How We Chose Our New Best Place to Live

June 10, 2014 at 5:55 am CDT

Recently, I asked my 5-year-old what she liked best about living where we live. We were going to be moving soon, and I wanted to start prepping her for the new home and new neighborhood. I also wanted to introduce her to some concepts of livability. We are moving to a place we feel is more livable and I wanted her to understand that, at least to some degree.

Detail from a mosaic “stop” sign in an alley in Oak Park, Ill. Even the alleys have character.

I realized I had some work to do and was reminded that few 5-year-olds understand the finer points of urban theory. Her response to me was, “We have the only house with a red door,” which is true. She also liked that we have a blue car, unlike the others who live on the block. But she pointed out that other blue cars come visit from time to time. Eventually, I got her to talk about more substantive things like being able to go for walks and the park about half a mile from our house where we have spent much of the fair-weather portion of her life. There was a lot to love about our house and our neighborhood. But with three kids, we had simply outgrown it.

We also wanted a simple thing: that all three of our kids go to the same school. In the hugely complicated and complex web of Chicago Public Schools – with gifted programs, special needs programs, magnets, neighborhood schools and charters using a mix of testing and lotteries to get into the best programs – getting three kids into anything but the closest schools is nearly impossible. So we’re moving.

Like most movers, we wanted to keep it local, within the county or at least within the Chicago metro area. I know this is how most moves happen because the data tells me so. My hunch is that most movers also don’t have all the tools they’d like when house hunting and don’t necessarily know all the ins and outs of choosing the right suburb or neighborhood for their needs.

When we started thinking about moving, more than a year ago, we had certain suburbs in mind. They were classic modern suburbs. Mall-centric, big plots of land, big houses and transit-challenged. At least that’s what we were finding at our price point. In Chicago, in our experience, it’s not easy to find an affordable home in a good school district with good transit anywhere to the north or northwest of the city. Like many movers, we started to look further and further out from the city.

Then we started to think more about it. I also started editing this website in the midst of our search. I started reading Jane Jacobs, Jeff Speck, Ellen Dunham-Jones and the works of New Urbanism-inspired authors. I already knew the works of Richard Florida, but now I was working on research with the Martin Prosperity Institute, which he heads.

We already knew that our demographic changes were causing us to rethink our definition of livability from an urban setting to a suburban setting. Now it was time to rethink our idea of a livable suburb.

All roads lead us to Oak Park.

Here’s why it’s our new Best Place to Live:

First and foremost, it’s the schools. Overall, the city gets a 9 out of 10 from Great Schools . Unlike a lot of places, that’s due to an overall consistency. Simply put, there aren’t any low-performing schools here. That’s a big plus for us.

Another key factor is, compared to other suburbs, it’s a lot more city-like. While we were ready to be done with the big city, we weren’t totally ready to give up and “move to the ‘burbs.” We just kind of had to. So we liked that it’s still on two of the city’s public train lines. That meant an easy commute into the city – without having to take the more suburban Metra lines that are both tightly scheduled and have fewer downtown terminals. Getting from the downtown station to many offices can add significant time and complexity to a commute.

We liked that it’s right off the highway. We liked that it’s diverse. We liked that it’s walkable both in terms of having amenities to walk to (bars, restaurants, shops, trains, lots of parks and an independent market) and in terms of being able to walk in our neighborhood without having to navigate busy, congested streets. Our kids will eventually walk or bike to school with their classmates from our block. We liked that it’s a more mature suburb as evidenced by the foliage and by the character of the homes. We liked the farmers markets. We liked that it was near some great hospitals. All of this at a price point we could afford.

It’s not perfect. Oak Park is bordered by some of the tougher parts of Chicago. Target and Home Depot will be farther away, true. Interstate 290 is often a traffic nightmare, likely to get worse during some planned construction. We’ll be replacing the Chicago Botanic Garden with the Morton Arboretum and the Lincoln Park Zoo with the Brookfield Zoo.

Finally, the more time we spent there scouting it out, the more it felt like home. We loved the lemonade stands on the sidewalk. We loved the people we met and that we were already starting to run into friends randomly in the parks, restaurants and other places people gather.

We’re looking forward to settling in, and I’ll likely blog from time to time about the goings on. From what we’re reading at the moment, the biggest concerns in Oak Park are parking and congestion and whether to use public money to help a private business set up shop. These are all great livability issues, and I can’t wait to dive into the discussions.

Meanwhile, this is just one family’s story about choosing a new best place. What is yours? If you love where you live, tell us how you came to be there. If you don’t, tell us what you’ll look for in your next place.

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