated generation in history. It stands to reason they’ll want the best schools for their little ones.

This could be a great advantage for smaller cities and suburbs in the coming years. Looking at the GreatSchools data, cities with populations between 20,000 and 50,000 had scores that were on average 25 percent higher than the cities with populations greater than 500,000. Urbanist Joel Kotkin points out in a blog post that many big cities saw shrinking populations of children during the past decade as they struggled with reduced spending on education and school closures.

“The 14-and-younger population increased in only about one-third of all [cities], with the greatest rate of growth occurring in smaller urban areas with fewer than 250,000 residents,” he says.

Having quality public schools in a community is a boon in a number of ways.

“There’s a ripple effect into other livability factors when the schools are strong,” Carol Lloyd, executive editor of GreatSchools tells Livability.com. “There’s more impulse for homeowners to spend tax money and local dollars in that community. It’s a virtuous circle that we’ve found. There’s more money spent in a community on things that have a long-term effect on their community.” She says that communities with the best schools often have made education a focal point for policy development at the city and school district levels.

For our Index, we also looked at the educational attainment of its residents. The more highly educated the parents, the theory goes, the more emphasis they’ll place on their own children’s education. But it’s more than that. Having at least a bachelor’s degree is highly tied to higher incomes, and that continues to increase with higher education levels. There’s evidence that better-educated people lead healthier lives as well. 

The other major component of our education rating was the presence of colleges and universities within a town. If you look at the top cities on the list, they typically have a major college or university located within their borders. This is likely not coincidence. College towns have a number of key advantages: a constant influx of new residents; enhanced cultural opportunities often of a scale you’d find only in the largest cities; a more stable economy due to a dominant industry that is less volatile than most; and a means of creating a unique identity and sense of pride in the community. You see that in cities like Boulder, Durham, Berkley, and of course, our No. 1 city, Palo Alto. For a smaller city, having a major college can propel them from a good place to live to a great place to live.


Health Care

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To some extent, all you need to know about how quality health care can impact a city is this: Rochester, Minn., (pop. 107,000) has an airport that can land a 747. People from the world over travel to the famed Mayo Clinic for treatments. It’s a huge boon for the town – employing more than 30,000 and drawing millions of visitors each year. It’s hard to imagine the city thriving to such a degree without it.

Indeed, major hospitals are important in their role as employers, stable economic engines and their ability to attract high-skilled, high-paid workers. Much like having a college or university in a town, hospitals can elevate the quality of life in a town – especially in smaller towns where these institutions are often the dominant force. Put together, hospitals and colleges are often referred to as “Eds and Meds” by urban theorists. Having one won’t necessarily make your city a best place to live all by itself, but it can certainly help.

Therefore, the presence of hospitals within the town limits was one of the variables we measured for the health-care component of our Index.

The other indicator was the amount spent on health care. These costs are eating a larger and larger share out of Americans' wallets. The average score across all the cities we measured was 44.

Sure, there are other factors to healthy living we could have measured, but the thing with health is that it correlates so highly to variables we measured elsewhere. People with lower incomes are more likely to suffer from diabetes and other weight-related illnesses, for instance. People with higher education tend to live longer. Cities with higher Walk Scores have residents who weigh less, are happier and spend more time working for the benefit of their communities. We didn’t want to measure too many variables that would essentially say the same thing. So, we focused again on our guiding principles, looking at access and affordability of care. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the cities near the top of our Index are in places with great natural amenities nearby that encourage people to spend time outdoors engaging in active pursuits like hiking, biking and skiing. 

The cities that performed best on this list encourage healthy living by their very structure, as well as the presence of great, affordable care options. They will keep the residents of the best places to live living well for years to come.


Housing

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You don’t just live in a city. You live in a house, apartment, condo or maybe on a boat. Access to affordable housing was the most important feature of a livable community according to our exclusive Ipsos survey. That was very much in line with the guiding principles of our Index: access, affordability and options – the fourth principle ‘utilization’ is pretty much taken care of. Everyone needs a place to call home.

Many of the variables we analyzed for the Index focused on housing costs. Affordability is a combination of factors, not just price. We looked at home prices but also how they relate to income. Therefore, you see some cities rise to the top of our list that have above-average housing costs but also above-average wages. For many residents of places like Palo Alto, the housing prices aren’t an obstacle. For younger residents of that community, there are affordable rental options due to the need for student housing for Stanford’s undergrads.

We also looked at Census data to determine the average age of the housing (which can be a factor in the amount homeowners need to spend on upkeep and maintenance), the percentage of housing units that were occupied and the ratio of owners to renters. The average score across all the cities we measured was 50.

