Special Report

America's 50 Best Cities to Live

To determine America’s 50 best cities to live in, 24/7 Wall St. considered the roughly 550 cities that the U.S. Census Bureau reported as having populations more than 65,000 residents in 2014. Only the top performing city in each county was considered in our ranking. Data were collected in nine major categories: crime, demography, economy, education, environment, health, housing, infrastructure, and leisure.

Within each category, specific measures contributed to a city’s overall category score. For example, the economy category included median household income adjusted for cost of living, the ratio between a city’s and its state’s median household income, poverty and unemployment rates, as well as a city’s three-year employment growth. Each measure was adjusted to range from 0 to 1 using min-max normalization, with lower scores indicating better outcomes. In some cases, such as median household income, higher scores represented favorable measures. When this was the case, we inverted each index by subtracting the normalized score from 1.

Normalizing each measure, as opposed to aggregating category scores in other ways, allowed us to weight individual measures for added importance rather than entire categories. It also enabled us to expose the principal components of our index — those measures with wider variation that disproportionately determine the rank of a city’s composite score. The housing category, for example, had the widest range, giving it the greatest pull in our index. Crime and economy also had large variances.

We did not include any measures in the demography category in our composite index. However, this category provided exclusion rules. Cities that are better to live in often attract job seekers and their families. Conversely, labor market slack, unaffordable housing, high crime rates, or a myriad of other negative factors may induce people to move to a different city with better prospects. Thus, we excluded cities with negative five- or 10-year population growth rates. Population figures are from the Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey (ACS).

The crime category consists of both violent and property crime rates from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2014 Uniform Crime Report. High crime rates have the potential to make a city less desireable to live in. As a result, cities with crime rates lower than the national rates were rewarded, while cities with high crime rates relative to the nation were penalized.

A strong economy and labor market are, for some, the only considerations when determining where to live. The economy category includes a city’s 2014 unemployment rate and employment growth from 2012-2014, both from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, we considered the poverty rate, which, if too high, may deter prospective residents from moving to the city. Cities were penalized for having poverty rates above the national rate of 15.5%. Our goal was to identify cities that were liveable for everyone, not just the rich. Still, if incomes are too low, a city may not be desireable. To that end, we adjusted median household income for cost of living in the city. Cities were penalized if cost-adjusted incomes were less than $43,000 or more than $107,000, roughly 80% to 200% of a typical household’s income nationwide. Poverty rates and median income came from the ACS. Cost of living data came from Homefacts.

A strong school system may be another consideration for parents looking to move. As a proxy for school system strength, we considered high school standardized test scores relative to state scores from Homefacts. Test score data is for 2014, or the most recent available year. Additionally, the education category included the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree from the ACS, as well as the number of colleges and universities in a city per 100,000 residents from the Department of Education.

For people who like being outdoors — either for work or pleasure — a city’s air quality and weather may be of chief importance. Whereas other measures in this index are specific to an individual city, many metrics in this category describe the county in which the city is located because weather is likely similar, if not the same, between those two geographies. Using data from Homefacts, we constructed an air quality index, which assessed levels of a number of pollutants on a given day. We also looked at average summer and winter temperatures in each area. However, rather than penalizing cities in, say, New England, for having colder than average winters, we compared each city’s temperature to seasonal averages within its own Census region. In some ways, this allowed us to capture people’s expectations of a city’s temperature. For example, without knowing the precise location of Eagan, Minnesota, the fifth best city to live in, one might expect the city to have cold winters given the region in which the city is located. We also considered average monthly rainfall from Homefacts.

Access to quality hospitals may be another reason Americans live in the places they do. From the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), we calculated 30-day risk-adjusted mortality rates of heart attacks, COPD, heart failure, pneumonia, and stroke. Also from CMS, we looked at the rate at which individuals were readmitted to a hospital within 30 days of being discharged. Additionally, we included the Leapfrog Group’s hospital grading, which considers a host of measures related to a hospital’s care delivery and patient response surveys. This category also includes preventable hospitalizations — the share of hospitalizations that could have been treated with outpatient or ambulatory care for every 1,000 Medicare recipients from County Health Rankings.

For many American homeowners, homes constitute the vast majority of wealth. An investment of this magnitude requires careful consideration and may be the chief reason that people decide to live where they do. In our housing index, we considered the ratio of a city’s median home value to the statewide median value. Cities were penalized if home values in a city were less than 90% of statewide home values. Conversely, if home values were typically 25% higher in the city than across the state, high barriers to entry exist that can make a city unaffordable. As an additional measure of affordability, we included the ratio of median home value to median household income. This ratio — called a price-to-income ratio — helps identify cities that are liveable for a broad audience. We also considered median property taxes as a percentage of median home value. All data in this category came from the 2014 ACS.

Proximity to work may be another factor in determining where to live. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Americans waste nearly 7 billion hours — or $160 billion — to commuter traffic congestion. From the ACS, we considered the percentage of commuters travelling to work by foot or public transportation. Additionally, we reviewed the average time it takes to travel to work each day. Lastly, we included the number of airports in the metro area in which the city is located. There are, for example, no airports in New York County, the primary county in New York City. However, at least three major airports exist outside county limits — and within the metro area — that service people who live in the city. Airport data came from the Federal Aviation Administration and only considers operational public-use and commercial airports as of 2015.

The leisure category can be broken into two parts — activities that take place in the city and outside it. Within a city, residents may take advantage of restaurants and bars, libraries and archives, theater companies, fitness and recreational sports centers, museums, movie theaters, hotels, or support amateur and professional sports teams. To engage in other pastimes — skiing, for example — residents likely have to leave city limits. Thus, we included in this index the number of zoos, nature parks, ski resorts, and golf courses in the county surrounding the city. All data in this category were aggregated to the city level from 2013 Zip Code Business Patterns, a program maintained by the Census and adjusted for the city’s 2014 population.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article we incorrectly reported that St. George, Utah borders Colorado. In fact, St. George borders Arizona.

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