Bert Sperling Answers Your “Best Places To Live” Questions
In his answers below, Sperling talks about the responsibilities that come with his job: he may add to a low-ranked city’s “woes,” or his ranking might serve as a catalyst for change; in the case of a place like Charlottesville, Va., Sperling’s top ranking brought so many people to the city that it had to form an advisory committee to deal with the growth.
Charlottesville residents, Sperling says, were “concerned that the quality of life that led to their No. 1 ranking would be eroded due to the increase in population growth.”
Of all the quality-of-life measurements Sperling uses, he says the local economy has the most effect on a city’s ranking. A few of the winners he mentions:
Omaha, Neb.: An up-and-coming creative town.
Tucson, Ariz.: One of the cleanest-air cities.
Boulder, Colo.: The most “outdoorsy” city.
Oxford, Miss.: One of the best places to retire.
Yet he cautions: “[N]o one should take my recommendations as gospel.”
Thanks to Sperling for his answers and all of you for your good questions.
Q: I’ve read various takes on the best cities for young singles, but I think many are flawed. For example, one city that comes up often is Washington, D.C.; but with its high rate of transiency, it’s hard to find a long-term relationship there. What factors do you look at, beyond the population of 20- and 30-something singles in a town/city?
A: I agree, most of these “best cities for singles” miss the boat. It’s easy to pick the places that have the most singles, and that’s a good starting place. After my own studies on this topic were released, I spoke considerably with the public and reporters about their experiences being single.
Many young, dynamic singles go to our largest cities to jump-start their careers. Places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, and Atlanta have the leading firms in their fields; young people are willing to spend 5 or 10 years being poor and working crazy hours to establish their credentials.
These big cities are also urban playgrounds, with a wonderful array of the most interesting performances, museums, restaurants, and other amenities to connect young people with each other. Singles studies often focus on availability of these potential connection spots, plus bars, gyms, and coffee shops.
Unfortunately, I hear all the time from singles that their work usually lasts until 8 p.m. (or later), and there’s barely enough time to grab some dinner and a drink before collapsing into bed and starting the routine again the next morning. Despite all the possibilities to meet new people, the reality seems to be that a single in a big city is confined to a narrow set of acquaintances and co-workers; sort of like dying of thirst in the middle of an ocean.
One of the other factors we look at is the density of the singles population; in order to connect with others like you, you have to be able to find them. I’ve heard from singles in Wichita and Kansas City about the problems of living in sprawling places.
And one thing that is hard to argue with is migration. If there are large numbers of singles or young people moving to or from a place, there is probably a good reason — many good reasons actually — for these singles to vote with their feet.
I think there is a matter of local culture which comes into play. A reporter from Seattle told me how, in that city, there seems to be a distinct lack of commitment from guys to take relationships to a more serious level. I would expect this to be considerably different from guys living in say, Utah or the Midwest. I’d like to find a good way to quantify this and decide how this fits into the “single” equation.
Q: How do you factor state and local taxes/fees into your rating system ?
A: I’ll take taxes into consideration if they have a special impact on the study, such as one focused on retirees or business. It’s very tough to account for all the ways that taxes can be levied.
Besides income and sales, there are also property taxes and license fees, and a host of special exemptions. Especially during this political season, we hear a lot about the stifling effect of high taxes. But some of the highest taxes in the U.S. are found in large cities, which continue to be highly desired places in which to live and conduct business.
The states with the lowest taxes? Wyoming and South Dakota, which seldom have cities appearing on best-places lists. Maybe we’re buying with those higher taxes after all.
Q: Don’t real estate prices already reflect how desirable an area within a region is? In the Bay Area, for example, one can just as easily live in East Palo Alto as Palo Alto, or Sunnyvale for that matter. It seems you can crunch numbers until the cows come home to come up with rankings, or just pick up the real-estate section and see the results of people voting with their pockets.
A: I’m reminded of a “voting with their feet” theory proposed by an economist about 10 years ago, arguing that people will naturally move to the most desirable, and therefore best, places. At this time, Las Vegas was the fastest-growing metro in the country, and therefore the best place to live.
Following this logic, shouldn’t McDonald’s have the world’s best meals?
But you’re talking about home prices, and I think they have more validity. Desirable places will command higher prices. The trick is to find places on their way up that haven’t yet been discovered and are still affordable. That’s part of what I try to do; I try to put some context behind high home prices.
Also, if you’re lucky enough to prefer a community that is different from the normal ideal of manicured lawns and tree-lined streets, then your own best place may be much more accessible.
Q: What do you think of Scandinavia? It’s a beautiful part of Europe with world-class design. However, how rich does one have to be to live comfortably over there?
Have you seen the Monocle list? Do you think Copenhagen is really the best one?
A: It is beautiful there. My family is only a generation removed from Scandinavia, and I spent a few years growing up in Oslo.
One downside is the climate, which makes our rainy Northwest and upstate New York winters seem like Miami Beach by comparison. And the cost of living can be very high, with high taxes.
