02 October 2009

We Don't Understand What Makes Cities Great

We know in our guts what makes a city great, but analytical efforts to determine this often go far astray.

When you ask people where the best places in America to live are, there are usually a number of contenders: Honolulu, Manhattan, Beverley Hills, San Francisco, maybe Austin, Texas or Aspen, Colorado, depending on the person’s preferences, the kind of places where TV shows, movies and novels are set. However, when magazines issue their annual Best Places to Live lists, as they do each year, they usually end up with a very different set of cities.

Kiplinger's Magazine's 2009 list declares that Huntsville, Alabama is the best city in America to live in, followed by Albuquerque, NM. Bert Sperling, a city rating guru, has Gainesville, Florida ranked in the number one spot in the most recent version of his book Cities Ranked and Rated, while New York City comes in 241. For small cities, the lists are no less surprising: Money Magazine ranked Louisville, Colorado, a small commuter town of little renown between Boulder and Denver, as the number one small city in the US, and a snowy, suburb of Minneapolis, Chanhassen, Minnesota number two, outpacing by a huge distance popular places like Monterey, CA, Redmond, WA and Nantucket, MA. . . .

[T]hese lists . . . measure the places to live that combine the worst neighbors and the best conditions for home builders. . . . they are symptomatic of an impoverished understanding of the economic life of cities and what makes local government laws and policies efficient. The vision of urban life reflected in these lists infects both our legal and political thinking about cities and the content of urban public policy. In order to understand how we might think about urban affairs in a better way, and how we can make cities more productive (and nicer) places, a good place to start is figuring out what's wrong “Best Places to Live" rankings.

From here.


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