Best Places to Live
Americans are flocking to places that offer big-city opportunity and amenities--with a lot more green space and a lot less stress
(MONEY Magazine) – When it comes to a place to live and raise a family, most Americans want two things: the opportunity for themselves and their children to prosper, and a quality of life that lets them enjoy the fruits of their work. For several generations, that's meant moving from big, crowded cities to the suburbs. Along with that, however, have come major compromises like a long commute and a certain lack of community and cultural life.
The solution seems obvious: Combine the vibrancy of the city with the comforts of the suburbs. So for this year's installment of Best Places to Live, we set out to find small livable cities that had the best possible blend of good jobs, low crime, quality schools, plenty of open space, rational home prices and lots to do. On the following pages, you'll get a close look at our top 10, and the full list of 90 appears on page 100. Many of our picks started as small towns on the edge of metropolitan areas and blossomed into destinations in their own right, like No. 1, Fort Collins, Colo. Founded as a military outpost 60 miles north of Denver in 1864, the city is now home to 128,000 people, a thriving tech industry and the main campus of Colorado State University. Other choices, like Naperville, Ill., started out as traditional suburban towns and really started to grow as companies followed their workers out of older cities. Still others were sleepy places like Sugar Land, Texas, whose low costs attracted residential and commercial developers, as well as big corporations that transformed the area in less than a generation. It's worth noting that eight of our top 10 are removed from the traditional--and pricey--power centers of the coasts.
"These places are the new suburbia, increasingly independent from traditional metropolises," says economic historian Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History. "They offer a quality of life that is hard to find on the coasts anymore: affordable single-family homes, short commutes and good jobs. For many people, these are very good choices for living." Those who live there, you'll find, couldn't agree more.
1 Fort Collins, Colo. POPULATION: 128,000 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $215,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $1,700
+ PROS Outdoors lovers' paradise; good schools; very little stress - CON Tech-dependent economy
Dan Olsen's heart had been set on raising a family in Montana. But when he visited his future wife Kari's family here while the couple were in college, Dan knew he had found the place he wanted to call home. "There's a whole different sense of priority here," says Dan, now 39. "It's kind of an outdoorsy, 'take time to smell the roses' attitude. I absolutely fell in love." An engineer, after graduation Dan found a job in Iowa but kept an ear to the ground for a position in Fort Collins. He landed one 12 years ago at Hewlett-Packard, the city's largest private employer, and now he's a business-development manager there. Dan and Kari have three children, ages 13, 11 and 7, and couldn't be happier. "If you roll up the whole ball and call it quality of life," he says, "it's all of that and then some."
Great schools, low crime, good jobs in a high-tech economy and a fantastic outdoor life make Fort Collins No. 1. Situated 5,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, the city offers restaurants, night life and culture, plus natural attractions like nearby Horsetooth Reservoir for boating and swimming. There are 60 miles of hiking and biking trails, and most major roads have bicycle lanes.
Fort Collins grew quickly from a military outpost into the 53-square-mile area it occupies today. The place took off in the '90s as companies moved from high-priced California. During the boom years, the city eschewed tax incentives to attract businesses, choosing instead to spend money on schools and parks. Companies came anyway. Besides HP, Eastman Kodak and Agilent Technologies have a big presence here. The city is also home to Colorado State University and top-ranked Poudre Valley Hospital, which provide 10,000 jobs between them.
The tech crunch hit the area hard. The city is recovering, though it has faced budget shortfalls in recent years. "We were in double-digit growth for decades, so our costs went up, and then the economy slowed," says city manager Darin Atteberry. But Fort Collins is going ahead with two new schools for the hefty K-through-12 head count in the southern part of town. The city boasts the top-ranked high school in the state, and students in the district best the state averages in all subjects at all grade levels.
Old Town, a restored historic district, hops at night. Four microbreweries provide local flavor. Denver International Airport, major pro sports events and downtown Denver are an hour or more away, but people here willingly trade proximity for peace. "Fort Collins is a healthy community," says Doug Johnson, 34, who has twin five-year-old boys. "We want that lifestyle."
