Best places to live: Ranking Criteria
A peek behind the scenes of the Top 100 Best Places to Live for 2018.
Cities have to get the basics right in order to be a great place to live. That’s both common sense and something we see clearly in the American Livability Survey data that supports this Best Places to Live list. If a city doesn’t have varied and affordable housing, low crime rates, a strong economy and accessible quality health care, it’s not going to rank well on our list. It boils down to wants and needs. A city and its residents need those things to feel safe and secure. The rest – good schools, transportation and natural and cultural amenities – are important and desirable, but start drifting into the realm of wants. Or so we think anyway.
But let’s assume that these 100 cities have the basics down. It’s really in the categories like Amenities that cities begin to differentiate themselves and forge their own unique identities. We examine both physical/natural amenities as well as cultural attractions in this category. Among the natural and outdoor amenities measured are the number of farmers markets, parks and golf courses, the climate, and air quality. For 2016, we also added a drought indicator as a recognition of the serious water shortages impacting much of our nation. We also use a methodology from a nonprofit organization, Americans for the Arts, to measure the impact of the arts within the community. Finally, we measure utilization with data about how often residents take an active part in their community’s cultural scene. There are eight factors weighed in this category, and the average score across all cities measured was 47.
For residents, this is basically the category about how fun and how pleasant a city can be. Are there many options for things to do, places to go and to gather, and ways to engage in the community.
For the cities themselves, however, this can all mean big business. A thriving arts scene is a benefit for tourism and can anchor a downtown, providing needed foot traffic for restaurants and retail. It’s hard to imagine Los Angeles without Hollywood, Nashville without its music scene, or smaller places like Asheville or Berkeley without their theater and crafts districts.
Getting people out in the community is also why you see city after city investing in festivals, free concerts and organized nights out on the town.
Likewise, the natural setting also plays a significant role in livability. Many cities on our list boast of year-round climates with new activities in each season – from rafting to skiing. Other cities – those in California or Florida, for instance, play up their lack of such seasonality.
Arts can often seem like an easy target for budget cuts, but study after study has shown the powerful impact a thriving and vibrant arts community can have on a city. We could easily break this category into two measures: one related to the physical and one related to the cultural environments. However, we could also make a case for including the arts measures in the economy section instead of labeling it an amenity.
Regardless of how it’s scored, these are important topics to cities and residents alike, and among the 100 cities on this ranking is at least one with the right mix for you.
Demographics questions can really be summed up by Sesame Street. One of the classic show’s most memorable songs got to the heart of a key issue: “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” The recurring segment introduced children to the complexity of cities and the variety of people and jobs needed to make a city work: letter carriers, grocers, newspaper vendors, librarians and plumbers. Underlying all of this was the idea that we are not alone.
A different take on the idea might be Hillary Clinton’s famous notion that “it takes a village” to raise a child. It also takes a village to raise a barn, rebuild after a storm, care for our elderly, and ensure that all of its residents are treated fairly and equally. In order for a city to be a great place to live, it should be a great place to live for everyone. Cities succeed to varying degrees, and quite frankly, cities work on these issues with various levels of engagement. We live in a time where issues of diversity, fairness, inclusion are in the headlines day-after-day. The conversation one day might focus on race, the next on class and income, the next on LGBT rights, and the next on the rights of women, immigrants, religious groups and members of certain generations.
However we choose to define ourselves or however we are defined by others, these are fundamental discussions to have in a nation like America. The issues are complicated, and the conversations around them can be polarizing or uniting. As we become a more diverse nation and as that diversity spreads, these are issues and conversations happening not just in places like New York or Los Angeles, but in Ferguson, Mo., and Charleston, S.C. Paying attention to the demographics of an area can help residents find places to live where they are likely to find communities into which they can easily build their own ties. For city leaders, understanding how population changes will impact the needs for city services is a paramount responsibility. 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 for neighborhood schools. Palo Alto, which topped our 2014 Best Place to Live ranking is confronting affordable housing issues as it tries to enable its residents to stay in town as they retire. The mayor of Madison, 2015’s No. 1 city, has made issues of equity and fairness the centerpiece for his office to address. Rochester, Minn., our 2016 Best Place to Live is putting special focus on these issues as a rapid expansion of its Mayo Clinic medial center will lead to a potential doubling of its population in coming years – split between medical professionals and service workers on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.
Growth is important to cities, and projected growth is one of the three characteristics we measure in the Demographics component of the LivScore. The other two are racial and ethnic diversity and age diversity. It’s worth noting that other aspects of diversity such as housing affordability and options to income equality are spread through our ranking system. The average score in this category among all cities measured was 50.
While our list is a Best Place to Live list, it’s nearly impossible to separate where we live from where we work. Even if you’re not in the workforce, the economics of an area deeply impact its livability. Having a strong economy in a city means it can invest in all of the infrastructure, amenities, schools and health care that we know make a city a livable place.
