Making the Grade

It’s back to school time.  A good time to set goals and list our achievements.  I don’t know about the rest of the world, but Americans love lists.  The Top 10 this, and the Top 20 that.  We seem to be constantly trying to get back on the teacher’s Student of the Year list, Homecoming Court or Top Left-handed Middle Relief Player of the Week.  It’s all rather pointless… except when it’s not.

Top 10 lists reveal as much about methodology as method, about assumptions as assets.

Time Out’s Top Ten cities in the world

Apparently the Brits like lists, too.  First, let’s explore their assumption:

In arriving at Time Out’s greatest cities, we were not looking for great holiday destinations but living, working cities… Resident writers were asked to rate their cities in terms of key criteria that make up a successful city: architecture/cityscape; arts & culture; buzz; food & drink; quality of life; and world status.

The list:

  1. New York
  2. London
  3. Paris
  4. Berlin
  5. Barcelona
  6. Chicago (technically, a tie for 5)
  7. Tokyo (technically, a tie for 5)
  8. Istanbul
  9. Rome
  10. Sydney (technically, a tie for 9)

These are all cities with one name.  When you say “Chicago” you don’t have to ask, “Illinois?”  I lived in Chicago.  Well, the suburbs, technically.  I don’t really have a frame of reference for the other big, crowded, polluted behemouths.  I’m sure they are nice.  The last point, “world status”, seems to weigh heavily.

Forbes: America’s Best Cheap Cities

Some people value status, others value value.  Bigger might not be better and less is more in these tough times.  Forbes give us financially prudent assumptions:

we looked at America’s 380 metropolitan statistical areas and metropolitan divisions (or metros)… and picked out the 100 cheapest. In order to do that, we ranked all on cost of living data from Moody’s and home affordability figures from the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo.  we rated them across four quality-of-life measures: violent crime rate, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation; unemployment rate, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; average salary for college grads, from; and cultural opportunity, based on the leisure index from Sperling’s Best Places.

  1. Manchester-Nashua, NH
  2. Ogden, UT
  3. Minneapolis-St. Paul MN-WI
  4. Worcester, MA
  5. Ann Arbor, MI
  6. Albany-Schenectady NY
  7. Fort Worth-Arlington, TX
  8. Durham-Chapel Hill, NC
  9. Fort Collins-Loveland, CO (woo hoo!)
  10. Pittsburgh, PA

I worked in Fort Collins before moving back to Minnesota and small town living.  Fort Fun isn’t that expensive, but Minneapolis and St. Paul?  Maybe cheap compared to New York.   But MSP does get kudos for outdoor lifestyle…

Outside Magazine: America’s Best Cities 2009

Outside Magazine features, oddly enough, outdoors lifestyles.  Assumptions:

First, we started with the 100 most populated cities in America, using public data to rank them on factors like cost of living, unemployment, nightlife, commute time, and access to green spaces. Then we took the 28 candidates with the highest overall averages and put them through a second round of number crunching, comparing things like the percentage of the population with college degrees, income level in relation to home prices, and weather. The wild card? Our own multisport factor, which rated each of our finalists on a scale of 1 to 5 for quality and proximity to biking, running, paddling, hiking, and skiing. After adding it all up, we had our top ten.

  1. Colorado Springs, Colorado
  2. Seattle, Washington
  3. Atlanta, Georgia
  4. Austin, Texas
  5. Boxton, Massachusetts
  6. Albuquerque, New Mexico
  7. Portland, Oregon
  8. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  9. Cincinnati, Ohio
  10. Charlotte, North Carolina

Bonus list: Top 10 Small Towns (in no particular order)

  • Salida, Colorado
  • Leavenworth, Washington
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • Alpine, Texas
  • New London, Connecticut
  • Taos, New Mexico
  • Ashland, Oregon
  • Ely, Minnesota
  • Yellow Springs, Ohio
  • Boone, North Carolina

Their idea of a small town is 3,500 to 110,000.  Not MY idea of small, but certainly smaller than London.  I’ve been to Ely, Salida and Taos.  They are small.  And Outside.


So what’s in common here?  Well… not much.  We can come with a ranking to get just about anybody to No. 1 for something.  I think I could get my current hometown to No. 1 Tall Grass Prairie County Seat within 10 miles of a Lake larger than 3,500 acres that’s name starts with the same Letter of the Alphabet.

I like to browse these lists to see what media folks think we are interested in.  Are people talking about living in World-Class cities?  Check.  Are they concerned about riding out the housing bubble?  Check.  Do they think places with recreational activities will be interesting places to settle down?  Check.  And what is it about Salida and Leavenworth and Taos and Ely that make them stand out from every other small town in America?

That said, the only list that matters is the list that makes a place our own.  How does your community rank in jobs… that you would be happy doing?  How does your community rank for home values… that you could sell if you had to move?  How does your community rank for recreational activities… that you and your family enjoy?

My list won’t be your list.  But it is interesting to compare how we come up with the report cards.


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