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What are the Most Livable Communities in the U.S.? AARP's Index Crunches the Numbers

Expanded Livability Index tool ranks 100 top spots for walkability, public transportation, medical care and more

spinner image from left to right san francisco as seen through the golden gate bridge in california then kennedy street in cambridge massachusetts then church street in burlington vermont
Noah Clayton/Getty / Roman Babakin/Alamy / Stan Tess/Alamy

Are you thinking about moving and want to know whether your target city has accessible transportation? Searching for a second home and want a town that is walkable with affordable housing? Looking for a retirement home in a community that has age-friendly amenities and top-tier medical care? AARP’s Livability Index, newly updated for 2023, has everything you need to answer those questions — and more.

This year’s platform has switched from categories of “livable cities” to “livable communities.” It also has four (instead of three) community levels: very large, large, midsize and small, based on population size. As Rodney Harrell, vice president family, home and community and AARP housing enterprise lead, says, “We wanted to do a better job of representing all communities and didn’t want to leave out the suburbs or unincorporated communities.”

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Topping the lists this year for their respective community sizes: San Francisco; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Maine; and Aspen, Colorado.

spinner image from left to right the skyline of saint paul minnesota then san francisco as seen through the golden gate bridge in california then state street pedestrian mall in madison wisconsin
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Top 10 Very Large Communities, population 500,000+

Livability Tool: How it scores communities, new upgrades

The AARP Livability Index draws from more than 50 unique sources of data across seven livability categories. Using these metrics and policies, the index scores communities by looking at how livable each neighborhood is within the community, things like — housing costs, walkability, robust public transportation, civic engagement, accessible housing, access to medical care and broadband, among many other factors, to determine how easy it is to live in those locations.

Each neighborhood, city, county, or state is scored on a scale from 0 to 100. The average location scores a 50. Those communities with more livability-friendly practices earn a score above 50 and those facing obstacles to livability score lower.

In previous years, users could search by entering an address, city, state or ZIP code to get results. Now they also have the option to use the new "Explore All Communities" tool, which allows users to personalize criteria first so they can easily find what they are looking for most in a community.

There’s also a shortcut “Community Finder Quiz” that offers criteria prompts to help with a search.

San Francisco, with a score of 66, held the top position for communities with a population of 500,000+ for a fourth year in a row.

Despite the city’s well-documented housing crisis, only four other very large communities scored higher than San Francisco on housing. In part, this is due to San Francisco’s having a relatively strong supply of subsidized housing units. Its above-average performance on housing can also be explained by a high supply of multifamily housing units, many with an accessible, zero-step entrance. But San Francisco’s monthly housing costs are three times higher than the median U.S. county. This is similar to many communities on the list of the top 25 largest communities. (For communities 11-25 for each population, view the entire index.)

1. San Francisco

2. Ramsey County, Minnesota

3. Dane County, Wisconsin

4. Portland, Oregon

5. Seattle

6. Hennepin County, Minnesota

7. Boston

8. Multnomah County, Oregon

9. Salt Lake County, Utah

10. Montgomery County, Maryland​

spinner image from left to right kennedy street in cambridge massachusetts then salt lake city with wasatch mountains in the background utah then view from arlington national cemetery in arlington virginia
Roman Babakin / Alamy / Douglas Pulsipher/Alamy / LEE SNIDER/Alamy

Top 10 Large Communities, population 100,000-499,999

​​For the third year in a row, Madison, Wisconsin topped the list of large communities. ​​

It has a tremendous engagement score (81) and is tops in transportation (74), which is safe and convenient. Housing costs are still comparatively high, but the availability of multifamily housing is in the top third of communities. Midwestern and East Coast cities make up the first nine large communities, with Berkeley, California, (overall score of 63) rounding out the Top 10.​

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1. Madison, Wisconsin​​

2. Cambridge, Massachusetts​​

3. St. Paul, Minnesota​​

4. Salt Lake City

​​5. Arlington County, Virginia​​

6. Rochester, Minnesota​​

7. Minneapolis

​​8. Chittenden County, Vermont​​

9. Olmsted County, Minnesota​​

10. Berkeley, California​​​

spinner image from left to right downtown portland maine then boats on the mississippi river in la crosse wisconsin then church street in burlington vermont
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Top 10 Midsize Communities, population 25,000 to 99,999​​

On the East Coast, Portland, Maine, tops the midsize list, with an overall score of 68.

