Where's the best place to live if you're an aging boomer? What are the most livable communities in the United States? And what IS a livable community? AARP (which used to stand for the American Association of Retired People but now is just AARP) has answers in its 2018 Livability Report:
A livable community is one that is safe and secure, has affordable and appropriate housing and transportation options, and offers supportive community features and services. Once in place, those resources enhance personal independence; allow residents to age in place; and foster residents' engagement in the community's civic, economic, and social life.
AARP looks at communities using seven criteria:
Housing: Is it affordable and easy to get to?
Neighborhood: Is it compact? Is there local shopping?
Transportation: Are there convenient, healthy, accessible and low-cost alternatives to driving?
Environment: Is the air and water clean? Is the community resilient in the face of extreme weather events?
Health: "Healthy communities have comprehensive smoke-free air laws, offer easy access to exercise opportunities, and have high-quality health care available."
Engagement: Are there lots of organizations to join? Good internet? A high voting rate?
Opportunity: "Backed by a strong regional economy and fiscally healthy local governments, welcoming communities provide residents an equal chance to earn a living wage and improve their well-being, from jobs to education."
There are a couple of things that pop out when you look at these criteria and at the cities and towns that are considered the most livable: With the exception of Austin, Texas, which just joined the list of the 30 most livable communities, not one is in the South. Good highways and ample parking aren't listed as criteria, and sprawl-intensive communities aren't going to make it onto the list. And weather? Bismarck, North Dakota is number 7 in small communities. Sunshine and warmth are apparently not important criteria.
AARP has been accused of left-wing bias, particularly during the health care debates when they supported Obamacare. (One would think that all older people would have, but this is the U.S.) Certainly these criteria show a progressive, anti-car, pro-transit, pro-inclusive, anti-suburban tilt, which makes sense when people are living longer and should be planning for life without a car. But that's not how most North Americans think.
Another noticeable feature of the criteria is that they aren't just good for the +50 crowd. As Jana Lynott of AARP told Citylab when the tool first came out. "When you plan for older adults, you plan for everyone," including young people starting out. Except, of course, when it comes to affordability; most of the top 10 large communities are impossible for young people, because all are going through massive housing affordability crises. That's why it was so surprising to see San Francisco on top and Seattle in third place, two of the most unaffordable cities in the U.S.
The mid-sized cities appear to be a better bet. Many of them are in the greater metropolitan areas surrounding cities like Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
Another thing that pops out is how many communities are in Wisconsin. AARP addresses this in the written report:
Wisconsin's high performance is in part due to having several state-level policies in place that positively impact cities. For example, the state has policy to prevent housing foreclosures and a policy that goes beyond the federal Family Medical Leave Act. In addition, each of the six top-performing cities in Wisconsin have high voting rates, aided in part by a state early/absentee voting law. Five of the six cities have a local smoke-free air ordinance in place, and the sixth location (Sheboygan) is covered by state smoking policy. Wisconsin also scores high on social engagement, raising its communities' scores.
However, AARP notes that this may not last; the current government of Wisconsin has rescinded the complete streets policy and is going backwards on voting rights and transportation. "Additional rollbacks would negatively affect city competitiveness in the Index." To paraphrase comedian Stephen Colbert, who noted that "reality has a well-known liberal bias," it appears livability has a liberal bias, too.
Nonetheless, the AARP criteria are sensible and forward-looking. The fact that each place is graded for opportunity means your kids might stay or even move with you. These are not cities and towns where people go to die; it’s where they go to live.
How livable is your city? Check it out with the AARP Livability tool here.