But of course economics are about more than jobs. Based on our Livability Principals of Access, Affordability, Choice and Utilization, we reward cities that are thriving economically but not leaving its residents behind.
How do we measure that?
On the job front, we start with the unemployment rate. Then we also look for areas of growth. Working with our partner Emsi, we created a custom variable measuring growth of high-wage jobs at the county level – economies are usually larger than a specific city.
Next, we analyzed a series variables related to affordability and access/choice. We used the Gini Coefficient, a well-known measure of income inequality and data about projected household income growth and the amount households spend on food. It’s important to note that other measures of affordability are included in other categories of the LivScore including transportation, health care and housing.
These five variables give a well-rounded proxy of economic growth potential, employment opportunities and affordability. The average score across all the cities we measured was 50.
It’s hard to say which comes first, the livability or the economic strength of a community. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. The cities atop our ranking are places of opportunity. These are communities with the resources to invest in their futures and plan for their expansion. If nothing else, being able to adequately maintain existing resources puts these cities ahead of many in our nation that are facing tougher and tougher public-sector budgeting crises. Many cities and states are grappling with public service cuts, pension plan shortfalls and decreased revenues from aggressive tax cuts. Many have argued that cities – especially working cooperatively within regions – are better positioned to tackle issues of cost, affordability and equity than states and even the federal government.
The cities in our ranking are well positioned to face these issues head-on to benefit all residents.
Moves are often triggered by changes. Retirement is a time when many pick up and find a new community to call home. Likewise, a great new job opportunity can lure someone to a new city or state. But for many, one of the key times in life to move is as your children are starting school or moving from elementary to middle or high school. If there’s a sense that the current school district won’t adequately meet junior’s needs, parents will often uproot if they have the means.
That’s the most obvious way in which schools impact livability. If you have school-aged kids and your neighborhood schools aren’t up to snuff, very little else matters. That’s why we continue to partner with Great Schools and include their rankings of area public schools as part of the education component of the LivScore. This year we also include a measure of the percentage of children in the public school system. That gets at one of our core livability principals: utilization. It’s not enough to have great public schools if students are opting out of them and going to private, parochial or, in some cases, charter schools. So when you see an Ames, Iowa, with an overall Great Schools rating of 9 and 97 percent of children in the public schools, you know you’ve found a great community school system supported by its community.
But education matters for more than just the K-12 set. We reward cities with lifelong learning options and cities that have an educated population. We look at the number of accredited colleges and universities in the city as well as the percent of the population with at least a bachelor’s degree.
These four measures make up the education component of the LivScore. The average score across all cities measured was 45.
Having a high percentage of the population holding a college degree is a key stat for businesses looking to locate high-paying, skilled jobs in a city. It’s simpler to start or move a business somewhere that has an existing base of workers than it is to train or lure new workers.
It’s not a coincidence that many of the top cities on our ranking are college towns. For the small to mid-sized cities we focus on, having a major college or research university in town can be the difference between being a good place to live and a great place to live. In addition to playing a role as a community anchor, these institutions provide stable jobs, constant turnover for the real estate market and an increased potential for start-up businesses. They also bring in cultural attractions and activities – and often outsized talent for a market that size.
Not all college towns are great places to live, and not all are towns with colleges are great college towns. But this is a major reason people relocate twice, so we have list for that, too.
Livable communities are healthy communities. We’ll explain that more a little further on, but let’s begin by looking at the variables we measure as we compute the Health component of the LivScore.
In our American Livability Survey, conducted for us by our partner Ipsos Public Affairs, we learned that in order to be a good place to live, a city needs to cover the basics: affordable housing, low crime rate and accessible, quality health care. We looked at the number of hospitals in the city, a quality ranking from the Medicare Hospital Compare site, the number of primary care providers relative to the population and average household spending on health care to see how accessible health care is. Then we looked at two county-level indicators of the health of the population – the percent of children born with low birth rate and the adult obesity rate. The average score across all cities measured was 45.
In order to score well in this category, cities have to have a combination of access to quality, affordable health care and a healthy population. These things don’t happen by accident in livable communities. Many of the factors we measure in other categories have a role in health as well. Air and water quality (measured in the Amenities category) are obvious factors as pollution can lead to a host of serious health concerns. Social cohesion (see Social and Civic Capital) can be a boon for mental health. Walkability (in Transportation and Infrastructure) is another aspect of a livability that impacts the health of a community. Research has shown that people who live in walkable areas do tend to walk more. The combination of walking more and spending less time in the car can lead to lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and related illnesses.
Currently, more than a third of adults and nearly one in five children are considered obese. The costs of this are, of course, human but also financial. Medical costs related to obesity and related illnesses are estimated to run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
By designing better communities and retrofitting our existing spaces to be more friendly to people while maintaining a high level of drivability, too, we can create places that are safer, healthier, of better use to residents and, therefore, even better places to live.
