Best Places to Live Ranking Methodology

Methodology: The making of our lists

The LivScore for each city is a composite of more than 40 data points. Those data points were grouped into the eight categories below. The methodology gives an overview of how we calculated the score. But why did we focus on demographics, amenities, education and others? How do they actually influence livability? How can transportation make a city a best place to live? Read these stories for a more detailed discussion.

The Making of Our 2016 Best Places to Live List

Welcome to the fine print. The creation of our Best Places to Live ranking is a months-long process. As a site named Livability, we take our list with appropriate seriousness. The process is as scientific as possible with some art thrown in. We start by assembling the best team of partners, advisors and data providers possible.

Our Team

We joined with two new colaborators for our third annual list: The Initiative for Creativity and Innovation in Cities at New York University’s Schools of Professional Studies. The program, directed by renowned urbanist Richard Florida and Steven Pedigo, is training the next generation of 21st-century city leaders and conducting the research that will enable them to better do their jobs. Also partnering with us for the first time is the team from Emsi, which models economic data into actionable intelligence for city leaders.

We also leaned on our stellar advisory board for input on what to measure and how to find the proper data. Together, we all built on the great framework for evaluating cities we’ve developed with previous partners, the Martin Prosperity Institute. We didn’t want to reinvent our process – it has produced two great lists of small to mid-sized Best Places to Live. We wanted to continue its evolution.

As in previous years, we did not want to rely just on our own perspectives of what’s important in great cities and towns. We wanted to get input from Americans across a spectrum of lives and lifestyles. We again partnered with one of the leading global market research firms, Ipsos Public Affairs, to survey 2,000 American adults about what they find important in the communities in which they live and which they might one day consider moving to. A detailed dissection of the survey data can be found in this Business Climate white paper.

Data Sources

Once we had our theoretical framework in place, we layered in hundreds of thousands of data points. We pull in data from the best data sources available. Our trusted sources include public-sector providers such as U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Affairs and Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Broadband Map, and The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We also source data from leading private-sector sources including Esri, EmsiWalk Score and Great Schools, and even nonprofits like, the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Americans for the Arts.

We distilled all of this down into 45 data points across eight categories (to see in detail what data goes into which categories, see our ranking criteria stories). Our universe was more than 2,000 cities throughout the U.S. with populations between 20,000 and 350,000. Each city was given eight category scores based on how the city ranked for those data points. The category results were then weighted based on the priorities set forth by you and your fellow citizens based on our 2,000-person, demographically balanced survey.

As always, some enhancements were made to our methodology. First, we introduced a new custom variable created for us by our partner, Emsi. This variable looked at the growth rates for quality, high-paying jobs in the region. We also added measures of hospital quality into our health-care section and a measure of drought levels to address the critical water shortages facing portions of nation. It’s hard to imagine something more important to livability than access to water. To that end, we also augmented the environmental quality data that we’d included in the past.

Finally, we ran a number of simulations and tests to make sure that no one variable or combination of variables created undue influence on the final results. This process is really where some of the art weighs in with the science, yet even this portion of the process relies on a series of statistical measures, checks and benchmarks.

Does this mean that it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to previous lists? Sort of. Some cities are going to be new to the list, some are going to fall off. Some will inevitably move up and down. It’s good to keep in mind that every city in the top 100 is in the top 5 percent of the cities we consider. They’re all pretty great places to live.

The goal is always to get smarter about how we evaluate places, stay attuned to changing definitions of livability, and always hunt for better sources of data and methodologies for measuring.

Guiding principles

Access

Our research (and common sense) shows that a good city needs a strong foundation: reputable schools, hospitals, airports and infrastructure, low crime, and a good climate. The great cities differentiate themselves by the quality of their amenities like parks, golf courses, farmers markets, and arts and culture. The natural and built environment are factors we consider as well.

Affordability

Affordability is about more than just cost. Income comes into play, too. We layered several variables related to spending on broad categories like housing, transportation, health care and food, as well as data about jobs, income and income inequality to ensure we were finding cities where livability isn't a luxury but is the norm.

Diversity

Our first definition of diversity relates to choice. The more options a city offers, the more it can be livable for everyone. For example, by looking at the percentage of commuters who don't drive alone, you can gage if there are transportation options. We rewarded cities that offer residents the most flexibility in choosing a hospital, housing, school, park, farmers market and commuting mode. Our second definition relates to racial, ethnic, age and economic diversity. We want cities that are livable for people of all walks and stages of life.

Utilization

Finally, having all of these great things is important, but so is using them. Esri provided us with lifestyle variables that allowed us to see which residents were making the most of the opportunities in their cities.

We wanted the list to celebrate cities that were livable for everyone. We know any list is going to create some argument. You’ll wonder why your city isn’t on the list or why it isn’t ranked higher – unless you live in Rochester. There is no perfect methodology, but we want ours to be as thorough, tested, rational and transparent as possible. Let us know what you think, and feel free to shoot us any questions. We’re happy to debate this all day.

Matt Carmichael
Editor
Livability.com

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