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Why Do Cities Move Around on Livability’s Lists and Rankings?

Why would a city drop off the list or pop near the top? Does it matter?

By Matt Carmichael on September 14, 2015

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In our third annual Top 100 Best Places to Live ranking, you’ll see about 40 percent of the cities on the list are new. Of the 60 “repeaters,” many have moved up or down the list from their previous spots. Does it mean that Asheville is suddenly not as great a place to live as it used to be? Why does that happen?

The answer is part simple and part complicated, but the overall takeaway should be that it’s not worth getting caught up in the details. Livability’s ranking looks at more than 2,100 cities with populations between 20,000 and 350,000. Many of these cities, towns, boroughs and villages are perfectly fine places to live. Some, maybe not so much, but all of the Top 100 – from Rochester, Minn., all the way to Bethesda, Md., therefore score in the top 5 percent. Not bad, eh? Or perhaps we should say “A” because that’s the letter grade each of these cities would get.

Not satisfied?

Ok, the simple reason is that each year we tweak our methodology and update our data sources. We are always looking for new sources and new metrics by which we can measure the livability of cities. It’s especially tricky because we need as much of the data at the city-level as possible, and it has to be comparable across all 2,100-plus cities. So each year, we work with our partners and our advisory board to see if we should keep our existing sources or if there are new providers we should vet and include. As an example, this year – in response to a concern about the number of California cities on our list and their relative lack of water – we added a drought indicator. Also, our new partner Emsi was able to create a new measure for us about the availability of quality, high-income jobs in an area.

The other big reason cities move is because our ranking is weighted based on an exclusive national survey, conducted by our partner Ipsos Public Affairs. As preferences and priorities shift – even slightly – it can have an impact on how the cities stack up. If a city scored well on health care and its relative importance dipped a bit – perhaps the Affordable Care Act is leveling the playing field? – then its overall score might decline. 

The more complicated answer is because this is a data-driven ranking, as opposed to a “reputational” ranking which would have less fluctuation. Think about college football pre-season rankings. Many are based on asking people close to the game like coaches or sports writers who they think will do well. To some extent, those results are based on a deep knowledge of team competitiveness, but there’s also an extent to which reputation factors in. Some schools are just assumed to do well because they have in previous years. The season might prove otherwise as it continues. But at the start, it’s easy to fall back on predicting the future by looking at what happened in the past.

This is true of many college rankings. Earlier in his career, John Vidmar, now Chairman of Ipsos Public Affairs US, worked on college and university rankings for a major U.S. publication. He understands why those rankings tend to be more consistent, by their nature.

“Reputation is not something by definition that is built overnight. It is built on people’s experience with you over the long haul. For that reason, it should not change overnight,” he says. “That is not to say that we can not do something grievously wrong to destroy our reputation in the short run. In general, reputation is about things we have heard, seen from others as well as ourselves, that are gathered together and then synthesized.”

Back to city rankings. In 1970, a group called MRI put together an early, comprehensive data-driven ranking of cities. Decades ago, Portland, Ore., was No. 1 for large cities. The data said so even decades ago. But Portland’s reputation as a great place to live really didn’t take off until much more recently.

None of this is to say that cities can’t actually change and improve their quality of life and their position in rankings. Cities in the Dakotas and Montana have seen population and economic growth due to the energy industry in the last decade. Many of those cities have been able to invest in infrastructure and cultural improvements and have seen their rankings increase. Likewise, cities in the industrial Midwest have arguably become less livable as the manufacturing jobs that drove them for so many decades have transitioned away. Can an Akron or a Buffalo or a Detroit come back? Sure, and hopefully they will. Detroit’s reputation is already starting to turn as it comes out of bankruptcy, and it even had net in-migration between 2012 and 2013.

But again, the point is that while cities can and do change, our ranking will likely change faster. What we hope is that as new cities pop up on our Top 100, it will shine some light on a place that might easily have sat at number 101 or 110 last year. Take a look around. Not every place will be perfect for you, but there’s likely a great fit among these 100 and all of them are solid picks as great places to live.

It’s easy to fall back on predicting the future by looking at what happened in the past.
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