It’s worth noting that while housing prices often rise with population density, we are using a methodology created by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies (a Chicago-based nonprofit), which takes into account the cost of housing and transportation. While we’re splitting their data between our housing variables and transportation variables, their research was critical in dispelling the notion that less-dense suburbs are cheaper than downtown living. When the increased transportation costs are factored in, sprawling suburbs often cost more than their dense cores.

Again, smaller towns are often the best of both worlds. They typically have lower housing costs and less sprawl. Many smaller cities like Durham and Salt Lake City are even experimenting with or implementing forms of public transportation to reduce the commute times and costs for residents.

Looking forward, as cities move to create more livable communities and more people-friendly downtowns, maintaining the affordability in towns of all sizes will be a challenge. That challenge needs to be actively addressed for our livable cities to stay that way, says Emily Talen, a professor and author.

She tells Livability.com, “If you’re going to keep building these beautiful, walkable, transit-enabled places, there is no way they are going to be diverse unless there is some policy behind it. It’s not going to maintain diversity via the market only.”

One way is by developing more housing that encourages lower-cost renting. Urbanist Richard Florida sees a decrease in the home ownership rate as a key to healthy economies and thriving cities – up to a point.

He writes in The Atlantic Cities, “Tilting the home ownership rate back from its high of 70 percent to say 55 or 60 percent – not too far from where the United States is at today – would seem to be in line with greater labor market flexibility and economic dynamism.”

Good rental markets will especially be important for attracting younger householders, still feeling the impacts of a recession that hit just as many were entering the job market.

“It will take years of a stronger job market for young people before they’ll be able to think about down payment. You don’t get a job and the next day decide to buy a home,” Jed Koklo, chief economist and vice president of analytics for real estate site Trulia.com tells Livability.com.


Transportation and Infrastructure

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Someone once said that in urban planning and livability discussions, all roads lead to transportation. And while that’s a terrible pun, it’s also true. Americans spend an awful lot of their time in between places.

An increase in retirement-age Americans, high unemployment and underemployment, and the rise in telecommuting, among other factors, means that commute time is important for many but not all. However, everyone needs to get around even if it’s not to and from work. We looked for places with options and affordability – two of our driving principles for the Index.

Americans are driving fewer miles these days. Therefore, the more choices available, the more likely it is that each resident can find something workable.

We analyzed data about access to major airports, walkability, transportation costs and the percentage of the population who commute to work by some means other than driving alone. The last seems a good proxy for both options and adds in utilization, another of our principles. We also looked at the number of broadband providers in a market because Internet access is increasingly an important part of a city’s infrastructure. Places with shorter commutes, higher percentages of people who don't drive alone to work, more airports and broadband providers scored the highest. The average score across all the cities we measured was 46.

Transportation affordability is especially important as these costs are eating a larger and larger share of a household budget. The Center for Neighborhood Technology has developed a methodology, which we use in the Index, that estimates the combined burden of housing and transportation. The H&T Affordability ratings demonstrate that suburban housing might seem like a bargain in terms of the amount of house you can afford, but when you include increased transportation costs, you could actually wind up spending more to live farther away.

We also included Walk Score data here. It is a well-tested measure of how walkable a neighborhood or town is, but it’s more than that. Research has shown that a high Walk Score correlates to higher home prices, reduced obesity and increased economic performance of the area.

None of this is to say that we’re punishing cities that are car-bound. Rather, we’re rewarding cities that are taking steps to adjust to what appear to be sweeping changes in the way we get around – especially for younger Americans who are embracing biking and bike sharing, walking, public transportation, car-sharing and more. Even retiring baby boomers are taking advantage of the options offered in cities large and small.

If you’ve been reading our livability blog, you’ve read about this in interviews with experts like Jeff Speck, Christopher Leinberger, Robin Chase, and mayors from cities including Tampa and Grand Rapids. All of them have talked about the changing shape of transportation in what has traditionally been an entirely car-centric country.

It’s a complicated set of trends we’re following related to these critical issues. The importance of transportation and infrastructure impacts our day-to-day livability in many ways.


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From the Blog

Livability 100 Partners

  • The Martin Prosperity Institute is the leading think-tank on the role of cities on global prosperity.
  • Ipsos is a global leader in market and consumer research.
  • Esri is a leading provider of business intelligence data and GIS services.
  • Walk Score measures walkability as a factor in relocation decisions.
  • Great Schools provides data-driven comparison rankings of public schools.
  • Additional data provided by: U.S. Census Bureau, National Telecommunications & Information Administration, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, and the Vulcan Project at Arizona State University.