We gave 150 of the largest cities a checkup, and found that these park-filled, low-crime towns are golden.
By Karen Cicero
Who hasn't rolled her eyes at her kid's school-lunch menu or thought twice about drinking her town's tap water? Parents gave 150 of the nation's largest cities a checkup, examining 40 criteria to see which ones are making your family's well-being a top priority. We were looking for schools that have frequent gym classes, kid doctors and specialists galore, businesses that don't pollute, parks in every neighborhood, and more. Check out these ten healthy havens.
1. San Francisco
The City by the Bay rose to the top of our list in part because of its gutsy moves to bring healthier foods to schools. San Fran booted soda and high-fat, empty-calorie food out of its schools in 2004 (five years before the state did) and was one of the first places in the country to push for school gardens. Salad bars -- stocked with California-grown produce and whole-grain breads -- debuted in 25 city schools in 2007; now at least half have them. "Students are definitely eating more fruits and vegetables at lunchtime since we installed the salad bars," says Ed Wilkins, school nutrition services director.
San Francisco also goes the extra mile to keep kids active, running 182 playgrounds (including Golden Gate Playground, with one-of-a kind slides and a sand-castle-building area), 82 recreation centers, and 60 soccer fields. The Sunday Streets program creates miles of car-free roads during designated times so families can get outside without traffic worries. "My 3-year-old squealed when she rode her bike down the middle of the steep roads near our house," says Sumi Das, a spokesperson for the 4,300-member Golden Gate Mothers group.
The city has more than 400 kids' docs, a state-of-the-art children's hospital, and one of the largest pediatric research facilities in the U.S. "The level of care here is extraordinary," says Jill Rosenthal Notkin, founder of the popular Boston blog The Daily Grind of a Work@Home Mom. "My daughter had dozens of office and lab visits before her first birthday, and the doctors and their staffs were universally clear, timely, and caring." On the food and fitness fronts: Boston recently added 33 miles of bike lanes and launched a program to educate families, youth organizations, and other groups about alternatives to sugary drinks.
It really is paradise. Honolulu has the least ozone pollution of any U.S. city, according to a recent report from the American Lung Association. "We're fortunate enough to have low humidity, cooling trade winds, and very little industrial pollution -- all of which makes the city's air pristine," says Ross Tanimoto, deputy director of the department of environmental services. In fact, Honolulu families spend tons of time outside. All the city's gorgeous beaches are public property so they're free to visit, and many have grassy areas nearby where kids can run around. Plus, the city offers 225 playgrounds and 22 swimming pools. "Organized sports are a big deal here for both kids and adults," says Marcella Kopa, a NICU nurse and mom of two. "I love that my kids see practically all our neighbors, whether they're 6 or 60, being active."
Kids aren't as likely to get hurt in this safety-minded town. Seattle has one of the lowest death rates from childhood injuries in the U.S. "Washington was the first state to pass a booster-seat law, and it's since updated that legislation to make it among the best in the country," says Katharine Fitzgerald, director of marketing and health promotion at Seattle Children's Hospital. In the last year, the hospital provided 480 car seats at low cost and gave 2,500 bike helmets to local families. Alayne Sulkin, publisher of ParentMap.com, a website for Seattle moms, points out these other perks: an annual fun run for 3- to 5-year-olds, forward-thinking companies with parental paid leave and flexible work schedules, and a downtown farmers' market.
5. Providence, Rhode Island
This small, tight-knit community thinks big. Providence has as many playgrounds and ball fields as cities two to three times its size, plus its own top-notch children's hospital. The food scene is superb, with lots of mom-and-pop cafés in town, many serving up local seafood. "It's not unusual to see 3- and 4-year-olds digging into clams or shrimp here," says local restaurant owner Ellen Gracylyny, a mom of two. A recent perk: Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a group of 40 local family farms, has set up a "local food guide," which lists all the nearby farmers' markets, farm stands, pick-your-own farms, and community-supported agriculture programs. It also highlights restaurants and private schools that buy locally grown food.
6. Des Moines, Iowa
It's easy to live in this Midwestern town, which happens to be the home of Meredith Corporation, publisher of Parents. You can drive from the 'burbs to downtown in less than 20 minutes -- even during rush hour. The city also offers free yoga classes at some public parks, daily recess for all elementary-school students, 40 miles of fitness trails, and enclosed downtown skywalks so families can keep active even in bad weather.
7. San Diego
Your kid is more likely to eat his fruits and veggies here. Every public elementary school has a salad bar and is aiming for 25 percent or more of produce to come from local growers. Plus there are 40 city farmers' markets. "That's where my kids discovered that they like heirloom tomatoes," says Debbie Anderson, founder of the blog San Diego Momma. The low crime rate, year-round mild weather, 33 beaches, and a new autism discovery center at the local children's hospital also helped the city make the list.
Welcome to the most active city on our list -- nearly 85 percent of the city's residents exercise and more than half get at least the recommended amount per week. Among them: Colorado governor and dad John Hickenlooper, who was Denver's mayor for nearly eight years. "I've been taking my 9-year-old son, Teddy, rock climbing a lot lately," says Hickenlooper. "We're also hoping for a kayak trip on the South Platte River, which runs through town." The governor's family also enjoys the city's 240 urban parks, bike paths, and, in the winter, free downtown ice rink. Plus, every fifth-grader in the state gets a free ski pass.
9. Portland, Oregon
Consider it bike central. "Many families use their bikes more than their cars," says Olivia Rebanal, cofounder of UrbanMamas.com. "They take them on errands, to the supermarket, even to school." Portland sponsors low-cost summer and after-school bike camps for kids as young as 6, to help children learn the basics. Biking has become so popular with families that some elementary schools in town have recently added more bike racks, and the New Seasons Market supermarket has just as much bike parking as car parking. Another eco-idea that's beginning to take root: community gardens. Portland has 37 of them, and some offer free gardening classes for kids. Says Peggy Acott, community-outreach director at Portland Nursery: "The children's gardening program has donated more than 1,000 pounds of produce to local food banks over the last three years."
10. Lincoln, Nebraska
It's gone green. Through its "Cleaner Greener" program, Lincoln installed 13 hybrid buses, maintained 130,000 neighborhood trees, and is close to having a park within a half mile of every house in the city. That's on top of the excellent air and water quality; Lincoln didn't exceed the ozone or particle pollution levels on any day in 2010. And families can feel safe while being outdoors on the city's 128 miles of trails. The crime rate is low and the average commute in town is 17 minutes, so you have more time to spend with the kids.
Check out the full story for more details on how we decided these rankings and to see the runners-up!
This article first appeared in Parents magazine.