Who's Your City: Best Places to Live

Last Updated Oct 2, 2008 7:42 PM EDT

Where we reside has more and more relevance to the kinds of work
available to us. In a large number of professions, jobs have become
geographically specialized — that is, they are increasingly
concentrating in certain places. Place can also largely determine how happy we
are in our personal lives. Where we live can determine who we meet, how we
meet them, and our opportunities for spending time with our friends and loved
ones. Finding a place that best fits us isn't easy — as
nothing that's truly important in life is — but it can be
done. To help you, I've come up with a basic framework, some real-world
tools, and a six-step plan to help you narrow the field and make your

Get Your Priorities Straight

Goal: Know why you’d want to move in the
first place.

If you ask someone what’s most important to them in a
partner or a job, chances are they’ll have a well-rehearsed response
ready to fire back. Our relationship with place is no less intimate and should
not be neglected, slighted, or taken for granted. Figuring out what your
priorities are is the first and most fundamental step before deciding where to
live. Consider what’s really important to you about the place
you live.


Key issues and questions to address when starting your

  • What do you like most and least about where you’re
    living now, and why are you looking for a new place?

  • What are dealmakers? Dealbreakers?

  • Is it important to you to find a job in a specific field or
    would you be happy employed in a more general labor market?

  • What stage of life are you in and does that figure into your

  • What’s most important to you right now — your
    work? Finding a mate?

  • Your physical environment? Your family?

  • How important are things like aesthetics, art, culture, and

  • To what degree does weather and climate matter?

  • Do you lead a flexible or more structured lifestyle? How would
    the people in a new city change (improve or worsen) this? What does maintaining
    (or changing) your lifestyle require? How would the people in a new city change
    (improve or worsen) this?

  • Do you prefer big cityregions or smaller communities? Do you
    want to be closer to the action or further from the frenzy?

Take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down every
single thing that comes to mind. Consider nothing too big or trivial.

Test Your Assumptions with the “Place Finder”

Goal: Combine qualitative information with hard data
to identify good prospects.

The goal is live in a place that fulfills your needs from bottom
to top. When considering a potential move, it’s crucial to assess how
your new community will stack up against your needs at each level. Where
detailed statistical information is available, I’ll tell you where to
get it and how to use it. But for many things we’d like to know more
about, there simply isn’t any hard data available. You’ll
need to collect qualitative information – read local papers, talk to
people there, and go out and see for yourself. In many cases, collecting
information this way will give you deeper and better insights into the places
you’re considering. The real power is in the combination of both
types of data — hard statistical facts and your own personal

Hot Tip

Take the “Place
for a test drive

Use it to help you organize
your thoughts, consider other priorities, collect and analyze quantitative and
qualitative information, compare, rate, and rank places. Fill out each box on
the form on a 1-5 scale. Even after you’ve collected statistical information,
use your judgment. Enter the score that best fits your assessment, your needs,
your observations, and your sensibilities.

Size up a City’s Basics

Goal: Understand the basic economic opportunities your
place offers.

Jobs: Are you a risk-taker, or do you like to play it
safe? Do you want to work for a company, or launch one? The place you choose
could determine that. Make sure to focus on job opportunities in your specific
field. For detailed statistical profiles, including information on the number
of jobs and salaries for more than 800 specific occupations, in every
metropolitan region in the United States, look no further than the Bureau of
Labor Statistics.

Be sure to calculate comparative costs; make sure you know how
far your salary will really go in your new location. There are calculators
available online that will help you tally the precise cost-of-living
differences among the locations you’re considering; they also enable
you to see what kind of salary you would need to have to maintain a similar
lifestyle in different places. These sites, such as Salary.com, also give
objective, fact-based tools with which to negotiate future salaries, which is
especially important if part of why you’re moving is to find a new

Whether or not you’re on a fast career track, access to
professional development and lifelong
learning opportunities are important. Studies have shown time and again that
expanding one’s mind can add years onto one’s life. Access
to such opportunities may depend, in part, on proximity to great colleges,
universities, and graduate programs. But learning outside of formal educational
institutions through seminars, networks, executive training programs, and
professional development offerings is possible and of equal value. Take note of
where graduate programs are located (see guides like U.S. News and World Report,
or BusinessWeek); survey local newspapers, trade magazines, and websites for
announcements on continuing education courses and seminar offerings.

Networks: In a similar vein, studies have also shown that
people who feel disconnected or isolated age at an accelerated pace. They’re
also not surprisingly unhappier people. Plugging in, building networks, meeting
people, and creating support structures – these are all things that
not only further professional development, but they also contribute
significantly to overall wellbeing. But in this respect as in most others, not
all places are created equal. Do due diligence; talk to people and get their
sense of things. Ask yourself: Is this a place I can easily plug into, or is it
the kind of place that is resistant to outsiders? Again, read the local press
and the alternative papers.

