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AARP Names Most Livable U.S. Cities With New Data Tool

Livability Index pinpoints top 10 large, medium, small cities for 2022

Three Cities
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Try the AARP Livability Index Tool

Research your own community or one you’re interested in by using the AARP Livability Index. The index uses seven categories and 61 indicators to evaluate cities and towns. Users can enter an address, city, state or zip code to learn more about how communities fare when it comes to everything from transportation and the environment to medical care and civic engagement. Locations are scored on a 0-100 scale and users can customize searches and compare cities and towns.

 

Have you ever tried to research a new community that looks like a great place to live? Or maybe you serve on a local committee, and you want to find out how other towns approach challenges. You could spend hours or days on data sites gathering information. Or you could turn to the AARP Livability Index, newly updated for 2022.

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The recently updated index weighs 61 different indicators across 200,000 communities in the United States to arrive at a single livability score for each locale. This single data point can be further fleshed out through the index’s various features.

Originally developed in 2015, the AARP Livability Index considers criteria important to adults 50-plus — and the community at large — like housing costs, walkability, robust public transportation, and access to medical care and broadband, among many other factors, to determine how easy it is to live in those locations.

“A livable community is a place for people of all ages. It’s a place that has the housing and transportation options and community features that people need so they can safely thrive there regardless of age, income or physical abilities,” says Rodney Harrell, AARP’s vice president of family, home and community and one of the experts who created the original index. “People should have communities that help enable them.”

Top-scoring communities

The new index looks at locations through “seven dimensions of livability,” says Shannon Guzman, strategic policy advisor at AARP’s Public Policy Institute. Those categories are housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, opportunity, health and engagement.

To create its top 10 lists, AARP factored in community size, breaking out communities by population: large cities 500,000-plus, midsize cities 100,000-499,999, small cities 25,000-99,999 and, new this year, small towns 5,000-24,999.

Three Big Cities
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Top 10 Large Cities 500,000+

1. San Francisco

2. New York

3. Washington, D.C.

4. Boston

5. Portland, Ore.

6. Philadelphia

7. Denver

8. Seattle

9. San Jose, Calif.

10. Milwaukee

In general, AARP’s top-scoring livable communities not only get high marks in the seven categories of livability but are also locations with policies that consider inclusive design for housing, hazard mitigation plans, support for accessory dwelling units, state foreclosure prevention and protection, and plans to create age-friendly communities, says Jana Lynott, the AARP Public Policy Institute’s senior policy advisor and project director for the index. 

But that doesn’t mean communities that don’t make the top lists aren’t great places to live, Harrell says.

“Look at the top 10s as a highlight, but don’t make too many generalizations, as there are thousands of communities in the country, including many relatively high-scoring ones, that don’t make it to the top 10 lists,” he explains. “Generally speaking, the index is full of surprises when you look at all of the factors. Places that have a desirable reputation may not have all of the options that the index considers.”

Index creators acknowledge that across the board, housing costs are a challenge and that some places on the top 10 lists are expensive to reside in. “Housing affordability is a huge crisis in the U.S., and the communities that have the amenities and characteristics that appeal to people are also those where housing costs are high,” Lynott says.

3 Medium Cities
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Top 10 Midsize Cities 100,000-499,999

1. Alexandria, Va.

2. Cambridge, Mass.

3. Arlington, Va.

4. St. Paul, Minn.

5. Minneapolis

6. Madison, Wis.

7. Elizabeth, N.J.

8. Rochester, Minn.

9. Sioux Falls, S.D.

10. Berkeley, Calif.

But there are trade-offs in every community, and “the large cities tend to be on this list because they perform well on neighborhood and transportation categories,” she says.

Neighborhood metrics include access to parks, libraries, jobs by transit, jobs by auto, crime rate and diversity of destinations, among other things. Transportation covers items such as walking trips, crash rates, household transportation costs and frequency of transit services.

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What makes the tool truly empowering, however, is “for an individual to be aware of the trade-offs as they compare one place with another, and for community leaders to know what their community should work on,” Harrell says.

