Moving within the United States from one city to another is much more common today. No matter the reasons for the move – buying a house, looking for a new job, leaving home for the first time – it remains a major undertaking. A host of factors play an important role in the decision where to move, including the quality of schools, the strength of the local economy and job market, safety, culture, and even climate. Americans facing this decision have much to consider.
To determine America’s best cities to live in, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data on the 550 U.S. cities with populations of 65,000 or more as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau. Based on a range of variables, including crime rates, employment growth, access to restaurants and attractions, educational attainment, and housing affordability, 24/7 Wall St. identified America’s 50 Best Cities to Live.
ALSO READ: America’s 50 Best Cities to Live
According to Elise Gould, senior economist with nonprofit think tank the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “most people move because of jobs.” Indeed, for many families on the move, the prospect of obtaining a job is often the most important – if not the only – consideration. For this reason, 24/7 Wall St. weighed this factor heavily when identifying the best places to live.
Of the 50 best cities to live, 41 have unemployment rates below the national rate, and all but five have had faster recent job growth than the national job growth rate. Incomes in these cities, when adjusted for cost of living, exceed the national household income of $53,657 in the vast majority of cases.
The affordability of housing was another key measure in our assessment of U.S. cities. The median home value in all but nine of the 50 cities exceeds the value of a typical American home of $181,200. Since housing prices are often tied to local and statewide market forces, a particular city’s home value was more often compared to statewide home prices. In all but a handful of the best cities to live, the city’s median home value was greater than the comparable state figure. In six of the 50 cities, a typical home was valued more than double the statewide value.
The ability to live safely in a given area is also a top priority for American families on the move. The violent crime rate, therefore, was another key measure when determining the best cities to live. Because violent crime rates tend to correlate with other measures of livability, these cities tend to have very low crime. The violent crime rate in the vast majority of the best cities to live is less than half the national violent crime rate of 365 per 100,000 residents.
Population growth was not part of our assessment of cities, but we excluded cities with negative population growth from our analysis. The most desirable cities to live in tended to have above-average population growths in the last decade.
As Gould observed, designing a singular index of this kind can be a challenge because people move to – and either grow to love or hate – a city for a variety of often-personal reasons. Indeed, while jobs are a major determining factor for a move, people often prefer to stay where they are because of other reasons. “And that could be city amenities, it could also be proximity to family and friends,” Gould said.
Many of the best cities are located near major cities, as this proximity provides residents with access to good schools while living in safe neighborhoods. It also allows them to enjoy the amenities available in the nearby larger cities.
Perhaps surprisingly, none of America’s largest cities are on this list. There is no New York, Los Angeles, or Houston among the best places to live. Nearly all of the biggest cities in the country by population had crime rates that automatically excluded them from consideration. Additionally, the largest cities tend to have higher poverty rates, making them less likely to qualify.
10. Layton, Utah
> Population: 72,223
> Median home value: $212,500
> Poverty rate: 6.8%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 31.9%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 296.3
Layton, nestled between Salt Lake City and Ogden, is America’s 10th best place to live. The typical household in Layton makes $65,504 annually, and a typical home costs $212,500 – about $10,000 cheaper than home prices in Utah. Layton’s job market is also quite healthy. The city’s 3.7% unemployment rate is one of the lowest of any city, and employment grew by 7.1% in the last two years – 5.3 percentage points ahead of the rest of the country. Layton residents have ample access to restaurants, fitness centers, movie theaters, and one of the best hospitals nationwide. Davis Hospital has some of the fewest preventable hospitalizations and patient readmissions of any metropolitan hospital.
ALSO READ: 10 Brands That Will Disappear in 2016
9. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
> Population: 78,759
> Median home value: $165,300
> Poverty rate: 14.8%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 24.7%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 292.0
Bethlehem’s population has spiked by 15.6% over the last 10 years, better than the national growth rate of 10.6%. Now home to roughly 79,000, the eastern Pennsylvania city is one of the most liveable in the United States. Every year, the roughly 5,000 students enrolled at Lehigh University return to Bethlehem, and as is the case with many other college towns, Bethlehem is affordable. The costs associated with healthcare, transportation, and utilities are all below the national average. The city, which formerly served as the headquarters for Bethlehem Steel, has an abundance of attractions and restaurants. The city has a significantly higher share of eateries, libraries, and museums than the nation as a whole.
8. Waukesha, Wisconsin
> Population: 71,482
> Median home value: $182,300
> Poverty rate: 12.6%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 34.7%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 253.2
A suburb of Milwaukee, Waukesha is America’s eighth best place to live. Originally a spa town, people flocked to Waukesha in the late 19th century for its clean spring water and resorts. The Great Lakes city has a humid continental climate with mild summers and moderate rainfall. Today, people migrate to Waukesha – its population increased by 14.0% in the past decade, 3.4 percentage points ahead of the national growth rate – for its relatively cheap estate and low crime rates. Last year, Waukesha reported about 127 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, close to two-thirds fewer than the national violent crime rate.
7. Goodyear, Arizona
> Population: 75,676
> Median home value: $243,000
> Poverty rate: 12.1%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 24.8%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 211.4
The typical household in Goodyear earns roughly $70,000 annually, nearly $20,000 higher than the median household income across Arizona. Goodyear also has a lower poverty rate. While 18.2% of Arizona residents live in poverty, only 12.1% of Goodyear residents live in poverty. Goodyear is also a relatively safe place. With 132 incidences of violent crime per 100,000 residents annually, the city’s violent crime rate is less than half that of the state a whole.
In Goodyear, weather is usually favorable for outdoor activities. Average temperatures stay over 50 degrees in the winter months and hover just above 90 degrees through the summer. It is perhaps no coincidence that no other part of the country has a higher count of golf courses relative to the population.
