Best Places to Live

Methodology: The making of our lists

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

Before we dive into the fine print, let’s address a couple of FAQs: First, see this post for a discussion of why cities move up and down on the rankings. Second, don’t get too hung up on the movement. We rank more than 2,100 cities to come up with the Top 100. Therefore all 100 are really A-level cities. The difference between #1 and #100 is kind of like: Did you get the 98% A or the 96% A? They’re all great places. How do we know? Because Livability is what we do.

Livability is not the first to do a Best Places to Live list. A lot of websites do them to gain some traffic, often for content that is totally unrelated to quality of place – things like financial advice. Those sites throw a couple of pieces of data together, call their work “science” and move on to their real businesses.

Our business is Livability. We take these rankings a little more seriously. Here’s how:

Livability’s Top 100 Best Places to Live ranking is the result of a months-long process of research, data collection, cleaning and analysis. It is produced by our internal team of livability experts with input from an amazing team of researchers, academics, thinkers, doers, authors and practitioners in the places space. It also has input from people like you, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Once again, we have joined with The Initiative for Creativity and Innovation in Cities at New York University’s Schools of Professional Studies. The program, directed by renowned urbanists Richard Florida and Steven Pedigo, is training the next generation of 21st-century city leaders and conducting the research that will enable them to better do their jobs. Also partnering with us is the team from Emsi, which models economic data into actionable intelligence for city leaders. Our stellar advisory board contributes thoughtful input on the latest research, metrics, indicators and sources of data for measuring the various factors of quality of place. Together, we have continued the evolution of a process begun with our inaugural list utilizing the research of our initial partners at the Martin Prosperity Institute.

But let’s face it, this is a team of wonky people who are surrounded by this research day-in and day-out. We also wanted to get input from a cross-spectrum of Americans about what they value in the communities they live in, and the communities they would consider someday moving to. We wanted to know, essentially, what do you think makes a great place to live.

So we asked. Livability again partnered with the leading global market research firms, Ipsos Public Affairs, to survey 2,000 American adults about what factors are most important in creating a best place. This isn’t a popularity contest. We don’t ask them to rate/rank specific cities, but rather we use this survey to weight the other data we analyze in the ranking. If the survey shows that health care and affordable housing are more important than transportation and amenities, we weight each section accordingly.

As we’re fielding the survey, we are also working with our data partners to update and augment our data. Each year the methodology shifts slightly as new data sources become available or research shows that we should emphasize or balance out one of our eight categories.

Once we had our theoretical framework in place, we layered in hundreds of thousands of data points. We pull in data from the best public and private data sources available. Our trusted sources include public-sector providers such as U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Affairs and Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Education and The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We also source data from leading private-sector sources including Esri, Emsi, Walk Score and Great Schools. We also find great data created by nonprofits such as the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Opportunity Index developed by Measure of America and Opportunity Nation, and Americans for the Arts.

We distilled all of this down into more than 45 data points across eight ranking criteria (see more detail on which data points go where and why in our ranking criteria stories). Our universe was more than 2,100 cities throughout the U.S. with populations between 20,000 and 350,000. Each city was given eight category scores based on how the city ranked for those data points. The LivScore is the weighted total of those scores.

Then comes some art, but even the art is science. We run a number of simulations and tests to make sure that no one variable or combination of variables created undue influence on the final results. We use a series of statistical measures, checks and benchmarks to make sure the list stays fair and balanced.

What changed this year: We swapped out our broadband measure and our college/university sources, added a count of libraries, added more measures of diversity, updated our parks directory and more. The most visible change, however, was an editorial decision, not a methodological one. We limited the list to no more than two cities per county. Most of the measures we use are city-based, but some factors are only measured at the county. That can lead to clustering and this year we decided to put some controls on that. The result is a more varied list with more states represented than ever.

Guiding principles:

The Best Places to Live are just that. Places people can LIVE. Here’s what we mean by that.

Our research (and common sense) shows that a good city needs a strong foundation: reputable schools, hospitals, airports and infrastructure, low crime, and a good climate. The great cities differentiate themselves by the quality of their amenities like parks, golf courses, farmers markets, arts, culture and infrastructure. The natural and built environment are factors we consider as well.

LEVEL

Cities need to create a level playing field where everyone has an opportunity to succeed. Therefore we include measures of equality, investment in education, and access to good jobs and technology.

INCLUSIVE

Cities need to work for everyone, because we live in a more and more diverse nation. We include measures of racial and ethnic diversity but also age diversity, income diversity and more. We want cities that are livable for people of all walks and stages of life.

VARIETY

Since our citizens are more diverse, our cities need to offer options for a diverse population. That means offering choices, and the more options a city offers, the more it can be livable for everyone. We rewarded cities that offer residents the most flexibility in choosing a hospital, housing types and ages, schools, parks, farmers market and commuting mode.

ENGAGEMENT

Finally, having all of these great things is important, but so is using them. Esri provided us with lifestyle variables that allowed us to see which residents were making the most of the opportunities in their cities, and are engaging in their communities by voting, going to meetings and joining community organizations.

We wanted the list to celebrate cities that were livable for everyone. We know any list is going to create some argument. You’ll wonder why your city isn’t on the list or why it isn’t ranked higher – unless you live in Rochester. There is no perfect methodology, but we want ours to be as thorough, tested, rational and transparent as possible. Let us know what you think, and feel free to shoot us any questions. We’re happy to debate this all day.

 

Matt Carmichael

Contributing Editor, chief trend analyst