Are the Happiest Cities the Best Places to Live?

March 27, 2014 at 8:45 am EDT

From the department of self-validation: We admit it. There are other websites that rank best places to live, both overall and for certain subsets of the population. We cover the latter in our monthly top 10 lists, looking at best places for foodies, retirees and more. We don’t ignore these, but seek to learn what we can from them, refining our own practices. Often they help us validate that we’re on the right track in terms of what and how we measure livability. If you want to skip the wonky discussion and get right to how it matters, feel free to scroll by the next five paragraphs.

Liv-Top-100-Badge-Green-White_0Some studies and rankings come out of the blue, but there are a couple of indicators that we look forward to each year. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index recently released its 2014 update. It uses a boatload of surveys to determine the healthiest and happiest cities including: “life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors, and access to basic necessities.” Another, the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation looks at a host of outcomes such as rates for obesity and mortality.

Obviously, health and well-being are just one factor of livability. We actually measure seven other categories of place-making including real estate, demographics, economics and more. That said, these are important considerations when choosing a place to live, move or relocate to, and these are two great measures of them. So how do the areas that score well on these two ranking do on ours?

Ideally, they should correlate pretty well and, just eyeballing here a little, they certainly seem to. It’s hard to do a purely apples-to-apples comparison with either set. The County Health Rankings are clearly at the county level – and some measures are not meant to be compared across states. The Gallup data is even broader at the metro area level. Each metro areas comprises multiple counties.

All that said, if you look at the top-performing metros in the Gallup survey, you’ll see Provo, Utah; Boulder, Colo.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Lincoln, Neb.; and California’s San Jose, San Francisco and San Luis Obispo among the top 10. Each of those has at least one city on our Top 100 Best Places to Live. Incidentally, two metro areas in Gallup’s bottom 10 also show up (although rather far down) on our Top 100.

With the Robert Johnson Wood Foundation data, we can look at how the counties scored within their states across six sub-rankings: mortality, morbidity, health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and the physical environment. Each county is given a quartile score. Many of our Top 100 cities are in counties that score in the top quartile in each or most of those sub-factors. Some, like Miami Beach, Fla., are in such huge counties with such diverse conditions (Miami-Dade) that determining what impact the city itself makes is impossible. But again we see California’s San Luis Obispo, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties scoring well overall within California. Boulder scores well in Colorado, et cetera.

Why wellness matters in cities:

As the Gallup release says, “With about 80 percent of Americans living in urban or suburban areas, the role of cities in spearheading the well-being of the U.S. is significant.” We couldn’t agree more. It’s vital that city leaders play a role in creating healthy, livable communities for their residents. We give some great examples of mayors promoting wellness in a story on livability.com today. But we also know that it’s more than just fitness that comes into play. Good city planning, smart zoning, thoughtful transportation plans and, yes, private enterprise all come into play in making cities great places to live as well as places to live a long, healthy, active lifestyle.

And we welcome any and all data that gives ammunition to those fighting these fights in cities big and small.

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