America’s Coolest Cities

This July was the hottest on record in the U.S. and 2012 is on track to be our hottest year ever. You better believe Americans are cranking the A/C and heading for the swimming holes.

But when it comes to my “cool cities” study, I’m talking about the other kind of cool.  The sunglasses, Levi’s and t-shirt James Dean cool.

I worked with Forbes with their article to find where the youth of America are headed, where it’s “happening.”  Would you believe Houston comes out on top?  Last year H-town sported a vigorous 2.6% job growth while welcoming over 50,000 new residents to the area, many of them young professionals.

We looked at recreational opportunities, such as amount of green space, golfing and skiing, and pro and college sports teams.

We also used my Diversity Index, which measures the likelihood that someone you meet will be of different race or ethnicity.  Higher diversity translates to a greater number of cool stores, events, and eateries.

Places with a high net migration as well as low unemployment and low median age were at the top of the list.   It’s interesting to note in the results that Texas is certainly on the upswing, claiming five of the top 20 spots.  Yee-haw!

Not as shocking is the high ranking of “traditionally cool” places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.  Here’s the full breakdown:

Arts & Culture Index Recreation Index Diversity Index Median Age Unemploy-ment 2011 Net Migration
1 Houston, TX 91 94 77.1% 33 6.9% 49,820
2 Washington, D.C. 99 93 70.9% 36 5.4% 34,260
3 Los Angeles, CA 99 100 82.5% 35 11.1% 10,050
4 Dallas, TX 95 86 73.7% 33.5 6.9% 45,870
5 Seattle, WA 96 99 55.1% 37 7.1% 22,380
6 San Diego, CA 92 96 74.0% 35 8.8% 10,850
7 Boston, MA 100 99 54.3% 38 5.3% 3,660
8 Orange County, CA 87 98 75.7% 36 7.5% 13,910
9 San Francisco, CA 98 99 73.1% 41 7.0% 6,810
10 New York, NY 100 100 79.6% 37 9.2% -11,900
11 San Antonio, TX 68 56 69.9% 34 6.6% 25,130
12 Chicago, IL 99 99 69.9% 35 8.4% -22,640
13 Fort Worth, TX 91 79 67.1% 31 6.7% 21,910
14 Baltimore, MD 96 98 57.0% 38 7.1% 4,610
15 Philadelphia, PA 99 88 57.0% 33.5 8.1% -890
16 Oakland, CA 92 96 78.6% 37 9.0% 12,000
17 Bethesda, MD 95 89 67.7% 39 5.2% 4,990
18 Minneapolis, MN 98 92 40.0% 36 5.2% 12,070
19 Austin, TX 75 48 68.2% 32.5 5.8% 32,880
20 Denver, CO 96 91 59.1% 36 8.1% 17,590

What do you think of this list?  Do you live in one of these Coolest cities, or is your city missing?

31 Replies to “America’s Coolest Cities”

  1. You’re spot on about crime, and most every city has some of it, but it is probably worse in the largest cities. .

    I’ve seen most of the United States and I’ve lived in eight states. My idea of a cool city is quite different as it isn’t necessarily large, or even a tourist destination. It is a city of many faces that offers diversity in every area from architecture and food, to zoological parkland and places to worship. It is a tree city with a water feature and a visual experience that may include rolling hills, cliffs or mountains. It is also a city of nature with large parks, a reasonable COL, and variety of shopping and entertainment. This city has a decent transit system as well as a balanced health system that included non-traditional resources.

    I grew up in a city like this. It is as easy to find a 5 star chef as is to find seasonal farmer’s markets. These cities love kids and families, and to this end the cities provide the amenities families want. It is easy to engage a child’s interest when there is something wonderful for him to discover.

    The downside is the economy. The plus side is the variety of jobs offered. A research and STEM city will attract a different type of resident than a city that offers low wages and manual labor. The cool place to live, is a city of many colors and many ideas, that also offers many options.

  2. After I initially commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me
    when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the exact same comment.
    There has to be an easy method you can remove me from that service?

  3. Bert,

    I love Best Places, but there is something I don’t understand. It seems the data has not been updated since 6/12 and some of the data for the various city’s (weather) is VERY off, would I get better (more up to date data) with a paid membership or not? I have sent e-mail’s and even called the phone number that was listed, left a message to tell you about this and never got a response, like I said, I love Best Places, (don’t know why you got rid of the back fence page though)it just seems to be running down a bit.Can you help?

    1. Hi Steve,
      I hear you, and I want to admit that our web site badly needs some work.
      We’re in the middle of an overhaul that includes a big new commenting system, even better than the “Back Fence” used to be.
      Accurate weather data for many smaller cities, towns, and zip codes is tough to find or derive. Only the 300 or so largest weather reporting stations have a complete range of weather categories, such as wind, humidity, and sunshine. And snowfall data is not universally available.
      But we’re working on some new sources, and creating some models which utilize our GIS skills to fill in some of the gaps in climate reporting.
      Thanks for your comments.