2 Naperville, Ill. BEST OF THE MIDWEST POPULATION: 141,600 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $360,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $5,000
+ PROS Thriving downtown; lots of green space; top-rated schools - CON Congestion in town and on surrounding roads
When Tushar Narsana landed a consulting job in Chicago last year, he and his wife Rashmi planned to live downtown and send their daughter Rewa, 3, to private school. At a friend's insistence, they looked at Naperville, 30 miles west, and found a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population and quality schools. "We are city people, but there isn't much we need to go to Chicago for," says Rashmi, 32, who works for an education nonprofit in Naperville. "Now our friends from Chicago are moving here too."
The Narsanas' experience sums up why Naperville's population has quadrupled since the 1970s and why the city pops up continually on MONEY's Best Places lists. Last year, in a study that focused primarily on towns much smaller than Naperville, the city still landed the No. 3 spot. There's a lot to like. The Riverwalk, four miles of bricked pathways that hug the DuPage River as it meanders through downtown, is ideal for strolling, running, people watching or listening to concerts on grassy Rotary Hill. Shopping, jazz and restaurants are easy to find. And Naperville has more green space than most cities, thanks to a 1972 land-donation ordinance. Though many residents commute to Chicago, Naperville is part of the Illinois technology corridor and is a base for major companies including Laidlaw International, Tellabs, ConAgra and OfficeMax. The city has a triple-A bond rating, and college entrance exam scores are among the state's highest.
But desirability has its downside. The median home price is up to $329,000, pricey for the Midwest. Downtown traffic jams are common. And the wait for a parking permit at the city's main train station is eight years. "Naperville was designed to be a small town," says Mayor George Pradel. "But we grew and grew." Despite the big-city hassles, residents say the city still has a community feel. "This is the quickest we've settled into a new home and made friends," says Chris Steffanci, 33, who arrived with his wife Kari, 33, and four-year old son Jake last year, his fourth transfer since 2000. "We wanted a short commute, good schools and a community where we could really plug in. It's exceeded our expectations."
3 Sugar Land, Texas BEST OF THE SOUTHWEST POPULATION: 75,800 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $170,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $4,500
+ PROS Diversity; affordable housing - CON Like humidity? A lot?
When Fred Fogarty was transferred to Houston in 1999, he and his wife Susan checked out every city in the area before deciding to live in Sugar Land. Now they can't imagine being anywhere else. Fred, an investment adviser, has since set up his own business in the city too. "We like to do family-oriented things, and we wanted to be outside the hustle and bustle of Houston but still have the big-city feel," says Fred, 40. "It's an amazing spot."
That's a sentiment shared by many in Sugar Land, one of the country's more diverse communities. The area's heat and humidity tend to remind Asian immigrants of home, and in the '80s, as Sugar Land became less a sleepy small town and more a land of good jobs and affordable housing, more Asians moved in. Today the city is almost a quarter Asian, and Sugar Land is home to mosques as well as Hindu and Buddhist temples.
The city's head count has tripled since 1990, and Mayor David Wallace expects it to hit almost 200,000 within the next 10 years. That expansion will follow a detailed plan; no area will join without utilities and services already in place. To limit the impact of sprawl, Sugar Land requires brick storefronts as well as extensive landscaping around shopping centers.
Though town namesake Imperial Sugar Co. recently closed its refinery, the city is teeming with software, engineering and energy firms such as Fluor Corp. and Unocal. Sugar Land recently revamped its airport to better accommodate corporate jets.
The booming school population has led to crowding, but the district churns out dozens of National Merit semifinalists each year, and SAT scores are consistently higher than state and national averages. And in few desirable cities does a buck go so far: $200,000 buys a roomy house in a landscaped neighborhood with a community pool. "We were thinking that this would be a nice place to have children," says Suja Pappan, 37, a local teacher who moved here with her husband Phillip nine years ago. The couple now have a two-year-old son. "The schools are exemplary," Suja says. "Houses are reasonable, and there are all different varieties of people here. It's a good fit."
