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How to Make Your City a Best Place to Live

Trend analyst Matt Carmichael digs into the question all cities are asking.

By Matt Carmichael on February 10, 2014

Burlington, VT
Burlington / Courtesy of Katherine Martinelli under a CC 2.0 license.

Everybody knows that livability is in the eye of the beholder. What fits the bill for one might not fit the bill for everyone. Clouding the issue is the fact that, sadly, not everyone loves where they live. Maybe they’re like Cubs fans, so full of hope that they don’t just give up and move on to another team, or city.

Last year, as we were preparing our inaugural list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live, we worked with our research partners at the Martin Prosperity Institute to develop an exclusive survey with Ipsos Public Affairs. In it we asked 2,000 Americans what factors of livability were most important to them. We used the data to weight our rankings so that they reflected the values of people besides urban policy wonks and geeks like ourselves.

We were able to look at how different demographics — including age, gender, employment status and income — valued different aspects of livability. In analyzing the data, we found some statistically significant differences. Let’s take a look at those and then, in a later post, we’ll look at how you can use those differences to cluster the factors in such a way that you could really pick a city just by asking yourself four questions. My thanks to Kevin Stolarick, Zara Matheson and Shawn Gilligan at the MPI for pulling this all together.

Let’s start with the most important factors and work our way through the list.

  1. Ability to afford housing that meets your/your family's needs

    This was No. 1 or 2 for just about everyone but higher for women, higher for anyone over age 35, higher for people without a college degree and higher for whites.
  2. Overall cost of living

    Like affordable housing, this was higher for women, anyone over age 35, people without a college degree and whites, but also for married couples.
  3. Crime rate

    Safety concerns were more important for women, older Americans, people in metro areas, whites and married couples.
  4. Quality health care

    The last item in what are basically the top tier of priorities, health care was more important for women, older Americans, those with a higher income, retirees and married couples.
  5. Climate

    Weather split the difference between the top tier and next tier of items we ranked. Here we saw higher rankings for women, older Americans, whites and those not working full-time.
  6. Available jobs

    Now we move into the second tier of importance. Jobs, perhaps because they're more important to the shrinking percentage of people actually in the workforce, slip down into this second tier. Higher weight was placed by women, those under age 55, those with children and anyone who wasn’t retired.
  7. Proximity to family and friends

    Overall, we expected this to rank more highly in terms of importance. After all, this is the reason most Americans don’t stray too far from their roots. Further, it’s a common trope that great people make a city a great place to live. That said, we saw higher scores from women, those with incomes higher than $50,000, and from minority racial and ethnic groups.
  8. Walkability

    It is perhaps a sign of shifting trends that walkability was valued overall more highly than commute time (which speaks to many infrastructure issues) and access to public transportation. Also of note, we saw little variance by age. We did see that it was more important for those with lower incomes and for those who aren’t married. That plays nicely into Livability’s research into the correlation between single-person households and carless households.
  9. Daily commute

    It was also a little surprising that commute time didn’t rank higher overall. For those who commute, it clearly comes into play every single working day in a very tangible way. But for the portion of the population who aren’t in the workforce, it’s not really important at all. Many Americans also live in areas with reasonable commute times and likely just take that for granted. Whatever the cause, this scored higher for women, for households with children and for those in the workforce.
  10. Quality public schools

    For those with kids, this is obviously very important. For those without, less so. As we get into the lower-ranked amenities, we start seeing negative correlations, too. So while this was ranked noticeably higher by those working full-time, it was ranked noticeably lower by retirees.
  11. Cultural institutions

    This became our first marker of density variations. The denser the area where our survey-takers lived, the higher they rated having access to cultural institutions. It also ranked higher for those with incomes higher than $50,000 (the national median), for college grads and for ethnic and racial minorities.
  12. Racial and ethnic diversity

    There is no end to the research about how diversity helps a region, but it’s not a major factor in where people choose to live. It was rated higher by women, by those in the workforce, and by ethnic and racial minorities.
  13. Public transportation

    This, perhaps like schools, is one of those necessary-if-you-need-it amenities. The profile isn’t shocking: higher for younger Americans, for lower-income Americans, for those who are non-married, for racial and ethnic minorities, and more important as region size increases. Want to know what almost all of those groups have in common? They’re growing in numbers and in their share of the demographic pie that is America.
  14. Leaning toward one political party

    We asked this question because we live in an increasingly polarized political climate. More and more people live in “safe” districts, which have been drawn in such a way that one party will likely control them for at least the rest of the decade, when the lines might get redrawn. We also live in a country that is divided along many political lines except one: Our cities are increasingly blue and everything else is increasingly red. So we wondered if that mattered at all to people in choosing where they’d live. And no, it doesn’t. However, it’s the first time we see something that matters more to men. It also matters more to those who are younger, have higher incomes, have higher degrees of educational attainment, are working, and to those who are members of racial or ethnic minorities.

Again, definitions of a "best place to live" vary from person to person and city to city. But, if you give a little thought and spend a little time looking at data like this, you can start to see how to plan improvements for a city that will be most appreciated by its residents.

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