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America's Best Cities and Suburbs (Herndon?)

It's that time of year again, as publications gin up lists of rankings to get us all in a tizzy about whether United 93 can really be the best flick of the year or whether--get this--Herndon could be one of America's best suburbs. (I appreciate the charms of Herndon as much as the next fella, but when I asked the Business Week reporter who wrote the story how the town's debate over illegal immigration had figured into the ranking, she, um, didn't seem to have heard about that ruckus.)

But there does seem to be a thriving cottage industry in rankings of places, and Richard Florida, the creative class guru who lives in the District and teaches at George Mason University, is putting his fertile mind to an examination of what distinct urban identities remain in our increasingly homogenized society. His next book will be titled "Who's Your City?" and as part of his research, he's been playing with some of the "best cities" ranking tools on the web.

Both he and I found the Kiplinger's best places tool to be a simple and reasonably accurate way to pare down your choices about what's important to you and see what city the algorithms select for you. (We like the Kiplinger's because in both our cases, it chose Washington as #1 for us.)

You get to make a whole bunch more decisions about what's attractive to you on the Sperling's Best Places survey, so you have at least the illusion of making a more finely-tuned set of choices. But when I took the Sperling's quiz, Washington landed in fourth place, behind Boston, San Francisco, and New York--all reasonable choices for me, even if #5 turned out to be, of all places, Long Island. (Must have been my impulsive selection of living near the beachfront that pushed LI up the rankings.)

This is of course largely an exercise in self-affirmation: Yes, I like what I like. But there are some surprises, and the Kiplinger tool is especially good at making you confront your attitudes about how important factors such as climate, crime and prices are to how you choose to live. The Sperling's tool, with lots more categories of decisions, doesn't let you weigh the relative importance of those categories, so my desire to live where there's mass transit has an equal impact on the final result as my not particularly caring whether there are many housing starts where I live. Somehow, Sperling put Stamford, CT and Newark, NJ on my top 10 cities list, which makes me think something's a bit off.

Have a go at these tools and let me know what you think: Do the results match your own concept of the kind of place you'd want to live in? Do the results tell you anything surprising about what you really seem to value? In my case, the tools correctly analyzed my choices and found places with transit, flourishing arts institutions, strong schools, lots of colleges in the environs, plenty of professional sports teams around, real seasons, reasonably short summers, and a decent supply of teaching hospitals. Still, Newark?

By Marc Fisher |  December 15, 2006; 8:02 AM ET
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Hmm. It calculated Winchester, VA as the #1 place for me. I happen to live right outside of Winchester.

I didn't realize I was so happy.

Posted by: Rocco | December 15, 2006 8:40 AM

Hmm. It calculated Winchester, VA as the #1 place for me. I happen to live right outside of Winchester.

I didn't realize I was so happy.

Posted by: Rocco | December 15, 2006 8:40 AM

My hometown is one of the top suburbs listed. It's safe and predictable, the schools are good, as are public services. There's no downtown to speak of, but local stores cluster around two intersections a mile apart, giving you limited local shopping without the charm. There's a mall across town. Everyone drives. The weekly community paper is still a joke, though at least there is one. There are still virtually no blacks or Latinos, and the socioeconomic strata range from very well off to reasonably rich. Ethnic dining ranges from pizza to Chinese.

Business Week oddly lists it as a suburb of Newark. No resident of the town would consider it anything other than a suburb of New York.

The suburb where I now live, Arlington, also has good schools and services, but it also has rich diversity, public transportation, the nation's most honored cemetery, a busy airport, theater companies, several independent coffee shops (not to mention the unavoidable S****ucks), and much more. (The weekly community paper here, the Sun Gazette, is also a joke.)


Posted by: Jersey native | December 15, 2006 8:58 AM


Do you have an open mind about anything?

First you complain that the tool is "largely an exercise in self-affirmation." Then when it suggests Newark and Stamford as possibilities it "makes me think something's a bit off."

Well, if you'd seriously consider the places (ie, that the data base knows something you don't) then it wouldn't be "an exercise in self-affirmation."

Since you already know what places are acceptable for you, why even bother to use the instrument, especially when you reject everything new out of hand?

You're a gifted writer, Marc, but you would be much more interesting if you weren't so predictably prejudiced. I'd like to read how you went to Newark and Stamford and discovered charms in each place that you'd never imagined.

Posted by: KK | December 15, 2006 9:06 AM

"Best suburb" is a contradiction in terms.

