Great Neck, NY: Bloomberg/Getty Images / Tulips in Orange City, IA: Courtesy Orange City / Salida, CO: Jacob Boomsma/Getty Images
Small towns are having a moment.
These communities have always had their fans, but during the pandemic many remote workers headed to small towns to work in less hectic environments. They were lured by a slower pace, where residents can walk to shops and restaurants, chat outdoors with neighbors and still have access to strong Wi-Fi and good medical care.
The AARP Livability Index data tool has identified the top 10 most livable small communities, ranging in population from 5,000 to 24,999. It’s the first time AARP has recognized America’s top performing small towns.
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 in everything from transportation and the environment to medical care and civic engagement. Locations are given a score between 0 and 100, and users can customize searches and compare cities and towns.
This list was generated by the newly updated AARP Livability Index, first developed in 2015. To determine how easy it is to live in those locations, the index considers criteria important to adults 50-plus — and the community at large — such as environment, walkability and robust public transportation, among many other factors. This single data point can be fleshed out by exploring key elements of the Livability Index tool.
AARP also identifies the top 10 large, midsize and small cities, but added small towns to the list this year because “there are many states such as Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire where there really isn’t a larger community that could make the list,” but that are great places to live and thrive, notes Jana Lynott, a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute and project director for the index.
In general, top-scoring cities and towns of all sizes “are performing well on features that can support people [at any age and stage] who want to age well in their homes and communities,” says Shannon Guzman, a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Engagement makes a town more livable
Small towns rate high in some categories where large cities may not excel, Guzman says. That’s true particularly in the area of engagement, one of the seven categories of livability measured by the AARP index. Those categories also include housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, opportunity and health.
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Engagement takes into account broadband cost and speed; opportunity for civic involvement; voting rate; social involvement; and cultural, arts and entertainment institutions. Engagement is among the three top performing categories for all but one small town on the top 10 list. Even that town, Great Neck Plaza, New York, scores 70 on engagement — higher than many of its more populated competitors Lynott notes.
Falls Church, Virginia, for example, which showed above-average performance in every one of the aforementioned metrics, got a perfect score (100) in engagement. One contributing factor: a state law that allows early, no-excuse absentee voting and mail-in voting, Lynott says.
Many of these top 10 livable small towns are located near more populous places, so residents can easily take advantage of big city amenities. Falls Church, for example, is just 10 miles from Washington, D.C., and Great Neck Plaza only 16 miles from Manhattan.
But the list also includes places such as Orange City, Iowa, and La Crescent, Minnesota, both of which are more than 100 miles from the nearest large city. Yet, 99.9 percent of La Crescent and 85.7 percent of Orange City residents have high-speed, competitively priced broadband service, and very high voting rates and opportunity rates (which includes data on income inequality, jobs per worker, high school graduation rate and age diversity).
Housing prices can be high
The very things that make communities livable and desirable are also the things that make them in high demand and more expensive. In-demand communities big and small are struggling to meet housing needs of both current residents and those who want to live there in the future, Lynott says. But Lynott notes that while the small towns on AARP’s list perform better on housing than many cities, housing is not a category driving scores.
The housing metric considers data not just for monthly housing costs and housing cost burden as a percentage of income, but also factors in the percentage of units with zero-step entrances and the availability of multifamily housing and of subsidized housing.
The number 1 small town on the list is Aspen, Colorado, a resort town about 100 miles from Denver, with 246 days of sunshine and access to four large ski areas. Its livability score is 72.
“It’s a wonderful community with fantastic recreation, restaurants, a beautiful town with lots of history. It’s a stimulating place,” says Dan Perlman, M.D., 67, a retired physician and infectious disease specialist who first visited and fell in love with the area in the mid-1970s. After living in Denver for many years, he purchased a home and moved full time to Aspen in 2018. “There are a plethora of services for older adults and a wide variety of activities to keep your mind active at places like the Aspen Institute and the Anderson Ranch Arts Center,” he says.
But housing costs are a particular challenge for the town, represented by a score of 58. According to the Aspen Daily News, the median price of a single-family home in Aspen in 2019 was $5.1 million; the most recent home-buying frenzy saw that median figure jump to $9.5 million. On a per-square-foot basis, the newspaper reports, Aspen is “potentially the most expensive residential real estate market in the country, outpacing markets like New York City ... and San Francisco.”
But the ease with which residents can walk to shops and services is high, and local bus transportation is excellent, including free shuttle bus service and paratransit services. The town also scored high in civic engagement (97), with an 82.6 percent voting rate; and got an 83 in the opportunity category, which includes metrics on high school graduation rate (97.5 percent), age diversity, jobs per worker and income inequality. Recently, Perlman sold his Aspen home and moved “down valley” to Carbondale, Colorado (AARP Livability Index score 58), where he found a similar-sized, more affordable house. He takes the free bus to Aspen and can be on the slopes in 40 minutes. “People down valley take advantage of Aspen’s offerings, but we have a less-congested area to live in,” Perlman says.
“Every community has challenges and tradeoffs,” says Rodney Harrell, AARP’s vice president of family, home and community. “You can have all the parks, libraries and grocery stores in the world — but very expensive housing or no access to transportation. This index is for individuals to be aware of the tradeoffs by comparing this place to that and for community leaders to know what their community should work on. Our goal is for every community to become better.”
Stacey Freed is a contributing writer who covers remodeling, construction, lifestyle issues, education and pets. Her work has appeared in USA Today; Real Simple and This Old House. Her book Hiking in the Catskills will be available in July.