4 Columbia/Ellicott City, Md. BEST OF THE EAST POPULATION: 159,200 TYPICAL SINGLE- FAMILY HOME: $350,000/$550,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $5,900/$5,500
+ PROS Convenience of planned community; charm of old town - CON Commutes to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore can get ugly
In 1772 the Ellicott brothers began turning a tobacco-country outpost into what would become the new country's largest flour-milling center. Almost 200 years later and not five miles down the road, legendary developer Jim Rouse began to develop Columbia as an improved alternative to cookie-cutter suburbs. Today the 160,000 residents of the neighboring communities reap the benefits of the old and new visions: Ellicott City has grand homes and a charming downtown. Columbia has park space totaling more than a third of the community's 14,000 acres, a wide selection of townhomes and apartments, and a mall that's got everything. Because the cities aren't incorporated, they share in the bounty provided by Howard County. Kids are schooled in Maryland's top-performing district, where they continually score up to 50% above average on state tests. There's a major music venue, the Merriweather Post Pavilion, in Columbia, and the county runs a 30,000-square foot arts center as well as a center for African-American culture, both located in Columbia.
There are ample employment options for residents: About a third of them work within the county at companies such as Verizon and the Johns Hopkins-affiliated Howard County General Hospital, while the remainder commute to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. "These communities offer pretty much everything you need to create quality of life," says Marion Berman, 55, who opened her art gallery at the Mall in Columbia in 1981. When it came time to expand, she moved Gallery 44 to Ellicott City. "It's a great place to work, and an even better place to live."
Columbia, one of the most racially diverse cities on our list, is 20% African American and 10% Asian. Alma Gill, 42, says she and her husband chose to move here 10 years ago, even though their old home in Alexandria, Va. was closer to her job at USA Today. "We wanted our son to grow up in an area where there are people from everywhere," Gill says, "in a place that is accepting of everyone."
5 Cary, N.C. BEST OF THE SOUTH POPULATION: 106,400 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $280,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $2,900
+ PROS Great schools; good arts scene - CON Road crews everywhere
People come to the Research Triangle area for opportunity. They settle in Cary because they can't believe how pretty the place is. "We drove around and we loved the terrain," says Wendy Diard, 42, who moved here 12 years ago with her husband Jess and their seven-month-old baby. "It was hilly and beautifully wooded." The Diards now have four children, with a fifth on the way, and they're never at a loss for something to do. More than 30 parks and greenways dot the region, and regular arts and crafts festivals bring tens of thousands to the downtown area to browse. And, of course, there's plenty of culture in nearby Raleigh.
Cary residents don't lack for jobs. Software maker SAS is based here, and about 50% of its 10,000 jobs are in the area. The city has one of the country's lowest crime rates. And although the schools are experiencing growing pains--half of Cary's adults have school-age kids--more than 90% of elementary and middle school students passed state reading and math tests last year, for the third year in a row. "The schools are great," says Chris Brooks, 34, who grew up here and moved back after law school. "I went to them, and they're the same kind of schools I want my daughter to go to." Families can afford Cary: A nice home goes for less than $300,000.
There's a fair amount of road construction, but mostly it's to prepare for growth, not respond to what's already been built. "Some towns kind of react," Brooks says, "but Cary's looking ahead."
6 Overland Park, Kans. POPULATION: 164,800 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $250,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $3,500
+ PROS Abundant high-paying jobs and affordable housing - CON Feels like it was designed by the folks who invented cubicles
Envisioned as a "parklike" bedroom community on the outskirts of Kansas City more than 100 years ago, Overland Park has gone from quiet hamlet to burgeoning suburb to the second-biggest city in Kansas, with more than 160,000 people spread over 57 square miles. A third of Fortune 500 companies have offices in the area, including Sprint-Nextel, which employs 14,500 locally. Good jobs continue to lure more young people here. Ryan Parks and his wife Beth, both 28, wanted to move from Nebraska to the Kansas City area to be closer to family and friends. They chose Overland Park because it was convenient for work--he's an engineer, she's a physician assistant--and ideal for raising the family they plan on starting. "We liked the atmosphere," says Ryan, "and you can't beat the location, the school district, the shopping. We figured if we were going to settle down, this was the place to do it."
