Is your community on a list?

by Phil Hardwick

Published: September 19,2010

Tags: column, lists, Phil Hardwick

We love lists.  We love to make lists, and we love to read lists. Whether it is a list of successful businesses, emerging leaders, good places to work/eat/shop/vacation/whatever, there seems to be a list for everything.  Lists that rank things seem to get special attention.  Lists can be useful.  They help us sort through the clutter of advertising and marketing that proclaims that whatever is being promoted is the best.  They can also be useless when they are nothing more than advertorials.

I’m especially interested in lists of places because I’m always on the lookout for what makes communities successful.  And when a community in my state gets on a list I tell local leaders to use it for all its worth.  Communities are typically rated, ranked and listed under the quality of life or livability labels.  As always, it pays to find out what was the basis used to come up with the list.

The publications and organizations that publish such lists use a wide range of criteria to select and rank their communities. What may be an important quality of life factor to one evaluator may be different for another.  Mercer Human Resources Consulting recently reviewed data from 215 of the planet’s cities and then released its annual “World’s Top 100 Most Livable Cities” using 39 quality of life variables such as political stability, environment, public safety and press and media censorship.

The Partners for Livable Communities in Washington, D.C. states that its quality of life factors are subjective instead of being based on statistical data because “livability can mean different things in different places.”  Thus, it does not rank communities. It only lists them. Also, once a city receives its designation it never loses it. The criteria section of its website lists 10 things that its “Creative Place” criteria are based on, including housing, transportation, tourism and regionalism.  Speaking of creative cities, it seems that thanks to creative class chronicler and author Richard Florida there are now numerous lists of communities using creative population as the main criteria.

Money magazine just released its Best Places to Live — Money’s list of America’s Best Small Cities. For purposes of the report a small town was defined as a city of between 8,500 and 50,000 residents. There are 100 cities on the list. The methodology was interesting. First, places where the median family income is more than 200 percent or less than 85 percent of the state median and those more than 95 percent white were excluded from consideration. Then, retirement communities, towns with significant job loss, and those with poor education and crime scores were screened out. The remaining places were evaluated based on housing affordability, school quality, arts and leisure, safety, health care, diversity, and several ease-of-living criteria.

Places Rated Almanac, which is published every other year, is one of the more respected guides to places.  It utilizes a wide variety of statistical information to produce its lists by almost every conceivable category.

By now, you probably are saying to yourself that you could put your community on a list of places if only you were allowed to choose the criteria. There is now a place on the Internet where you can do something close to that.  It is found at bestplaces.net.  There you can take a quiz to find the best place for you.  It asks you about your preferences on 10 different factors, such as climate, taxes, education, and recreation, and comes up with communities that meet those preferences.

While researching lists websites I came across a list of the 11 Best Bicycling communities in the World. At number one was Amsterdam, followed by Portland, Ore., Copenhagen, Denmark, Boulder, Colo., and Davis, Calif.  One look at the list and it is obvious that flat land is not the primary criteria in spite of the fact that Amsterdam is rather level.   A bicycle-friendly city is judged in the following five categories:  engineering, encouragement, education, evaluation and planning and enforcement.  The criteria came from the League of American Bicyclists, which also has a ranking of bicycle-friendly communities. Two Mississippi cities, Ridgeland and Oxford, made the master list, while Hernando and Hattiesburg made the Honorable Mention list.

If your community gets on a good list then by all means use it for all its worth. Publicize the recognition on your website, print it in your brochures and tell anyone who inquires.  But just remember that because there are now so many lists the value of such lists will be diminished as they become ubiquitous.  There is a point where lists, certifications and designations lose their credibility simply because there are so many communities on the lists.

Recently I was driving a long distance across several states when I noticed something after being in a new state for less than 100 miles. Every single town I had driven by had a sign proclaiming that it was certified by the state economic development agency as being a “certified community” ready for new business. It got to the point that I wondered if there was a community in the whole state that was not certified. Now I am sure that to obtain certification a community must have had to possess some wonderful attributes, but somehow the cache is lost when every community is on the certified list.

In conclusion, if your community is not on a list, keep looking. Surely, there is a list with your town’s name on it.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.

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