Earlier today, I posted on Parenting magazine’s new rankings for the best cities for families, the same rankings that caused an uproar last year when the District was rated first.
This year, editors tweaked their formula and reconfigured our region so that they judged the District and Arlington as one “city.” The combined region came in as the sixth-best city in the nation to raise a family.
I asked Ana Connery, a Parenting editor who oversaw the ranking project, more about the new formula and why our region ranked where it did. We also talked about whether these ranking apply only to affluent families — a frequent criticism from readers last year — and the underlying value of these sorts of lists.
Here’s our Q&A:
JD: What were the areas of criteria?
AC: We came up with our list using criteria in the areas of education, health, culture and charm, economy and community. We factored in about 36 different statistics and more than 4,000 pieces of data in all. We used updated data from last year’s criteria, and also used some new data sets, like pedestrian safety and America’s Cities of the Future, which rates a city’s infrastructure, business friendless and economic potential. Each area’s ranking was informed by several stats; for instance, education includes stats like spending per student, student-teacher ratios and state reading scores.
Was the ranking based entirely on statistics or was opinion factored in?
Although we weight the various criteria, and there’s certainly opinion about the areas we’d expect readers to feel are most important to their families, the numbers determine the final list.
How were the opinions gathered?
It wasn’t formal. [We] are constantly checking in with our audience via our Web site and Facebook page, so based on the user comments to last year’s Best Cities list and conversations we saw throughout the year, editors took note and made sure to incorporate user feedback as much as possible.
Why were D.C. and Arlington this year combined?
We wanted to include more great options for families, so we decided to combine a few metro areas — we did the same with Minneapolis/St. Paul.
People in this region take the dividing line pretty seriously. Does the rest of the country think of the area as one giant blob?
It’s never easy for outsiders to fully grasp the pulse of a city or town, but for this year’s list, we figured with the close proximity of Arlington and D.C., both areas have access to each other’s cultural institutions, parks, hospitals, etc.
If you combined D.C. and Arlington, why not add some of the other primary suburbs, such as Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties?
Our initial list of the top 100 U.S. cities based on population included both D.C. and Arlington, so we had the data sets needed to compare and update the rankings for this year.
What scores for the combined D.C./Arlington region were most different from last year?
We placed greater emphasis on education this year based on feedback from readers who told us it’s often the top priority in deciding where to raise their families; that meant placing less emphasis on culture and charm. When we weighted education more, D.C., which is not as strong in this area, fell from the top. However, the Capitol’s fantastic cultural institutions and Arlington’s strong schools kept the region in the top 10 for the third consecutive year.
Last year D.C. was No. 1, the previous year Arlington was No. 1 and then dropped precipitously for 2011. Why such fluctuations?
It’s a result of changing the categories of data. In 2010, we focused heavily on “harder” factors like jobs, safety, etc. to determine the Best Cities rankings. Thanks to Arlington’s strong showing in these areas it landed at No. 1.
Last year, we added the charm and culture index because we felt it was a very relevant factor for families when choosing a city — and that pushed D.C. to the top. Fluctuations aside, the numbers consistently prove that this is a fantastic place to raise a family, and that’s why D.C./Arlington metro area is still in the top 10 after three years.
How did cities nearby fare this year?
Baltimore ranked No. 41 overall, with Richmond just missing the top 10 at No. 13.
Last year, many people in the region pointed out that the area might be very pleasant for affluent families, but it’s a tough one for families who struggle. Is this a ranking that reflects a broad experience or one that reflects magazine readership?
This is another reason we decided to put more emphasis on education, especially public education, for 2012. While we listen to the pulse of Parenting magazine’s readers and Parenting.com’s online community in deciding what areas should be evaluated, this is not a reader survey — the rankings are based entirely on stats.
Many might say that quality of life cannot be reduced to statistics? What do you think?
It’s a valid point. The factors that make a city right for an individual family may be wildly different than what makes it right for another — things like where grandparents live or a special teacher that’s perfect for your child can’t be captured by a list like this. Parenting.com’s goal was to offer families who may be thinking of relocating a reliable, one-stop resource to help them find the best city for their family.
Where do you come out on this region as one of the best in the country for families? Is it a valid distinction.