Small cities from left to right: Silver Spring, MD; Bergenfield, N.J; Richfield, MN
Credits L to R: Philip Scalia/Alamy Stock Photo; Barry Winiker/Getty Images; Jacob Boomsma/Getty Images

Top 10 Small Cities 25,000-99,999

1. St. Louis Park, Minn.

2. Watertown, Mass.

3. Belmont, Mass.

4. Arlington, Mass.

5. Somerville, Mass.

6. Bergenfield, N.J .

7. Richfield, Minn.

8. Roseville, Minn.

9. North Bethesda, Md.

10. Silver Spring, Md.

For those 50-plus looking to move to a new community, the AARP Livability Index can be particularly helpful in assessing whether a city, suburb or town has what’s needed to support people as they age. Harrell notes that the National Association of Realtors downloaded more than 1 million property reports in the last year that included Livability Index scores to provide added information for people who are shopping for a new home.

Shannon King, a Realtor in Oahu, Hawaii, says she prints out pages from the index daily to equip clients with more nuanced information during the home-buying process. For example, she says air quality is of great concern on the island, which has areas with high pollen counts and industrial sites. The index provides insight about air and water quality in the environment category.

“For allergy-sensitive clients, like someone with a child who has asthma, I can share the information so they can make the best decision for their family,” she says. “I pull out the Livability Index and show them the pros and cons of living in a particular neighborhood. I use it to match with their lifestyle.”

The tool can help start conversations about community challenges and bring awareness around livable communities and the criteria that make them good places to settle down. “It’s not about altering a community to make it look like another place,” Guzman says. “It’s about assessing your needs and challenges and what a community does well.”

Using the AARP Livability Index

Despite the layers of data used, the AARP Livability Index is easy to navigate.

Entering a town, city name or zip code will allow users to retrieve a Livability Score, ranging from 0 to 100 points, for that place. Communities scoring over 50, which is average, are “considered as doing well,” Guzman says. “When you look at the top-scoring communities, those are the places in the United States that are doing well in the majority of the categories compared to other places with similar population figures.”

The first page of a search provides basic demographic information. Users can click on a heat map that offers a visual deeper dive into each of the seven livability categories and the ability to see category definitions and how communities score.

The tool also allows users to make direct comparisons between places and learn where a community shines and where it might fall short.

Take St. Paul, Minnesota, which is ranked number 4 on the top 10 midsize cities’ list, with a Livability Score of 66. Nearby Minneapolis, Minnesota, is number 5 on that list, also with a score of 66. However, despite the twin scores for the Twin Cities, there are differences between them.

For instance, when it comes to housing, Minneapolis and St. Paul metrics highlight five data points that were considered (based on five years of information): zero-step entrances, availability of multifamily housing, housing costs, housing cost burden and availability of subsidized housing.

In St. Paul, 46.4 percent of housing units are multifamily, slightly down from 2015 and significantly higher than the U.S. median neighborhood of only 18 percent. In Minneapolis, 54.4 percent of units are multifamily. St. Paul has lower monthly housing costs and a lower housing cost burden. Further metrics show that under “health,” St. Paul lands at 31.9 percent on obesity prevalence and Minneapolis at 26.1 percent. While both have access to local transit options, Minneapolis buses and trains run more frequently than those in St. Paul (25 per hour versus 13 per hour, respectively). Both cities show very high levels (99 percent) of engagement, which encompasses access to broadband, civic and social involvement, voting rates, and cultural, arts and entertainment institutions.

In addition, individuals can customize the livability score. If housing is not a concern, the customization tool can put less weight on that data point and emphasize something else, like the importance of public transportation.

Ultimately, users can research different methods of scoring communities to fit their own lifestyle.

Stacey Freed is a contributing writer who covers remodeling, construction, lifestyle issues, education and pets. Her work has appeared in USA TodayReal Simple and This Old House. Her book Hiking in the Catskills will be available in July.

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