​​It’s one of the nation’s overall top performers (in comparison to all city sizes) on engagement, with a score of 91. Nearly 80 percent of Portland residents voted in the last presidential election, compared with 60 percent in the average U.S. city (population-weighted mean). High voting rates are aided by state laws that allow early, no-excuse absentee, or mail-in voting. The city scores 96 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index. This index examines the laws, policies, and services of municipalities and rates them based on their inclusivity of LGBTQ+ people who live and work there. And it may be the most connected city, with 100 percent of residents reportedly having access to three or more wireline internet service providers, and two or more providers that offer maximum advertised download speeds of 50 megabits per second (the criteria AARP uses in its Index to determine high-speed, competitively priced broadband).​

1. Portland, Maine​​

2. Burlington, Vermont​​

3. South Portland, Maine​​

4. La Crosse, Wisconsin​​

5. Belmont, Massachusetts

​​6. Somerville, Massachusetts​​

7. St. Louis Park, Minnesota​​

8. Millcreek, Utah​​

9. Roseville, Minnesota​​

10. Bozeman, Montana​​

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spinner image from left to right downtown in aspen colorado then a windmill in orange city iowa then downtown in salida colorado
Danita Delimont / Alamy / Cary T / Alamy / James Schwabel/Alamy

​​Top 10 Small Communities, population 5,000 to 24,999​​

When it comes to small communities, Aspen, Colorado is at the top position this year with a score of 73. ​​While AARP acknowledges that these communities do have high housing costs, engagement is a primary score driver for small communities. The Colorado cities of Aspen and Salida, as well as Jackson, Wyoming, all have a perfect score on engagement because of above-average performance on broadband cost and speed, opportunity for civic involvement, voting rates and social involvement. ​​​​

1. Aspen, Colorado​​

2. Great Neck Plaza, New York

​​3. Orange City, Iowa

​​4. La Crescent, Minnesota​​

5. Salida, Colorado

​​6. Pierre, South Dakota​​

7. Pitkin County, Colorado​​

8. Falls Church, Virginia​​

9. Jackson, Wyoming​​

10. Falcon Heights, Minnesota​​

Even more user-friendly tool​​

Theresa Beldner, 53 and her husband, a human resources executive, have moved houses many times over the years for his job. Most recently, Beldner has been researching a move from their current home in Saratoga Springs, New York, to Indianapolis. As a seasoned pro when it comes to relocating, Beldner, a mother of four, knows what she’s looking for. After nailing down school options, she looks for “neighborhoods that might be close to where my husband’s job will be. Then I look for accessibility to walking trails, coffee shops, the library, restaurants.”​​

With the Livability Index, Beldner was able to put in a ZIP code and search. If she had the address of a house for sale, she says, “I could scroll down to the layered map on the [Livability Index] ... I could really hone in on an area and see the walkability to the library, coffee shops, the park.” The data point she found most helpful, she says, is "‘daily walk trips taken by a household.’ That tells me it’s walkable and also how much the community takes advantage of it. To me, that means there are more people out and about, that I’m more likely to meet people and connect with them.”​

Finding challenges and solutions

​​As director of advocacy at AARP Idaho, François Cleveland uses the tool to help “start conversations with local elected leaders who are always interested in how they can improve their communities,” she says. “I copy the index from each one of my state’s cities and counties when attending statewide city and county annual conferences to share with them. Officials are always grateful for the copy and interested in engaging in further discussion around the scores.” ​​

This information is at the heart of the tool’s impact. While data gleaned lends itself to creating ranked lists of the most livable communities, it also spotlights the challenges communities face. Take housing affordability, which is a national crisis. “Even the highest scoring communities have issues and challenges they need to address,” Harrell says.

​​In addition, “many of the community amenities and services are only in certain neighborhoods,” says Shannon Guzman, director, housing and livable communities, AARP enterprise housing deputy family, home and community. “Are there healthy food options in every neighborhood? Access to public transportation? Communities need to think how about how to deal with housing challenges faced by people who have lived a long time in a community but who are being priced out because of costs. Or older adults who may be fine in the community but now their adult children can’t find a place to live where they grew up. These larger communities have to address these things,” Guzman says. ​​

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