Best Places to Live Clean air and water...low crime and taxes...good public schools
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(MONEY Magazine) – For our 12th annual ranking of the best places to live in America, we interviewed people in 500 households across the country about the factors that are most important in choosing a place to live. This year's top five: clean water, low crime, clean air, good public schools and low property taxes. Then we gathered data on the 300 largest metropolitan statistical areas, crunched the numbers and ranked all 300 according to size (1 million plus, 250,000 to 999,999, and 100,000 to 249,999) and region (East, South, Midwest and West). Here are four of the winners. For the full list, or to make your picks according to your own criteria, visit our Website at money.com/bestplaces.

Boulder, Colo.

In a year when respondents to MONEY's poll named clean water as their first priority in picking a place to live, it's no surprise that Boulder tops the list of mid-size cities in the West. This university town nestled at the foot of the Rockies got a perfect score in the EPA's watershed rating--and scored way above the national average for clean air too. Violent crime is rare (236.4 per 100,000, compared with the national average of 569.6), and the economy is thriving; the number of new jobs is projected to grow by 10% a year through 2005, and taxes are well below the national average. All that, plus 246 days of sun a year for golfing, hiking and kayaking in the pristine air.

Charlottesville, Va.

Virginia, it seems, has a lot of what Americans covet--all three of this year's winning cities in the South are in the state. Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate, ranked as the region's best small city. One key attraction: the public schools. According to Expansion Management, a management consulting firm that specializes in educational research, Charlottesville spends $5,927 per pupil, well above the national average of $3,187, and the schools boast a student/teacher ratio of 10.3 to 1, compared with a national average of 17.8 to 1. Other pluses: excellent water quality, a lower cost of living than the national average, relatively modest property taxes and proximity to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.

Madison, Wis.

Residents have dubbed the Midwest's highest-ranking mid-size city "Mad Town." Maybe the label reflects the youth culture of the 40,000-some students of the University of Wisconsin-Madison--or maybe it's a comment on the winter weather (average number of days with below-zero temperatures: 25). Nicknames aside, Madison combines the charms of a small town with the art museums, bookstores and restaurants of a big city. Housing is affordable; a 1,800-square-foot house costs only $108,000, $2,000 less than the national average (though the property tax rate is higher than average). Public schools get good marks, with spending per student at $5,049 and a student/teacher ratio of 11.6 to 1. Violent- and property-crime rates are low--as is the unemployment rate. Not so mad after all.

Washington, D.C.

Time for a reality check: Why is the nation's capital one of the best places in the country to live? After all, violent crime (679.9 per 100,000 people) is higher than the national average (569.6), and public school spending, $3,093 per student, is a bit lower. But the city and its suburbs--the D.C. metropolitan area stretches from Bethesda, Md. to Falls Church, Va.--has other attributes: clean air (160 out of 200, compared with a national average of 118.9), topnotch medical care (887 hospital beds compared with the national average of 518.9 and 305 M.D.s per capita, 102 more than the national average) and low property tax rates. What really gives the city its boost in the ratings, however, is the sheer number of cultural institutions, from the National Gallery of Art to the National Sports Gallery in the city's brand-new arena, the MCI Center.