Here, competitive salaries (the average income is nearly six figures) can buy you a whole lot of house: Existing homes sell for about $100 a square foot, half (or less) of the cost on the coasts. And Overland Park real estate continues to rack up solid gains. The city has held back sprawl thanks to strategic placement of green space and hundreds of fountains (an echo of neighboring K.C., known as the City of Fountains). All that careful planning does take some whimsy out of the place, however. A grid layout, six-lane intersections and copious hotels can't help but make Overland Park feel like Office Park.
Still, the city was selected as one of the most kid-friendly spots in the country by an environmental advocacy group in 2001, and the community defines itself by its commitment to education. School boards are operated independently of the city, and about half of each property tax dollar goes to funding the four highly regarded public school districts. "Even though we are a larger city and a growing city," says stockbroker and former longtime mayor Ed Eilert, "Overland Park is just a big small town."
7 Scottsdale, Ariz. POPULATION: 226,000 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $500,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $2,200
+ PROS Vibrant community with ample opportunities for work and play - CON Brutal summers
Forget its reputation as a winter retreat for well-off, golf-obsessed retirees. Scottsdale offers year-round residents a wealth of job opportunities, great schools and recreation that doesn't end at the 18th hole. Missouri native Suzanne Searle, 33, settled in nearby Phoenix nine years ago but soon realized that she was spending more time here. "It has great night life," says Suzanne, a Web editor for a public utility in nearby Tempe. These days she and her husband Joe, also 33, spend less time out on the town and more time running along the Arizona Canal or through the Greenbelt, a 13-mile network of paths and parks that doubles as the city's floodplain on those rare days that rain falls. If you can't stand the heat, you won't like Scottsdale in the summer. But locals learn how to handle 100°-plus temps. "You have nine months of great weather and three months of intense heat," says Joe, a program manager for Honeywell in Phoenix. "I just treat summer here like I would winter anywhere else."
Most of the city's newcomers are in their thirties, says local real estate agent Dennis Alaburda. "They want warm weather and the more laid-back lifestyle," he says. Thanks to a diverse and growing employment base, such a change needn't mean a pay cut. Although tourism remains its leading industry, Scottsdale is home to major companies including Cold Stone Creamery, the Dial Corp. and General Dynamics C4 Systems. The Scottsdale Airpark, surrounding the city airport, hosts 2,400 businesses, small and large, in more than 100 industries. The strong economic base has been a boon for Scottsdale's 33 public schools, most of which rank among the state's top schools by test scores.
Scottsdale has its share of multimillion-dollar neighborhoods, and the place is no bargain. But you can find $300,000 fixer-uppers in the up-and-coming southern part of the city. The real estate market has cooled from this time a year ago, when speculators turned every deal into a bidding war. Today three- and four-bedroom houses in established neighborhoods hover around $500,000--that's with a (much needed) pool.
8 Boise, Idaho POPULATION: 193,200 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $215,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $2,500
+ PROS Outdoor sports; low unemployment; vibrant downtown - CONS Climbing property taxes; sprawl
In Idaho's largest city, people prefer to ride their bikes to work. If commuters have to drive, the trip often takes less than 20 minutes. "There is a low hassle factor here," says Tom Hadzor, 42, owner of a local video production company. "You have more time to enjoy life." Boiseans have a lot to enjoy besides biking (and good potatoes): The city boasts 2,700 acres of green space and trails, with the foothills of the Rocky Mountains serving as a backdrop. The downtown is stocked with boutiques and restaurants, and a three-block-long farmers' market comes to town every Saturday in the summer.
The economy is booming. Boise is headquarters for chipmaker Micron and a host of smaller tech concerns, and it's the state capital, which means plenty of government jobs. Unemployment is just 3.1%. While Boise can feel isolated, an expanded airport now means easy access to the West Coast (though getting east is still tough). Both Forbes and Inc. magazines have named the city one of the country's best places to do business.
