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).