Our ranking focuses on cities – specifically small to mid-sized cities. Cities are basically the answer to “where are you from.” We live in cities, and those cities shape who we are and what we become. But within the city, we live in neighborhoods, and we live in homes, condos and apartments. A list of great places to live should focus on the places we call home in the places we are from.
Housing, in a great city, should follow our Livability Principles. Flexibility is important, as is affordability. To measure that, we look at an analysis of housing affordability conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which factors in housing costs and income. Areas where people are better able to afford their homes scored higher. The interesting thing about their research – based on a methodology developed originally by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies – is that it also takes into account the higher cost of transportation associated with lower housing costs. While a house farther out from the city center might cost less, the higher costs of getting to and from that house often outweigh the potential savings. The transportation component of their overall Housing plus Transportation score is included in the transportation component of our LivScore.
The last financial component is the projected home value growth for the city. As with population growth, home value growth is an excellent proxy for the desirability of an area.
We also created two custom variables that look at the age and type of housing to ensure there is a diversity of housing stock available. Finally, we looked at vacancy rates and the split between owners and renters. In today’s housing market, the percentage of households renting their living space is on the upswing. We want cities that can accommodate both owners and renters while maintaining their affordability.
The average score across all cities measured was 50.
As you look through our ranking of the Best Places to Live, or just check out our data-packed pages about more than 12,000 U.S. cities, counties, metro areas and states, you’ll find housing listings from our partners at Trulia. We’ll help you find your next home town, and you can use the listings to help you find your next home.
Social and Civic Capital
Ask any mayor what makes his or her city great, and you’ll get a variation on this theme: The people. Ask a CEO what makes a great company, and you’ll get a similar answer about company culture and great, engaged employees.
In both where we work and live, having people working together toward common goals with a sense of pride and purpose can make all the difference. That can manifest in different ways. In Chicago’s rough Englewood neighborhood, a group of mothers has taken a stand against the violence in their community and formed a sort of neighborhood watch/sit-in night after night. They’re making a tangible difference in their community. In smaller towns, it might be a group of parents helping keep a park clean and safe for kids to play. It might be a neighborhood babysitting co-op or a locally run food pantry. It might be neighbors using new online community-building tools like See-Click-Fix to inform government of livability concerns or to identify seniors who need help shoveling after a big storm.
It’s difficult to measure community and the level of engagement residents have, but several variables in our LivScore provide a good proxy. We use a variety of measures tied to our Livability Principles of access, affordability, choice and utilization. We look at voter participation rates and a composite score based on how often residents took part in a number of activities such as volunteering. This is also the category where crime rate gets factored in as well as the share of the population in Creative Class fields. That last measure is related to the human capital of the city, which like many measures in our ranking could fall into several different categories. The average score across all cities measured was 50.
A community is more than just a collection of people living in the same geographic space. A community is a group of people working together to make that space a better place.
Transportation and Infrastructure
There’s a reason that road rage is a term you hear but never sidewalk rage. Few things can downgrade the quality of day-to-day life in a city or town than traffic. It’s clearly bad for your mental health: rage. Turns out, it’s bad for your physical health as well. Commuting by car, alone, is still by far the most prevalent means of getting from home to work and back. All the podcasts and satellite radio options can’t change the fact that it’s really bad for your health. That’s why we have not one but two measures of commuting in our transportation and infrastructure category.
As more and more research is done on this topic, we’re seeing a gradual shift take place in cities large and small – especially among today’s younger generations. Driving is down, walking and biking are up. This isn’t some groundbreaking new trend, rather it’s a correction of sorts. Until the 1950s and 1960s it was the norm to have walkable places and better public transit than currently available. But as more and more highways were built and more and more trolley and bus lines cut, the very structure of our nation changed. Now the pendulum is swinging back, and that’s a great thing for Livability.
That’s not to say cars are going away or that you shouldn’t drive ever. But as with each of our component scores, we reward cities that have options. Afterall, if you can cut one car out of the family fleet with a combination of walking, transit or car-shares, you can save nearly $10,000 a year according to AAA. That’s just one way to amek transportation a more affordable part of the budget.
Are there options for getting around besides driving? Are commute times reasonable? Are the neighborhoods and downtowns places where – if you choose – you can walk to schools, parks, grocery stores and restaurants? Finally, when you’re ready to get out of town for a while, is there an airport you can get to? Like a great school district, access to airports doesn’t matter much to some people, but it can be a deal-breaker for the jet-setters among us.
As this is the transportation and infrastructure component of the LivScore, we also looked at a measure of traffic on the information highway. Cities with access to the best broadband available are finding a competitive edge. The more residents who have access to this technology the better off, and the more equitable cities can be.
The average score for the eight factors measured in this component of the LivScore was 47.
As we think about livable places, transportation is often not the first thing people think about. As our survey shows, it’s a much lower consideration than housing, health care, crime and climate. That seems to be starting to change. In the planning world, there is more and more discussion about making our streets work for people in all modes of commuting.