Opportunity and green space have made Boise a magnet for Californians looking to escape congested freeways and high home costs. As a result, development in the western suburbs is turning farmland into not-so-bucolic sprawl. Property values--and property taxes--are rising fast. Still, voters recently approved a $94 million bond issue to renovate city schools, where standardized test scores are above average, though not as high as those of richer cities in MONEY's top 10.
Then again, people don't come here to chase money. "In Washington people ask where you work or went to school," says Adrienne Swain Smith, 36, who moved to Boise with her husband and two daughters from the East Coast a year ago. "Here it's 'What type of dog do you have?' or 'Where did you get your bike?'"
9 Fairfield, Conn. POPULATION: 57,800 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $545,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $5,300
+ PROS Vibrant downtown; great beaches - CONS Pricey homes; lack of diversity
When Millie and Scott Pollack decided to leave New York City four years ago, good schools, city amenities and reasonably priced homes topped their wish list. That last item is tough to find near the Big Apple. But as the Pollacks traced the train line east into Connecticut, they found what they were looking for in Fairfield, a 75-minute commute from Manhattan for Scott, 36. "It was the most affordable town and very family-oriented," says Millie, 34, now a mother of two. Though home prices have since shot up, Fairfield remains a draw for young families: Homes start at $350,000, and property taxes are low for the New York metro area.
Fairfield is more than a bedroom community. It's got a thriving downtown and two Fortune 500 companies (General Electric and tea maker R.C. Bigelow), as well as Fairfield and Sacred Heart universities. A third of the residents work in town. And most everybody stays here on the weekends. "There's always something to do with the kids," says Millie, a part-time bookkeeper for a local wine store. "But plenty for adults too. It feels like a small town but without all the drawbacks." From May through December, Fairfield hosts three to 10 community events each weekend.
Fairfield isn't racially diverse--just 7% of the population are minorities. But it is mixed economically, with working-class neighborhoods and posh areas like Southport, where GE CEO Jack Welch lived for many years. The schools are among the state's best, and Fairfield is one of the safest small cities in the country. One big downside: congestion along Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway, the main drags for commuters working in nearby Stamford and Norwalk. During rush hour, a 20-minute ride can turn into an 60-minute headache. On the border with Bridgeport, the city is building a third commuter rail station as part of a large commercial development that will include a hotel, shops, restaurants and a park. "Our biggest challenge," says Mayor Ken Flatto, "is keeping our small-town identity as we continue to grow."
10 Eden Prairie, Minn. POPULATION: 60,600 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $300,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $3,500
+ PROS Convenience; scenery - CONS No downtown; long winter
Established on May 11, 1858, the same day Minnesota joined team U.S.A., onetime cow town Eden Prairie is now a hot spot for businesses and families. Twenty miles southwest of Minneapolis, it has long been home to the families of Twin City sports pros and Fortune 500 execs. Up until 2000 it was the corporate home for electronics retailer Best Buy. When the company unexpectedly decided to move, Eden Prairie business leaders, including the CEOs of several mid-size tech firms, responded by forming Silicon Prairie, a group whose mission was to grow the town's tech industry. It worked. The employment base grew by more than 7% over the next five years, and today there are 2,200 businesses (many of them tech-related small concerns) in town.
"There's none of that East/West Coast traditionalism, and industry is just taking off," says Rich Mueller, 59, a small business consultant who moved from Los Angeles in 2002. "Here, there's a delightful change of pace." The green ain't bad either: The city sets aside 45% of its space for gardens and parks, and the scenery includes 16 lakes and miles of bluffs overlooking the Minnesota River Valley.
Residents are educated--the number of people 25 and older who hold a bachelor's degree is more than twice the national average--and the school district regularly outperforms on state assessment tests. The downside? Winter is long, and road maintenance can be a drag in summer. Plus the six-mile-by-six-mile city doesn't have a real downtown. Eden Prairie has found other ways to keep the community connected, however. Students attend one public high school to discourage rivalry, and neighborhoods are connected by 170 miles of trails. This being a tech-savvy place, connections are virtual too. The fire and police chiefs and city manager Scott Neal all keep Weblogs. One recent story: Eight-year-old Tucker Zangs raised $1,500 to rebuild a playground slide in town. Garrison Keillor has it right. Those Minnesota children are above average.
