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The Most Livable Cities in America

AARP now ranks the nation's locales, but maybe not the way you think

AARP recently jumped into the “Best Places” ratings game with the web-based AARP Livability Index, which scores the nation’s communities, counties, states and even neighborhoods on a scale from 0 to 100.

This free, data-laden online tool could be helpful to you if you’re interested in moving or in seeing how well your community rates by AARP’s standards. But I suspect this index isn’t what you think.

You might assume that AARP Livability Index, from the AARP Public Policy Institute, would score places on how good they are exclusively for people 50+, since 50 is the age of entry for AARP membership, or on how well they serve retirees. You’d be wrong.

(MORE: Cities for Successful Aging)

What AARP Livability Index Focuses On

The AARP Livability Index — based on a decade of research — “focuses on great neighborhoods for all ages.” As Jana Lynott, Senior Strategic Policy Advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute says: “The index is designed to show strengths and weaknesses in a community and, hopefully, leverage the resources to make change,” so a place can become more livable.

To arrive at its rankings, the AARP index scores an area on 40 metrics in seven categories: Housing, Neighborhood (things like the crime rate; the vacancy rate; access to parks and libraries and job accessibility by mass transit and cars) Transportation, Environment, Health, Engagement (civic and social involvement) and Opportunity (income inequality; jobs per worker; the high school graduation rate and age diversity).

One factor about an area that isn’t scored: weather. “That was done purposefully,” said Rodney Harrell, Director of Livable Communities for the AARP Public Policy Institute in a webinar for the media. “Your desire might be for warm weather and mine might be for snow country if I’m a skier. So it’s hard to weight weather.”

(MORE: Best Places to Retire)

What’s more, Harrell added, “we focus on things a community can do to improve itself — only the things people in the community and policymakers can make better. You’re never going to change the weather of Maui or Anchorage, but you can make those communities better.” (Incidentally, Maui County, Hawaii scores a 53 and Anchorage, Alaska, scores a 52).

The Most Livable Places Are…

So where are the most livable places, according to AARP?

AARP Bulletin pulled together lists of the most livable large, medium and small cities as well as the nation’s most livable neighborhoods. And the Top 3 in each are…

Most Livable Large Cities: San Francisco, Boston and Seattle

Most Livable Medium Cities: They’re all in the Midwest: Madison, Wis., St. Paul, Minn. and Sioux Falls, S.D.

Most Livable Small Cities: They’re also all in the Midwest: La Crosse, Wis., Fitchburg, Wis. and Bismarck, N.D.

Most Livable Neighborhoods: Mifflin West in Madison, Wis., the Upper West Side in New York, N.Y. and Downtown Crossing in Boston, Mass.

Madison (which AARP scored a 68), the home to the University of Wisconsin, has been getting drenched with livability plaudits lately. It was just ranked the Best Big City for Successful Aging by the Milken Institute (places raters define city sizes differently) and called the best place to live in America by Livability.com and NerdWallet.

(MORE: How to Choose Your Best Place to Retire)

How Scoring Is Done

You may wonder why AARP’s Most Livable Medium Size City only scored a 68 out of 100 (winners San Francisco scored 66 and La Crosse got a 70). That’s because communities are compared against each other, so the average one gets a 50. To get a 100, a place would need to be among the best in each category; San Francisco, which scores high for Health and Transportation, for instance, gets a measly 37 for Opportunity.

Also, for reasons only stat nerds would appreciate, overall neighborhood scores go from 19 to 78 (though it’s possible to get a 100 in a particular category) and overall city scores go from 21 to 70.

Since the Milken Institute and AARP approach livability rankings somewhat differently, I asked Paul Irving, Chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the USC Davis School of Gerontology, for his take on the AARP index. He replied diplomatically.

“The new Livability Index enables users to compare and work to improve the communities where they’ll age, and we applaud AARP for this important development,” Irving said. “Like our own Best Cities for Successful Aging index and rankings system, the Livability Index enhances and informs the growing movement to improve aging, as the largest group of older adults in history plans for the future.”

3 Useful Features of the Livability Index

My favorite three features of the AARP Livability Index are:

  • It’s impressively transparent in showing users where the data comes from and how it’s used
  • Users can use a slider to weight categories based on their own preferences, which may be different from AARP’s weightings
  • AARP shows residents and local policymakers ways they could make their areas more livable

What you can’t do — yet — is create a list of the most livable places in America based on your criteria. But you can type in a street address or a city, county or state to get a score and then do the same for two other places to compare them.

Out of curiosity, I decided to see how AARP ranks my suburban New Jersey town and my two twentysomething sons’ homebase of West Hollywood, Calif. Turns out, I’m living in a 58 (convenient and strong on health care; weak for housing affordability), a bit more livable than their 49 (pulled down by air pollution).

How to Use This Tool

As useful as the AARP Livability Index may be, even Harrell says you shouldn’t up and move to a place just because the area scores well.

“We see the index as one piece of the puzzle,” said Harrell. “If you’re buying a home or changing communities, this is one thing to plug in along with the other research you’re doing.” Such as what kind of weather you like and whether the area is close to your kids and parents.

And don’t relocate to any community sight unseen, no matter how well it scores in a ranking. “We suggest you rent there first or go there on an extended vacation to make sure you’d be happy,” advises Erik Dullenkopf, a financial adviser with MetLife Premier Client Group in Ventura, Calif.

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