      1. Hi Bert,

        Thanks for getting back to me about the B.P.’s coming updates, as far as the weather info, here is a link to weather info for any U.S. state and just about ANY city IN that state, I have found the data to be VERY spot on, hope you can use it.

        BTW, one question you did not answer, what does a person get for the paid version of B.P.’s vs. the free one? I don’t necessarily mind paying, I just want to wait for the updated version of B.P.’s to come out first and would like to know the difference.

        All the best-


  4. Hi Bert, just curious, have you ever checked out Albuquerque? We have been contemplating a move there for the last several years, but we’re from the Chicago suburbs (Elgin), and have heard there’s a lot of crime there. Do you have an opinion on ABQ? Even though Chicago rates HIGH recently for crime, we rarely go there (45 miles from us), and we are used to slight gangs and HUGE racial diversity here in Elgin, but we’ve never had any problems. Thanks, Rhonda

    1. Yes, I like Albuquerque. It’s a nice high-desert climate that doesn’t get crazy-hot and cools down at night.The economy is reasonably healthy these days. The crime rate is high, but not excessively so. Houston, Boston, even Milwaukie have higher violent crime rates. You would want to choose your neighborhood carefully to make sure you’re not too impacted by crime. And regarding crime, I heard plenty of reasons for people moving, such as the commute, weather, and jobs, but rarely do they mention crime. Be sure to spend some significant time visiting before taking the plunge. Good luck!
      Best, Bert

  5. On our recent visit to the US (July 2012), we found Chicago a stunning, beautiful city in comparison to Texas and even Florida. We met lovely, warm, friendly people and hope to return to explore again soon. Thank you for the information about Portland, so excited about visiting this city next.

    Arshana N.

  6. Great idea to do this “coolest” cities list. Very interesting. However, I have to say that I feel Chicago is extremely diverse and was ranked far too low in this category. I have lived in this wonderful city for the past 5 years and every day you walk down the streets you will see so many people from multiple countries. There are even several neighborhoods throughout the area dedicated to various cultures like the expected Chinatown, but there is also Greektown, and areas with less official names but for Italians, Indians, Koreans, Jewish, Polish, Hispanic, German, Costa Ricans, Ukranians and I’m sure several others I don’t even know about. From my short time visiting Dallas and Houston, I would say they are no where near as diverse as Chicago. Diversity in Chicago is probably 2nd on my list as to why I love this city!

    1. Hi Christina,
      Thanks for the reminder about the wealth of cultures that can be found in large established cities like Chicago. Other cities with a rich heritage that come to mind are Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Boston,
      A while ago I I did a study of “Most Photogenic Cities” (for FujiFilm), and part of my research was to interview of number of professional photographers. One of the criteria they associated with interesting photographs was a city’s diversity, because there is a variety of stores, events, curtoms, traditions and lifestyles.
      I really love Chicago, which I think gets sometimes overlooked as a great American city. Chicagoans are friendly with a unique character, and it has some amazing cultural attractions, such as the Museum of Science and Industry and Art Institute (probably my favorite art museum in the U.S.).
      But you said diversity was the #2 reason why you love Chicago. I’ve got to ask – what’s your #1 favorite thing about Chicago?

  7. Bert,
    Sorry, but as you already know, I live fairly close to Baltimore. It is NOT a cool city. It is a dangerous city. It may have the Ravens, Orioles, the aquarium (way overpriced), and Johns Hopkins,but nobody in their right mind stays when the sun goes down, unless it is a really good concert… if u get my drift. Check out the murder rate per capita. Come to Annapolis…. that is a very cool city.
    Best regards,

    1. Hi Mark,
      Yes, Baltimore does have its issues. But I think that’s Forbes was going for with their story – a little gritty vs. “nice”.
      The element of Cool always means having some element of edginess or wildness.
      That said, I really like Annapolis. Very cute. I was glad to see that it came through Sandy mostly unscathed.

  8. Your PC diversity index means more crime and racial tension. Not always positive – usually isn’t. If you love diversity why are you in

    1. Dcm,
      Well, you’ve got me there! Portland has been called “America’s whitest large city”, and that’s not far off.
      But I disagree that diversity causes more crime. I find that high crime is more closely related to socioeconomic factors such as low income, broken families and joblessness, not race or ethnicity.
      In fact, criminologists state that some of the lowest rates of crime can be found in cities with large populations of recent immigrants. Here’s one of my favorite examples… El Paso (Texas) is directly across the border from Juarez (Mexico) which is by some measures the most violent city in the world. And the population of El Paso is about 87% Hispanic, many with strong ties to Juarez and recent arrivals to El Paso.
      And yet, El Paso has the lowest violent crime rate of all major U.S. cities, with only five homicides in 2010. By comparison, Portland (which is slightly more populous) had 22 homicides for the same year.
      I like Portland in spite of its homogeneity but sometimes it’s a little unnerving to see so few people of color. I was at a concert recently, and as hard as I scanned the crowd of 15,000, I saw no Black faces, though my wife thinks she spotted an Asian person. (Ok, it was a Springsteen show, but still…)

  9. Dear Bert: I enjoy all of your articles so much,Thanks for sharing them! I was just wondering why you live in Portland Oregon and why you have chosen it over other places. I have considered moving to Oregon,but I am not sure. I would love to live in Seattle but the cost of living prevents me,unless I could find a cheaper place nearby on the out skirts, any suggestions?