But several recent studies have declared some of the Scandinavian countries as having the highest quality of life, and the most contented people. Despite that, I’ve not heard of too many people emigrating there from the U.S. Most Americans seem interested in sunnier, warmer climes, such as Italy, France, or Eastern Europe.
Q: To what extent do your ratings influence what happens in a given city? For example, obviously there were already problems in Modesto, but do you think your low rankings made it worse?
A: I think studies and rankings like mine have a definite effect, but in concert with other “stories” over a period of time. They play a major role in developing the brand of a city. Our studies represent an independent recommendation of a place, and I’ve spoken with city development officials who said a “top ten” ranking makes their jobs much easier because new or existing businesses can attract and retain top talent.
For cities that rank well, studies can add to the crush of people moving there to find a great quality of life. For cities at the bottom of the rankings, it adds to their woes as their problems are publicized.
When our first edition of Cities Ranked and Rated listed Charlottesville, Va., as the best city to live in, growth increased to the point that a citizens’ advisory committee (Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population) formed to stem the growth.
They were concerned that the quality of life that led to their No. 1 ranking would be eroded due to the increase in population growth. Growth is difficult; some embrace it, but it does change the complexion of a city.
In some cases, our findings have been used by top-ranked cities to help plan for future growth. In other cases, poor rankings have been used as calls to action by city officials, who say their city can do better and needs to work towards raising its community’s livability.
This power to influence puts a lot of responsibility on me, and I take it very seriously.
Q: I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska, and as much as it pains me to admit it, it was a great place to do so. Alaska is the worst place in America to grow up overall; I hope you note that.
A: I currently live in Oregon, which is pretty close to Alaska, so of course we Oregonians know all about Alaska; we can sort of see it from our front doors.
Kidding aside, I spent part of my youth growing up in Kodiak, which was great. It’s been said that everyone in Alaska is there to get away from something. While this is less true than it once was, it is still a land of rugged individualism, where liberal and conservative values can swing wide from the center and meet back again somewhere in the middle in a kind of loopy libertarianism.
Wasilla is a fast-growing small suburb of the Anchorage metro area. It shares many of challenges of similar small towns in the lower 48 states, and it seems to be handling them pretty well.
In general, all of Alaska has a high cost of living due to its isolation, and the state is unique among our states with the impact of the energy industry on its budget. Life in larger metros like Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau is not that different, in some ways, from other U.S. cities — but many remote communities exist in crippling poverty with uncertain futures.
In short, Alaska, like Hawaii, is a totally unique and wonderful state with many different facets.
Q: It seems as though in the last 5 to 10 years every city in the U.S. that I travel to frequently keeps getting nicer (except Detroit). Has this been any sort of actual trend? Also, do you think all that’s happening in finance right now will greatly affect New York City in any major way?
A: First, New York is an iconic city and will continue to survive; but it will certainly feel the consequences of this economic downturn, and in far-reaching and unexpected ways.
I don’t have a sort of overall quality-of-life measurement, just comparisons that measure places against each other. But I don’t think I would say that, on a overall scale, places are getting better — though there are some appealing trends.
I like the way the flight to the suburbs is being reversed in many cities, and how inner-city cores are taking on a new life. Roads, bridges, and other infrastructure improvements have been sadly neglected in every state, and this bill is fast coming due. We’ve been told that government is the problem and that taxes can and should be cut, but we haven’t come to grips with the long-term impact.
Of all the measurements of quality of life, I would say that the single one which has the most effect is the economy. When the local economy suffers, less funds are available for social services for the poor, the elderly, and the young. Crime usually increases due to increased social pressures and curbed police resources. Businesses enter into downward spirals that can take decades to escape, and there are fewer resources for city services and civic improvements.
Some cities have benefited greatly from our most recent burst of economic activity. Las Vegas became known as a hot spot of affordable housing, and it was — for a while. Speculation set in, prices climbed, and now it suffers from a glut of empty, overpriced houses and condos. The same thing happened in much of Florida.
From what I’ve seen, every boom of uncontrolled growth is followed by a painful down period. I like to say that after a crazy party there’s always a mess to clean up the next day, and a nasty hangover to boot. Scale this up to the national level, and we are all probably in for a rough time.
However, high energy prices could reverse the trend towards ever-larger homes, and they could revitalize small towns that have seen their businesses evaporate when no one thought twice anymore about making a 15-minute drive to buy groceries, have a meal, or get a haircut.
I remain hopeful.
Q: I live in the northern suburbs of Dallas. While this is an “easy” place to raise a family, I find the sameness of the stores, politics, and geography to be a bit fatiguing. It is always hot and I have mountain withdrawal. Is an “easy” place to live different from an interesting place to visit?
A: Your question reminds me of a study I did of the Most Photogenic Cities, for which I interviewed photographers and photojournalists. What they sought was variety and diversity in the residents as well as climate and geography.
Urban sociologist Richard Florida’s theory of the “creative class” posits that a diverse creative population is the basis of a healthy and interesting community, and also provides the foundation for a vibrant economy.