Posted by: An unapologetic urban chauvinist | December 15, 2006 9:45 AM

KK needs to lighten up.

My top city was freaking Pittsburgh. Ugh. Newark came in at number 12. and Camden at number 18. Only three of my favorite US cities made my list - Washington, New York, and San Francisco, though none made my top five.

Posted by: pittsburghsux | December 15, 2006 9:48 AM

Washington DC-Arlington-Alexandria came up on the first survey as my #1, and #3 on the second survey. Oddly the Sperling's survey had San Francisco as my #1 even though I specifically ranked that region/whether the lowest. But like the first poster, I didn't realize I was so happy either.

Posted by: RB | December 15, 2006 9:57 AM

its not that you are happy...its just that you shouldnt expect to be happy anywhere else either.

Posted by: pete | December 15, 2006 11:00 AM

Sperling's keeps giving me the same matter how I change the requirements and clean out my cookies...

Posted by: Anonymous | December 15, 2006 11:25 AM

Hey, Kiplinger's gave me Pittsburgh for #1, too. I did really like Pittsburgh the one time I was there, and everyone I know who lives or has lived there lo-o-o-oves it.

Posted by: h3 | December 15, 2006 12:16 PM

The views of Richard Florida in fact do NOT enjoy universal acceptance. Here is Steven Malanaga:

"To a generation of liberal urban policymakers and politicians who favor big government, Florida's ideas offer a way to talk economic-development talk while walking the familiar big-spending walk.

"Cities rushing to embrace Florida's ideas have based their strategies more on wishful thinking than clear-eyed analysis. Neither the professor nor his most ardent adherents seem worried the Internet generation formed its eccentric capitalist culture during a speculative bubble, when billions of dollars of free-flowing investment capital gave workers and their bosses the freedom to ignore basic economic concerns and that, now, with that money vanished and many companies defunct, a focus on such old-economy ideas as profits and tax rates has reemerged.

"But a far more serious -- indeed, fatal -- objection to Florida's theories is the economics behind them don't work. Although Florida's book bristles with charts and statistics showing how he constructed his various indexes and where cities rank on them, the professor, incredibly, doesn't provide any data demonstrating that his creative cities actually have vibrant economies that perform well over time. A look at even the most simple economic indicators, in fact, shows that, far from being economic powerhouses, many of Florida's favoured cities are chronic underperformers.

Entire piece is here:

Posted by: FisherWatch | December 15, 2006 12:31 PM

If you have not lived in Newark, do not knock it. The Portuguese neighborhood is very nice and safe, and has great restaurants. If you actually live and work in Newark, you'll have no commute. Its museums and cultural offerings are on a par with what you'd find in a mid-sized Midwestern city. If you want the lights of Broadway, NYC is a 20-minute train ride away. Yes, you will have to drive to the Mall, the closest one of which (Short Hills) is one of the nicest in the country. But everybody has to drive there, even the people who live in Short Hills. These are probably the factors that led to that city being placed high on your list. But I admit to not living there now.

Posted by: Lived in Newark | December 15, 2006 12:44 PM

Sperling survey rated san Francisco as my top choice.


Can't get to Kiplinger survey. Net security blocks it.

Posted by: Mister Methane | December 15, 2006 1:05 PM

I guess if you consider Herndon a suburb of Reston, it makes sense. Otherwise, BusinessWeek needs to invest in some old school technology that would enable their reporters to actually visit the places they list rather than use some buggy software program to do the rankings for them!

Posted by: John | December 15, 2006 4:19 PM

those were some really interesting lists, although i did feel like it was trying to shoehorn me into new jersey for some reason. maybe it's trying to tell me something; i was born there. i'm not sure how much appreciation an infant can have for her surroundings, though. weird. kiplinger ranked my hometown in alabama very well also, which felt good. one thing's for sure - the metro DC area ranked REALLY low on both. hmmm...

Posted by: bamagirlinVA | December 15, 2006 4:23 PM


Posted by: jonny749 | December 16, 2006 4:36 PM


I have a suggestion for you punk why dont you, your ignorant wife and your spoiled kids spend a year living in a local trialer park. Yeha your kids will have to go to school with their betters and leave the elite private school they are attending. Public school for them. Maybe it will give you a better sense of reality and what those who aren't making over six figures got through on a daily basis little girl. Lets she you live in what Chevy Chase and your kids becasue you are a elitist liberal snob go to private schools. Typical liberal Dem elitist!

Posted by: vaherder | December 18, 2006 6:27 AM

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