America's Best Small Cities These 90 places offer ample job opportunities, good schools and lots to do on safe streets. The circles [numbers, below] show the areas that each city scored highest on.
The numbers 1 = City's top-scoring area 2 = Second-highest-scoring area
NOTES: Unless otherwise indicated, all data as of 2005. Jobs/Economy rank based on income level and growth, housing affordability, purchasing power and projected job growth. Safety based on FBI crime reporting and assessment of crime risk. Education based on test score performance. Ease of Living based on factors including commute times, weather, population density and percentage of population with health insurance. Arts/Leisure based on the number of activities within the proximity of the city, including museums, restaurants, hiking and camping spots, golf courses and professional sports teams. Park Space based on the amount of land set aside for parks, gardens and zoos. SOURCES: OnBoard, Brooklyn (onboardllc.com); Sperling's BestPlaces (bestplaces.net). For a complete list of sources, go to cnnmoney.com/bestplaces
Big Cities Are Nice Too... Sure, they're pricier. And there's more crime. But among cities with more than 300,000 people, these 10 are tops. Each has a solid economy, low crime for its size, bountiful arts and leisure opportunities, and plenty of parks.
NOTE: Cities were screened using a process similar to the one used to select small cities. See pages 99 and 100 for details and source list.
Finding the Best Places
Working with data provider OnBoard of Brooklyn and consultant Bert Sperling of BestPlaces.net, we set out to find livable locales that combine the best of city and suburban life. Here's how we did it.
START with places that have populations exceeding 50,000.
SCREEN OUT cities of more than 300,000 people and retirement havens where more than 40% of the residents are over 50.
ELIMINATE cities with low education scores, high crime rates, absurdly high housing costs, declines in employment or income less than 90% of the state median. Remove bedroom communities and places where people identify themselves as being from a smaller locale within the area.
RANK REMAINING PLACES on economic opportunity, taking into account income, job growth and affordability; quality-of-life indicators, including risk of violent crime and property crime, quality of public schools, arts and leisure, park space and incidence of stress-related ailments; and "ease of living" gauges such as commute times, divorce rates, population density and weather. Limit counties to one city each, unless the No. 2 city has more than 75,000 in population and a distinct identity.
> 50 CULL MORE DATA on job markets, housing prices, schools, ambience, weather and taxes. Interview local officials, residents and community leaders by phone.
VISIT AND DO MORE INTERVIEWS. Assess congestion, natural surroundings, the vibrancy of town centers and sense of community.
AWARD NO. 1 RANK TO FORT COLLINS, based on data and qualitative findings.
No Place Like Home
A MONEY/ICR poll conducted in the spring asked 1,005 Americans two open-ended questions about what mattered most to them in a place to live. Here's what they said.
If you were moving, what would be the most important characteristic your new town should have?
14% Job opportunities
11% Good schools
9% Low crime rate
8% Good arts and leisure scene
6% Nice weather
5% Quality health care
5% Lack of congestion
What do you dislike most about your current hometown?
16% Too much congestion
9% High crime rate
7% Lack of job opportunities
7% Poor arts and leisure scene
5% High taxes/cost of living
4% People here "aren't like me."
4% Poor municipal services
NOTE: The MONEY/ICR poll was conducted by telephone with a nationally representative sample of 1,005 Americans April 11-16, 2006. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.09 percentage points.
88% of Americans like where they live, with 60% saying they like their hometown very much
SOURCE: MONEY/ICR poll. For more stats, see page 104.
FOR MORE BEST PLACES GO TO CNNMONEY.COM/BESTPLACES
• Get reports and in-depth statistics on more than 700 cities.
• Use our screening tools to search for your best place.
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Additional Reporting By Asa Fitch, Michelle Kalkhoff, Shelley Ng and Ingrid Tharasook contributed to this article.