6. Cary, North Carolina
> Population: 155,724
> Median home value: $298,800
> Poverty rate: 7.3%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 61.8%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 256.2
Cary is a wealthy suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital. Although the typical home in Cary costs $298,000 – $83,000 more than in Raleigh and almost twice the price of real estate in North Carolina as a whole – residents can afford it. The typical household in Cary makes $92,000 a year, almost twice the statewide median household income. Moreover, when adjusted for the city’s low cost of living, that figure increases by about $4,000.
Cary has one of the most educated populations nationwide – nearly 62% of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. The nearby Research Triangle Park (RTP), a corporate research center located between UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, and NC State, employs much of Cary’s qualified workforce. Only 3.7% of the city’s workforce is unemployed. A bulk of Cary’s workforce works in or around RTP, and just 3.7% are unemployed, one of the lowest unemployment rates of any city. Cary is also one of the safest places in America. In the past decade, the city’s population grew 44.9%, one of the largest increases nationwide.
ALSO READ: The Worst Cities for Black Americans
5. Eagan, Minnesota
> Population: 66,087
> Median home value: $243,200
> Poverty rate: 7.9%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 52.1%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 186.1
With a population of just over 66,000, Eagan is not an especially large city. However, located just across the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Eagan residents do not have to travel more than 20 miles to access a major metropolitan area. Also, unlike the Twin Cities, Eagan is one of the safest cities in the country. Only 24 violent crimes were reported in 2014 making Eagan home to the sixth lowest violent crime rate of any city in the country. One possible explanation for the low violent crime rate may be the city’s low unemployment rate. Only 3.3% of Eagan’s workforce is out of a job, a lower unemployment rate than in all but 10 U.S. cities.
While the cost of living in Eagan is roughly 2% higher than it is on average across the nation, incomes are also higher. The typical U.S. household earns $53,657 annually. The median household income in Eagan, however, is $78,884 per year, about $25,000 more than the national figure.
4. Centennial, Colorado
> Population: 107,193
> Median home value: $328,800
> Poverty rate: 4.8%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 56.3%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 383.4
Higher educational attainment usually leads to higher incomes, and while only about 30% of American adults have a bachelor’s degree, more than half of all adults living in Centennial have a bachelor’s degree. The typical household in Centennial earns more than $91,000 annually, about $30,000 more than the typical Colorado household. The city also has a low poverty rate. Only 4.8% of Centennial residents live below the poverty line compared to a poverty rate of 12.0% in Colorado and a national rate of 15.5%. Centennial high schools also yield better results than high schools across the state. Standardized test scores are about 6% higher in the area than they are across Colorado. Growing slightly faster than the U.S. population, Centennial expanded by 6.6% over the five years through 2014 to its current level of roughly 107,000 residents.
3. Johns Creek, Georgia
> Population: 83,108
> Median home value: $332,700
> Poverty rate: 4.5%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 66.9%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 629.3
While Georgia generally fares worse than most states in many social and economic measures, Johns Creek residents benefit from high incomes, low poverty, high levels of education, and plenty of amenities. The median annual household income in Johns Creek is nearly $100,000, roughly double the state’s median income. Also, the poverty rate of 4.5% is considerably lower than the the national poverty rate of 15.5% and even more so than the state rate of 18.3%. High levels of education among area adults partly explain the high incomes and likely improve the quality of life for the local community in a variety of other ways. Nearly 67% of adults in Johns Creek have at least a bachelor’s degree, more than twice the nationwide corresponding education attainment rate and one of the highest of any city.
Johns Creek residents also have access to a remarkable number of leisure activities, especially restaurants. There are around 630 eating locations per 100,000 city residents, the second highest concentration of such amenities in the nation.
2. Danbury, Connecticut
> Population: 83,795
> Median home value: $283,400
> Poverty rate: 11.5%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 33.3%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 260.2
The best places to live are not necessarily affordable. Danbury, the best U.S. city to live in after only Meridian, is in Fairfield County, Connecticut, one of the most expensive areas in the nation. The cost of living in the area is nearly 31% higher than the national average cost of living. Housing expenses, in particular, are very high, costing 58% more than the nationwide average cost. Households in the city, with an annual median income of $69,394, are slightly less wealthy than households across the state. A typical home in Danbury is valued at $283,400, slightly higher than Connecticut’s median home value of $267,200.
For many Danbury residents, however, the high standard of living may be worth the high cost. Leisure activities are easy to come by in the area. There are around 10 nature parks and 57 marinas per 100,000 area residents, each some of the highest concentrations of such amenities nationwide.
1. Meridian, Idaho
> Population: 87,739
> Median home value: $193,900
> Poverty rate: 10.9%
> Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 27.7%
> Amenities per 100,000 residents: 169.8
Meridian, located just outside of Idaho’s capital city of Boise, is 24//7 Wall St.’s best city to live in. The city is safe, and jobs have attracted growing numbers of new residents. Only 80 violent crimes were reported per 100,000 in Meridian last year, a fraction of the national violent crime rate of 366 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans.
The annual unemployment rate in the city is also quite low. At just 4.1%, it is lower than the state’s jobless rate of 4.8% and well below the national jobless rate of 6.2%. Moreover, jobs are being added to the local economy faster than in most of the United States. The 7.4% increase in the number of jobs from 2012 through last year was much greater than the national job growth rate of 1.8% over that period. Prospective employment is frequently the first priority for Americans considering relocation. With the strong job market, Meridian’s population has been growing dramatically in recent years. Over the five years through 2014, the city’s population growth rate of 28.0% was more than four times the nationwide population growth of 6.5%.
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.