There certainly appears to be a solid correlation between cultural diversity, creative workers, and a strong economy. I’m just not sure if existence of a creative segment catalyzes the economic growth, or if a strong economy provides the environment for the growth of the creative class.
Regardless, as you noted in your question, there is something special about a culturally diverse place that challenges its residents and visitors to grow and prosper. Some of the places that are gaining reputations as creative cities are New York, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, and even Omaha.
Q: The best place to live is a small town in New Hampshire which I will not mention. Everyone please stay away.
A: Don’t worry, I will never tell anyone about Merrimack!
Q: Pollution from factories and cars and contamination of water are important things to consider when choosing a place to live. What place is the cleanest?
A: Among larger cities, Tucson has some of the cleanest air. There are two main categories of air pollution: ozone and particulate matter. The latter doesn’t sting your eyes but may be more deadly because the smallest particles lodge deep in the lungs and are never expelled.
Some places with severe particulate pollution may have substantially less ozone pollution, such as Pittsburgh.
Q: Where’s the best place to live is if you really like outdoors, especially skiing?
A: Boulder, Colo., is perhaps the most outdoorsy city in the U.S. It seems like everyone there is into biking, running, hiking, skiing, or climbing. Hood River, Ore., is also an outdoor hot spot, with nearby Mount Hood — the home of the only year-round skiing venue in the U.S. Portland and Seattle are recognized as larger cities with outdoor aesthetics.
Q: How do you look at weather in your rankings? It seems like all weather weightings in rankings just focus on how warm it stays in the winter and not how miserable some places are in the summer.
A: Climate preference is a very personal thing, so we tend to downplay it in the rankings. Many people love Minneapolis or Atlanta, and I prefer the mild climate of the West Coast (and no humidity!). But when asked, most people point to San Diego as having the ideal climate.
Q: Have you ever been offered a bribe by a city or incorporated township of any kind in exchange for artificially raising said metropolis’ standing in your rankings? Or perhaps for lowering some other region’s rating?
A: I’ve never received any sort of enticement or pressure that might influence my analysis. Sure, I’m sent hefty packets of informational literature from mayors and economic-development offices, but surprisingly nothing more than that.
Q: A system tailored to individual preferences is a wonderful idea, but I frequently take issue with broad pronouncements such as the overall “best places to live.” I fear that some people might put too much stock in these studies and fail to see that they really are arbitrarily weighted factors chosen by someone else. To what extent do you emphasize that the “best places to live” should be taken with a large grain of salt?
A: Well, our studies are never arbitrary; we always take them very seriously. And I always stress that no one should take my recommendations as gospel. They should use my rankings as a starting place to consider places for further investigation, places that they would not have otherwise considered.
Have a visit, spend some time there. Subscribe to the local paper for a couple of months.
Q: Has Richard Florida’s work, especially around the cultural diversity of cities making them more desirable, influenced your research?
A: Yes, it has. Dr. Florida’s work regarding the “creative class” has identified the relationship between the “creatives” of a city and their contributions, which flow beyond mere entertainment to helping create a healthy and robust economy and quality of life. In his new book Who’s Your City?, Florida explores how where we live impacts all aspects of our professional and personal lives.
After personal basics are achieved (job, security, housing), people want an interesting place to live and be involved. So the presence of these creative amenities and the residents who help enable them are part of what we look for in a great place to live.
Many of the urban places we identify as really interesting, like SoHo and Greenwich Village, started as neighborhoods that were tolerant of alternative lifestyles and creativity was free to grow.
Sadly, it’s a typical progression that these places then become more desirable, property values rise, and the original inhabitants are forced to relocate. I’ve heard that Philadelphia is a new hot spot for creative types who are lured by its (relatively) inexpensive inner-city structures. Philly has been nicknamed “The Sixth Borough.”
Q: The state of Florida does not seem to be represented in the top 50 of the Best Places to Live rankings compared to other high-population states. Why is that?
A: Actually, Gainesville was ranked No. 1 in our latest edition of Cities Ranked and Rated. But generally, much of Florida has become way overpriced, and we saw a housing market about to crash. Now that the housing market is painfully sorting itself out, I expect that we’ll see some more Florida cities in the top spots.
Q: How does one choose between Portland and Seattle, a choice it appears you have made already?
A: Seattle is more mature than Portland, which has recently captured the crown of hip, affordable, West Coast city. I think Portland, being smaller, is more accessible than Seattle. It’s also somewhat more affordable, at least for a while.
Seattle is crippled by continually nasty traffic congestion because it’s confined by water on the east and west. But Seattle has a more diverse economy, which may be better able to weather the coming economic storm.
Q: Is the United States a nation of cities or states?
A: I think the U.S. is a nation of many different communities. Some are a function of geography and some of common interests. States serve a regional governance function, but I think most people identify with their city or metro area. When someone says they’re a New Yorker, chances are slim they’re talking about the state.