The Neverending Evolution of 'Quality of Life' Rankings

Society has been quantifying the "best" places to live for a long time, but the things we care most about are never fixed.

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Lest you think society has only become obsessed with ranking places in the 21st century, consider a three-part series by H.L. Mencken that ran in The American Mercury in 1931: It was succinctly headlined, "THE WORST AMERICAN STATE."

In the impressive tome, which covered some 47 pages across three issues of the magazine, Mencken and Charles Angoff methodically ranked the states (at the time, there were only 48 plus the District of Columbia) on everything from farm electrification to literacy rates to the salaries of teachers to the number of natives in Who's Who in America. (*Blush*: They also included the local circulation per thousand people of The Atlantic Monthly).

On final tally, 105 tables later, Mississippi took the title ("It has few natural resources, and suffers from a bad climate and a backward population"). While The American Mercury was rather ingenious to frame the whole project around a search for the worst, Mencken and Angoff did also crown two "most fortunate" states: Congratulations, Connecticut and Massachusetts!

Matt Carmichael, editor of the website Livability.com, dug up this gem ("on microfiche!") while working on a much more modern ranking of America's 100 best small and mid-sized cities to live in, which he's published today.

"One of the things that I think is interesting about livability and this whole ‘places’ space is that a lot of new ideas are predicated on kind of trashing all of the previous ideas," Carmichael says. "A lot of the New Urbanist movement is about how awful sprawl was. And sprawl was a reaction to density."

Over time, "quality of life" – or, more often today, "livability" – has come to mean many things, some of them contradictory, others just outdated. Mencken's list, Carmichael notes, included some metrics we would never measure today, like the prevalence of lynchings (surprise leader: Wyoming) or death rates from typhoid fever (sorry again, Mississippi). In preparing his own ranking, Carmichael became interested in how ideas about quality of life evolve, and not just with respect to rising living standards.

"What would you have measured if you were doing a 'best places to live' list in 1965?" he asks. "Would it have been mall density? Or cul-de-sacs per capita?"

One theme that remains constant dating back to Mencken's time is that even as the criteria have changed, our search to quantify the unquantifiable has not. In all honesty, it's impossible to rank the places where the largest share of people might plausibly be happiest. But that's never stopped us from counting and calculating and indexing. Every sub-ranking in Mencken's project is accompanied by data (and decimal points!). The enterprise certainly seems scientific.

Listicles and rankings since 1931 have benefited from ever-more data, and now an ever-more insatiable appetite to rank everything. Rankings themselves have proliferated – creating an endless list of lists to which Carmichael is conscious that he's adding yet one more entry.

So how is his different? And what makes a place "livable" in 2013, without the persistent fears of typhoid and illiteracy? Livability's ranking, compiled with the help of the Martin Prosperity Institute and a national survey from Ipsos Public Affairs, is based on 40 data points that quantify not just what amenities exist, but also how likely people are to actually access them. It emphasizes demographics, affordability, education, health care, housing, infrastructure and measures of social capital.

The results of the 2,000-person national survey also helped weight the results ("We didn’t want it to be a bunch of urban planner wonks," Carmichael says, "saying 'access to pubic transportation is the most important thing, and if you don’t want that, you’re wrong.'") Here is the top 10 list Livability came up with, focusing on cities with populations between 20,000 and 350,000 (you can see the full 100 here):

  1. Palo Alto, California
  2. Boulder, Colorado
  3. Berkeley, California
  4. Durham, North Carolina
  5. Miami Beach, Florida
  6. Rochester, Minnesota
  7. Salt Lake City, Utah
  8. Eugene, Oregon
  9. Reno, Nevada
  10. Rockville, Maryland

Bearing in mind history, some of the criteria behind that list will probably seem out of date in 15 or 20 years. Right now, though, it all sounds pretty universal: affordable housing, low crime rates and good air quality, access to hospitals, parks and great schools. Who wouldn't want that stuff, even in 2030?

Carmichael concedes, though, that by then, we'll likely know a lot more about the true value of the things livability wonks stress today, like walkability and the arts. It's also possible, in 20 years, that we may come to take for granted something like walkability (as with literacy before it), to the point where we stop including it in these lists all together.

Ranking insets from "The Worst American State" by Charles Angoff and H.L. Mencken in The American Mercury, 1931.

Top image: ImageTeam / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.