I’m a sucker for lists. Money Magazine or Kiplinger or Sperling’s will come out with their annual lists of the best places to ___ and I sit through the entire slideshow. Then I vent. Santa Rosa, California is the best place to raise a child? Have the editors ever been there? Lacrosse, Wisconsin? Auburn, Alabama? Really? These are the best places in America? I fired up U.S. News & World Report’s Best Places Search Tool moments before writing this, adjusted the sliders in various categories, and discovered that my Best Place to Live is…Waltham, Massachusetts. Right. In this entire country Waltham is the best place for me. If you know me, and if you’ve been to Waltham, you know why I’m laughing.
Which begs the question, are Best Places lists totally bunk? Are any of the methodologies valid? Mercer’s annual cities-with-the-highest-quality-of-life index is populated by places that are clean, safe, and functional. American rankings tend to favor safety, good schools, and cheap housing. Are these really the things we want in a place, the things that make it the Best Place to Live? I’m not a fan of being mugged, and if I had a kid I’d want his/her school to actual provide an education, and certainly being able to afford rent or a mortgage is but I can’t help but wonder how high Stepford would score. Best Places in Which to Clone Sheep seems a better title.
Sperling’s considers the respective economy and housing market of San Francisco, Orange County (CA), and Newark to be nearly identical. The cultural offerings of San Bernardino, Atlanta, and Bridgeport (CT) are judged to be equivalent, as is the transportation situation in Baltimore, Boston, and Kenosha (WI). Richard Florida made a name for himself by rethinking the questions one asks when evaluating a place, and by coming up with rankings such as the Gay Index, the Bohemian Index, and the Talent Index. But he defines talent as the percentage of the population that has attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. Which means that the founders of Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and Facebook aren’t “talent.” Many of his other indices are equally problematic.
So does the problem lie in the methodologies, or is the attempt to evaluate something as complex as a city with a few (or even many) numerical inputs doomed to fail from the start? ZoomProspector can’t tell that a life lived in Berkeley would be drastically different than one in White Plains. It doesn’t know that residents of Charlottesville and Gainesville probably aren’t reading the same magazines (that’s a metaphor – I know people don’t read magazines anymore). All it has to go on is population size and education rates, average commute times and median household incomes.
How to rank the particular qualities of light, sound, and smell? How the stimulation of those senses shapes one’s experience in a place? How to take into consideration the fact that the same street can inspire one person to break out in song and another in hives? Missoula can be a great place to raise a kid, and so can Manhattan.
Listing best places of any sort is as subjective an endeavor as the term itself. The best places for me are damn sure not the best places for my grandmother, or even my brother. So should we do away with these best of lists? Or should we just be a bit more specific: The Best Places in Which to Play Marco Polo with Noam Chomsky Quotes and Receive Accurate Responses, or The Best Places for People Who Would Consider Drive-Thru Cosmetic Surgery? What about the Best Places for Gay People Who Have Seasonal Affective Disorder and Advanced Degrees?
How do you evaluate places? Where have you lived? Why’d you leave? Why’d you go back? Where do you want to live next? Why? Where would you never even consider living?