Hot Tip

Does the Place Get It?

Aside from statistical
analysis, like formal polls, anecdotal evidence will be your best resource in
assessing the quality and efficacy of leadership in a given area. Per usual,
read the local media, especially the alternative papers and local bloggers.
When possible, read up on the political history of a place; past events will
undoubtedly inform its present context. Who are the political and business
leaders? What are their track records, their popularity? Do their values and
visions fit yours? Do they address issues that are important to you? Are
decisions about the community discussed and made out in the open or behind
closed doors? Are there opportunities for citizens to be involved? Talk to
residents: How informed and engaged are they?

Do a “Values Check”

Goal: Know how well a city aligns with your

The next step is look closely at the values your places offer.
This category includes intangible qualities of place — not easily
reflected in numbers or hard analysis — but they are among the most
important thing to consider.


Diversity: Like people, places have varying abilities
to open up to and absorb newcomers — particularly those who are
different from current residents. Some places like New York City are natural
melting pots. Others can be more resistant to “outsiders.”
Consider how important this is to you, and how well (or not) you may fare in a
new place.

Trust: Trust — not only between people but
also between people and institutions — is hard to measure, but not impossible.
There are signs everywhere. Do people make eye contact with one another on the
street? Do they hide their handbags or briefcases when they sit down? Does
someone’s “word” still seem to matter in everyday
business transactions? Do people lock their doors when they leave their houses
or cars? Are residents valued; are people nice to one another? How are
children treated? What about young people, families, the elderly, or people
with disabilities? Are some groups marginalized? Who are they and why?

Self-expression: Here again, places vary a lot. Some
welcome self-expression, others remain more conformist. How strong is your need
to be yourself? What role does individuality play in your daily life? Is it
important to you to find a place where you can be unique and reinvent yourself
should you so desire?

Consider Other Important Intangibles

Goal: Know how well a city aligns with your

Now it’s time to find out whether the places you are
looking at really have the spark you need. Aesthetics and vibrancy, for
instance, are among the most important factors in how happy people are with
their places. Take it seriously.


Beauty: All of us are drawn to beauty, but remember the old
adage, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Each of us looks for different
things in the places we live. Some consider a pleasant aesthetic to be a
gritty urban streetscape. Others prefer well-manicured parks. What do you
find beautiful?

How Real Is It: In a mass-produced and mass-marketed world, many
people are looking for authenticity. If you’re one of them, ask yourself
the following. How authentic is the place? What gives it its true soul? What
makes it different, unique? How does it value and promote its history,
uniqueness, physical structures, and culture? Decide for yourself what really
matters to you and rank your places accordingly.

The Fun Factor: Places are not just about work. What are the things
you really love to do? Arts and culture? Music or theater? Spectator sports or
participant sports? A once avid
cyclist may one day choose a different form of exercise. A person who likes
clubs and nightlife in his 20s may become a symphony or jazz buff in his
30s, or find himself coaching soccer when kids come along. What activities
are the most important to you? Do you imagine them changing overtime?

Buzz: Every city has its own energy level or buzz. Are
you inspired by high energy and lots of activity, or do you prefer more a
slower speed? What is the energy of the place? Does it jibe with your own
ideal pace of life?

Schedule a Reconnaissance Trip

Goal: Collect all that invaluable first-hand

Few of us would ever make an important decision on the sole
basis of someone else’s opinion. Deciding where to live is no
different. Say you’re thinking about moving to Santa Fe. Do you know
anyone who lives there? Talk to them. According to a Yankelovich consumer research survey published
in 2006, anecdotal knowledge is considered to be one of the most reliable forms
of information about a place.

My personal rule of thumb is to visit at least three possible
places, if not more, before making a final decision. According to the same Yankelovich
survey, visiting for the weekend was by far the best means to a useful
assessment. My own advice is to spend more than just a weekend – spend
enough time to get to know the place. You owe it to yourself, your
family and your future. While you’re visiting, make sure to consider
how you would feel about the city in future stages of your life.

Visit a neighborhood you might like to live in now, and a
neighborhood you might like to live in 10 years from now. Ask yourself some
questions and think about how you might feel in the future: Can I see myself
walking down this street everyday? Can I take the noise level? Is it too
crowded or too empty? Too gritty or too ersatz? What would start to get on my
nerves? What places would I visit a lot? How would I get around?

Most importantly, if a city doesn’t feel right for any
reason while you’re actually there, don’t hesitate to
reject it based on your gut feeling, regardless of how it ranks. Realize that
your intuition is telling you something important. It’s much more
than the hard facts that matter. It’s how you feel about the place –
and how it makes you feel.