The LivIndex at Work in Three Rural Communities

Livability Index for Aztec, Durango, PagosaLast week, the AARP introduced a new data tool, the Livability Index, which provides a snapshot of community indicators, and allows us to compare communities.  Let’s drill down a bit with a comparison on three Rocky Mountain cities of similar, but different, setting.

  • Aztec, New Mexico, is a city of 6,578 population, and is the county seat of San Juan County, NM.  Aztec has a total index score of 44 (where 50 is national average).
  • Durango, Colorado, north of Aztec and west of Pagosa Springs, is a city of 17,557 population, and is the county seat of La Plata County, CO.  Durango has a total index score of 54.
  • Pagosa Springs, Colorado, is a town of 1,719 population, and is the county seat of Archuleta County, CO.

Each community benefits from the regional tourism economy, and rises and falls with oil and gas extraction, while still supporting working agricultural lands.  However, each has a unique character.  Aztec is part of the depressed Farmington Metropolitan Area, which the US Census estimates is losing population faster than any other metro area in the nation.  Durango has a mixed service-based economy with regular air service and Ft. Lewis College, leading to a steady growth rate.  Pagosa Springs relies more on seasonal traffic, and has had a fairly steady population with slight growth.

The Livability Index compares community indicators, and then summarizes the data based on AARP’s policy preferences.  Each category is broken down and evaluated, with a “green light” for a good indicator, or a “red light” as a warning indicator.  So why do Durango and Pagosa Springs score higher overall?

On Housing, Aztec scores a 45, Durango 50, and Pagosa Springs 54.  AARP values availability of multi-family housing, which provides options for young people getting started, and for seniors aging in place.  Durango scores highly, but as a college town one would expect more multi-family housing.  Durango then scores poorly on housing affordability, at $1,255 per month it earns a red light.  Many folks would ratchet up the importance of housing costs, perhaps–what good is a great place to live if you can’t afford to live there?

On the Neighborhood scale, Pagosa Springs scores poorly.  In particular, the tool uses a “food desert” indicator of particular grocery stores and farmers’ markets within 1/2 mile of… someplace (it’s not clear).  I have a real problem with this data set, and discount it out of hand.  Does that mean it’s not an issue?  No, but its not an accurate comparison.  Aztec and Durango score highly for neighborhood parks, and all three get green lights for libraries.  Pagosa Springs score poorly for a large number of vacant units; however, these are typically seasonal (vacation) homes, not abandoned units.  Aztec and Pagosa Springs also score “red lights” for a low number of jobs and people per square mile.  Sprawl is a difficult and expensive condition, but this density measure is unfair for small towns and rural areas.

All three communities score better than average Transportation systems.  None score for transit (although there are limited systems running).  Durango scores highly in walkability and lack of congestion; Pagosa Springs score highly on congestion and low speed limits; Aztec scores highly for 100% ADA-accessible transit.  Aztec and Pagosa Springs get red lights for high average transportation costs–as rural communities, people tend to drive farther for work, shopping and entertainment.

On the other indicators, Pagosa Springs scores highly on Environment (4 green lights), Aztec scores poorly on Public Health (4 red lights).  The largest range in on Civic Engagement.  All three get red lights for no high-speed broadband access.  Aztec also scores a red light for few civic organizations (although many people participate in nearby Farmington and Bloomfield); and both Durango and Pagosa Springs score red lights for poor neighborly-ness.

The last category is difficult to decipher.  One indicator is income inequality, on which all three are fairly close, but vary enough to score Durango a green light and Pagosa Springs a red light, which at first glance makes no sense to me.  I suspect Ft. Lewis’ college students may throw Durango’s statistics off.  None score well for high school graduation rates, which is a problem across the region.  And none score well for jobs per worker, again not necessarily a fair statistic for small towns and rural areas.

Overall, I have to applaud AARP’s effort to assemble the Livability Index.  It’s a good way to easily access US Census and other “big data” at multiple geographies.  It’s interesting at the neighborhood or small town level, but probably more reliable at larger aggregations of cities, counties and metro areas.  Most important, it gives us a hint of how we might make “big data” more accessible and interesting for citizens and decision-makers, urban and rural.


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