October 16, 2013 at 9:09 am CDT

“Just what such words as ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’ mean is often disputed, but no one doubts that they exist,” H.L. Mencken, then editor of the American Mercury magazine, wrote in 1931. “It is when concrete criteria are set up that the dispute begins.”

And with that, he began a sprawling search for “The Worst State” that totaled nearly 50 pages in three monthly installments.

Over the years, there have been no shortage of Best Places to Live lists. The American Mercury ‘s measurement of states, under a different headline, measured more than 100 factors. Each of those data points contribute to what we now call quality of life, or livability.

Livability.com, working with researchers at the Martin Prosperity Institute, has just launched its own entrant in the field. As I was preparing that report, I spent some time in the microfiche at the excellent main branch of the Chicago Public Library digging into the history of livability in America.

How have the “concrete criteria” changed over the years?

Mencken measured many aspects of livability that we still consider critical today – related to education, health care and economic strength – and he even included a table ranking subscribers to The Atlantic .

Other factors wouldn’t be relevant today. As we have left our agrarian roots, the ratio of farms with tractors seems quaint. So do measures of areas with telephone service and electricity. Break-outs of “distillery-seizing” and lynching in the crime section are now antiquated as are the morbidity rates for typhoid, malaria and pellagara – a niacin deficiency.

What’s missing from his calculations is as interesting as what’s there. For instance, there is zero mention of art anywhere, yet measuring the role of arts in the economy is considered critical now.

Overall, the list Mencken compiled was based on solid criteria, data from the best available sources and produced a ranking not entirely dissimilar from what you’d see today. The most established states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York), some parts of the Midwest (Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois) and those in temperate climates (California, Oregon) do well. The South fares poorly. Mississippi is crowned the worst and “most backward” of the then 48 states. The bottom 16 states all fell below the 39 th parallel.


Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of the most prominent studies took place following times of great upheaval, when we tend to get a little more introspective. Mencken’s followed the stock market crash of 1929. A landmark study about American metro areas produced by the Midwest Research Institute (and funded by the Environmental Protection Agency) was published after the unrest that was the late 1960s.

In between was a market- and misguided-legislation-driven development boom that created a lot of the suburban sprawl that many now consider less livable. In a book called The Good Life Index , the authors claim that quality of place wasn’t a factor in site selection of businesses until the 1960s when corporate leaders began thinking about livability in economic terms. Clearly cities of all shapes and sizes now have caught on that these are important issues and can be competitive advantages.

The MRI list narrowed the focus from states to metro areas. It had the luxury of more available data and some new lenses with which to analyze. Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental text Silent Spring had been published, as had Jane Jacob’s treatise on The Death and Life of Great American Cities . The suburbs had exploded across the U.S.

Some subjects had dropped off the table – sewers and electricity were much more widespread. But we see measures driven by the issues of the time, such as air, visual noise and water pollution, police and fire protection, and spending on welfare. We see an emphasis placed on both racial and gender equality in the workforce. Still, the MRI report also measures many of the same factors as Mencken’s more than a generation previously.

Which makes it all the more fun to compare.

The results, published in a stand-alone report as well as in Kiplinger’s Changing Times , are broken out by size of metro area. All told, more than 120 data points were used in a rather complex set of weighted formulae.

Portland Ore. , which to this day tops many a Best Places to Live list, comes out ahead of Sacramento and Seattle in the large metro list. Eugene, Ore.; Madison, Wisc.; and Appleton- Oshkosh, Wisc., lead the medium metro list. La Crosse, Wisc.; Rochester Minn.; and Lincoln, Neb. , finished first in smaller metros.


Now, we see an explosion of guide books, rankings and Web-based slideshows. People like Bruce Sperling, editor of bestplaces.net make a living developing city rankings. Forbes and other websites have gotten in on the action. Places Rated produced a frequently updated print almanac during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Its most recent metro area ranking in 2007 distilled more than 600 pages of tables before proclaiming Pittsburg number one, followed by San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.

Marketers have gotten in on the game producing lists related to their brands (e.g. Combos’ “manliest cities” list)

So where does Livability’s list fit in? Well, for starters our list is focused on cities, not metro areas – and small to mid-sized cities at that. It’s based roughly 40 data points from both public and private sources, and weighted based on an exclusive Ipsos survey. Many of the cities at the top of our list can be found in the metros that ranked well in the MRI report, including Ann Arbor , Palo Alto , Eugene , Reno and Berkeley .

You can see our full coverage and methodology as part of our Best Places to Live 2014 package.

Why did we do it? Jane Jacobs wrote that cities are laboratories that must be studied and experimented with. She also wrote that what applies to the “great” cities, by which she meant sizable, does not apply to smaller cities, towns and suburbs. And so, we’ll keep experimenting with these rankings. This is version 1.0. It’s a solid start, but next year we’ll tweak it – making sure we measure the right outcomes of the experiments and hopefully creating something that will help inform good policy that leads to better, more livable cities.