    1. Hi Cheryl,
      Thanks so much for your kind words!
      I ended up in Oregon when my family moved there while I was in high school. We bought our first house in Corvallis, after living in Brooklyn, Long Island (NY), San Diego, Norfolk, Oslo (Norway), Key West, Carmel Valley (CA), and Kodiak (AK). As you might expect, I was glad to stay in one place for more than a couple of years.
      My wife and I settled in Portland, which didn’t have a lot going for it in the 1970’s and 80’s. By the time I had my own business, our kids were in school and the city just kept growing and getting more interesting, so there was fewer reasons to move. Now that we’re empty-nesters, we often talk about moving somewhere else but haven’t yet found a combination of infrastructure, culture, amenities, and climate that we like better.
      Regarding Seattle, you’re right, it is expensive. Comparing to much of middle-America, the entire West Coast is shockingly costly. But if you don’t need to commute into the core business district, there are always more affordable alternatives on the edges of a metro area. North of Seattle are Mukilteo and Everett, which are relative bargains. South of Seattle is Tacoma, which is continuing to evolve from a gritty, crime-ridden decaying city. It’s still rough, but interesting things are happening there. If you feel like being a pioneer, check out Tacoma.
      Good luck with your search!

    1. Hi Eric,
      Yes, I think Portland has a lot going for it these days, and it’s certainly one of my top picks.
      But this study was done by the folks at Forbes and we helped by providing statistics and advice.
      I’ll be releasing my own ranking of Hippest Cities in the near future, and some of the cities will be the ‘usual suspects’ and some will be surprising.

  10. I just moved to New Orleans La for employment, and I will say how surprised how many things there are to do here (not just get drunk and eat delicious food)but the culture, the art and it’s a great sports town, college and pro… You can get around town in less than an hour, cost of living is not terrible and the recreation is great as well. I recently lived in Alexander Va., Denver, and Austin…. I hope to stay here till I retire.

    1. Gerald, your opinion about NOLA is especially noteworthy because of your recent experience with such highly regarded places as Denver, Austin, and Alexandria. And you’re apparently thriving in the middle of Louisiana summer! Thanks for sharing.
      Best, Bert

      1. Austin was quite hot as well, temperature wise hotter, but, Austin does not have the humidity like N.O…. I guess I fit in due to the abundance of water activities, such as boating, swimming, and fishing and being surrounded by water is perfect for me.

  11. The other commenters have valid arguments but there are truly much better places that are not mentioned and will hopefully not be. Lets keep all those people in all that coolness in all those cool places. I live 2 hours from NYC and that’s the perfect distance, I work near NYC and southern ct on m, t, w. I take Th. Fr. Sat Sunday off. I’m not rich but I live within my means, and live in a nice inexpensive area. Just travel. My kids have a nice safe place to play, and we can enjoy time together. You really should just enjoy those cities for what they can offer and then leave.

    1. Sounds like you’ve got the perfect balance, Shawn! This something I often suggest, especially to retirees who don’t need to fight the daily commute.
      One can live much more affordably by moving 50-100 miles away from a major metropolitan area. All the amenities like arts & culture, recreation, restaurants, major airport and health care are still available, though 60-90 minutes away.
      Best, Bert

  12. Do you take into consideration that you may be penalizing some very cool cities that have much less space for net migration? Is it possible that the reason that Texas has 5 spots in the top 20 is because there is more physical land within the city for growth, while cities like San Francisco or Boston or Denver, for example, would be ranked even higher on the list if they weren’t already filled to the brim with population so that there is less space for further growth, so people are migrating outside the city or metro area?

    1. David, you’re right. Mature cities have much less ‘headroom’ for new growth. With every organism, the greatest growth rates occur at the beginning. Then things have to taper off.
      Best, Bert

  13. Good article! A couple thoughts:

    I think the Rec Index needs work. NYC, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston all have better Rec opportunities than San Diego? I don’t think so.

    Also, I think it’s a mistake to omit cost of living. It’s been my observation that young people are increasingly savvy about finding “value” – i.e., places that offer the cultural amenities you emphasize at an affordable price. I think a big part of Texas’ recent appeal has more to do with job opportunity and housing cost than culture or recreation.

    1. Justin, you’re hitting on something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately – affordability. And as you note, that’s mostly the intersection of jobs and housing.
      I’m feeling very strongly that more than anything, the ‘cool creators’ need a place that they can afford, to work on realizing their dreams. Then the rest of us can come along later and enjoy the fruits of their labors.
      But it all starts with affordability. That’s why the creative types always are seeking cheap, neglected places they can call home for a while. Then when their neighborhood goes upscale, they either ride the wave of a more upscale economy or find the next affordable place. I’m reminded of Hunter S. Thompson’s line, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
      So I’m looking to do a new ‘Cool’ study, which more emphasis on the cost of living.
      Best, Bert

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