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Best places to live, Madison, Wisconsin

The Best Places To Live Ranking Is Out: Is Your City On It?

Surprising choices top list of latest best places to live ranking.

Size and location doesn’t matter when it comes to best places to live, work and play in America. What’s more important in making the second-annual list of the top 100 places as determined by is communities that have an institutional setting. That may include a state capital, major hospital system and a college or university, says Matt Carmichael, the site’s editor.

Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin that has 235,000 residents, topped the list followed by Rochester, MI; Arlington, VA; Boulder, CO; Palo Alto, CA; Berkeley, CA; Santa Clara, CA; Missoula, MT; Boise, ID and Iowa City.

“One thing we find for the top cities is they’re anchored by some sort of major institution,” Carmichael says. “Whether that’s a college or university, a major hospital system or a state capital, Madison has two of those three. I think having an institution like that helps a small-to mid-size city punch above its weight a little bit. It brings economic stability in terms of job creation and in terms of recession-proof industries. It brings a lot of talent coming in. It tends to bring in a level of cultural amenities and cultural programming that you might not get in a similarly-sized city without an institution. It’s not a hard and fast rule and just having those doesn’t make you a great place, but it certainly helps.”

Alrington, VA
Arlington, VA

More than 30 states are represented from coast to coast, but doesn’t release the list beyond the top 100 of the more than 2,000 surveyed between 20,000 and 350,000. Getting in the top 100, which is the top five percent, is considered an A by any measure, he says.

“All of these cities are great places to live and not just the top 10. You’ll find great communities to live and work,” Carmichael says.

Carmichael says researchers analyzed more than 40 data points that were grouped into eight categories—economics, housing, amenities, infrastructure, demographics, social and civic capital, education and healthcare. The eight scores were weighted based on a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, a global market research firm. Respondents were asked about factors that make their communities better places to live, as well as the factors they would consider in selecting another city.

In terms of scoring, there wasn’t a correlation between size and score, which Carmichael says speaks well to the way they did the list. Some of the factors that make up the scores are the percentage of those 55 and up, healthcare spending, median home prices, low cost of living, the presence of a college and cultural amenities, Carmichael says.

Boulder, CO

When choosing where to retire, older adults consider the best places to retire as communities where they can stay active, healthy, engaged and inspired, Carmichael says. For this list, they make sure to include as many different opinions as many different age groups as possible, he says.

“There are a number of things we measure that would translate well to the over 50 crowd, but we want these cities to work for everyone,” Carmichael says. “There are a number of factors here that would speak well to an older community such as access to healthcare, affordability of healthcare, walkability, access to transportation besides the car, affordable housing and whether there are enough rental units.”

Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964 (and now aged 49 to 67), currently make up the largest part of the US population. For the next decade their lifestyle habits will impact communities, especially as they redefine traditional ideas of what retirement means, Carmichael says.

“These retirees prefer to keep learning and experiencing new things as they age, and tend to seek more diverse climates, demographics and activities. In other words, places offering little more than just sunny days on the golf course and heated games of bingo and bridge have become less appealing,” Carmichael says. partnered with the research team at the Martin Prosperity Institute, which is part of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and is the leading think tank on the role of location, place and city-regions in global economic prosperity, Carmichael says. To better understand what retirees were looking for in a community, Carmichael says they worked with the Martin Prosperity Institute to parse the data in the livability survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs.

“They helped us measure the relative importance of livability criteria for retirees versus the population as a whole,” Carmichael says. “We found that healthcare, housing and cost of living were most important to older Americans, followed by transportation, parks, crime and cultural amenities. Weather wasn’t so much a factor.”

Many of top 100 have colleges that provide residents with continuing education opportunities, and often free or discounted classes, lectures and workshops for older Americans, Carmichael says.

Baton Rouge, LA
Baton Rouge, LA will put out a list in November on best places to retire. Last year, Cincinnati topped the list. It was followed by St. Louis, Baton Rouge, LA, Provo, UT and Pittsburgh.

“Even the best places to retire, we want them to work for all age groups and not just the retirement community, but we skew it more that way,” Carmichael says. “Because of that, you’ll see a lot of cities on our best places to retire that aren’t necessarily on the some other lists because it’s not just about being great cities for senior citizens. They have to work for everybody else, too.”

Livability does a separate list for those cities smaller than 20,000 and those larger than 350,000. Carmichael says they did their best to be geographically balanced, but sometimes the data won’t let them.

“California does very well on this list. It’s either an accident in the data or it’s a something that speaks very well of California being a great place to live,” Carmichael says. “We have cities in both Northern and Southern California and both up and down both coasts.”

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