2017’s Best Small Cities in America
Urbanization might be the trend for much of the population, but not everyone craves the bright lights and crowded spaces of the big metropolis. For those who appreciate more wiggle room, fewer degrees of separation and shorter commutes, small-city life can be tough to beat. And those are just a few of its advantages. Granted, these little urban areas demand some tradeoffs, too, such as fewer restaurant options or shorter business hours.
But one of the best perks of living in a city with a relatively smaller population? Affordability. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the cost of living for a two-parent, two-child family in Hanford, California, for instance, would be nearly 1 percent less than the median U.S. household budget of $5,312, compared with 44 percent more for the same family in San Francisco. Even with a lighter wallet, anyone can enjoy a comparable, or even better, quality of life for much less in a cozy place like Hanford.
No two small cities are made equal, though, so which ones outshine the rest? To find out, WalletHub’s analysts compared more than 1,200 U.S. cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 based on 33 key indicators of livability. They range from housing costs to school-system quality to restaurants per capita. Read on for the winners, additional insight from our panel of experts and a full description of our methodology.
Given the large sample of cities ranked in this study, we grouped cities by percentile. The 99th percentile represents the top 1 percent of small cities in America.
Best Small Cities in America
*Note: 99 = Best
Ask the Experts
Living in a small city can be fulfilling, but it comes with challenges as well. For additional insight, we asked a panel of experts in fields such as urban development and public safety to share their thoughts on the pros and cons of small-city life and how to make these areas more attractive to prospective dwellers. Click on the experts’ profiles below to read their bios and thoughts on the following key questions:
- What are the most important financial factors to consider when deciding where to live?
- What are the benefits and drawbacks of living in a small city versus a large city?
- In evaluating the best small cities to live in, what are the top five indicators?
- What can local policymakers do to attract and retain new residents in small cities?
In order to determine the best small cities in America, WalletHub’s analysts compared 1,268 cities across five key dimensions: 1) Affordability, 2) Economic Health, 3) Education & Health, 4) Quality of Life and 5) Safety. For our sample, we selected cities with population sizes between 25,000 and 100,000 and considered only the “city proper” in each case, excluding cities in the surrounding metro area.
We then evaluated the five dimensions using 33 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the most favorable conditions for small-city residents. For metrics marked with an asterisk (*), we calculated the population size using the square root of the population in order to avoid overcompensating for minor differences across cities.
Finally, we determined each city’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its total score and used the resulting scores to rank-order the cities in our sample.
Affordability – Total Points: 20
- Median Household Income: Full Weight (~5.00 Points)
- Cost of Living: Full Weight (~5.00 Points)
- Homeownership Rate: Full Weight (~5.00 Points)
- Housing Costs: Full Weight (~5.00 Points)
Note: This composite metric consists of:
- Median Home Price / Median Annual Household Income
- Median Monthly Gross Rent / Median Annual Household Income
Economic Health – Total Points: 20
- Population Growth: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
- Income Growth: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
- Unemployment Rate: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
- Share of Population Living Below Poverty Level: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
- Debt per Median Earnings: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
Education & Health – Total Points: 20
- School-System Quality: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
Note: This metric is based on WalletHub’s “States with the Best & Worst School Systems” ranking.
- High School Graduation Rate: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Share of Population with a High School Diploma or Higher: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Share of Insured Population: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Premature-Death Rate: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Share of Adults in Poor or Fair Health: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Share of Live Births with Low Birthweight: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Share of Obese Adults: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Share of Physically Inactive Adults: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
Quality of Life – Total Points: 20
- Average Commute Time: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Share of Population Who Walk to Work: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Average Weekly Work Hours: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Number of Attractions: Double Weight (~2.86 Points)
- Restaurants per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Bars per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Clubs per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Coffee Shops per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Movie Theaters per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Museums per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Performing Arts Centers per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Fitness Centers per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
- Department Stores per Capita*: Full Weight (~1.43 Points)
Safety – Total Points: 20
- Violent-Crime Rate: Full Weight (~10.00 Points)
- Property-Crime Rate: Full Weight (~10.00 Points)
Sources: Data used to create this ranking were collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Areavibes, TransUnion, TripAdvisor, County Health Rankings, Yelp and WalletHub research.
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