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How We Picked the Best Cities

Here's what we considered before we made our selection.

America is full of terrific hometowns, but many of them are not easy places in which to live. Some are high-priced; others, jam-packed with people. For our annual Best Places to Live feature story, we decided to look for towns that offered a simpler way of life. Working with consultant Bert Sperling of BestPlaces.net, we mined reams of data to find the best places to live a stress-free, low-key lifestyle—towns that offer plenty of perks and minimal hassle.

First, we came up with almost 20 criteria that captured not just the physical characteristics of a town but also the mindset of the people living there. For instance, a greater number of farmers' markets per capita says both that the city is promoting a simpler, eat-local lifestyle and that the townsfolk support that lifestyle in their food choices.

Here's what we looked at.

Housing appreciation (or depreciation) and affordability:  We searched for places where houses are holding on to their value and are affordable, based on Sperling's Home Affordability Index, which looks at the ratio between the cost of the local housing and the area's median household income.

Employment picture:  We looked for places where the unemployment rate is still relatively low, since a poor economy is like a cancer that can affect all segments of a city, whether we each have a job or not.

Education:  We sought places with four-year colleges, plus those with rigorous academic programs. Great colleges add so much to their communities, through sports events, lectures, concerts, and more.

Health:  We gave extra points to places with an abundance of health resources (physicians and hospitals) and where the population is more fit (low body mass index) and lives longer. They must be doing something right!

Low cost of living:  We searched for places with a lower cost of living, calculated using Sperling's Cost of Living Index, which is based on household living expenses for groceries, health care, transportation, home costs, and miscellaneous other items.

Less congestion/traffic:  We looked at mass transit use, pedestrian fatality rates, population density, and auto miles driven per capita. We also took into account the number of schools located within a half-mile of households with school-age children.

More open space:  This was determined using data on population density.

Numbers of farmers' markets:  This data was supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which certifies the markets so coupons can be accepted as payment for federally subsidized nutrition programs (for people with low income, expectant mothers, seniors).

Outdoor amenities:  We looked for an abundance of fun things to do, both recreationally and culturally. We looked at access to sporting events, golf courses, coastline, rivers and lakes, museums, art galleries, gardens and arboretums, skiing facilities, and more.

Hiking and biking trails:  Using data from Trails.com and Rails-to-Trails, we calculated the number of hiking, walking, biking, and running trails within a 20-mile radius.

State parks:  We also looked for local parks and surrounding national forests and parks.

Green values—Sperling's Green Living Index is based on the number of food co-ops, farmer's markets, and LEED-certified buildings and homes; possibilities for alternative commuting (walk, bike, ride); energy efficiency and renewable-energy policies.

Alternative energy sources:  We looked at the state production of wind energy, and the availability of alternative fuel outlets in a particular area.

Energy efficiency programs—Many states have policies to encourage energy efficiency and use of renewable energy.

Stress index—Sperling's Stress Index is based on stressful living indicators including divorce, crime, suicide, unemployment, rates of depression, and other social measures.

Healthy living score:  This was calculated based on the number of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains the average resident consumes, and the number of residents who get regular exercise, from an annual survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Percentage who commute by bike or by walking—This data came from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of 324 metropolitan areas we surveyed, about 25 rose to the top. We then looked at different regions of the country, choosing one metropolitan area from each region (after all, not everyone wants to live in the South), to come up with our top five cities and top five runners-up.

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