When AARP published its Most Livable Places at 50+, more than a few eyebrows rose. “How is it that so many cold places in the Midwest rate highly for livability?” was a common question from our website visitors. “Isn’t weather fundamental to livability?” they asked.
Climate certainly can be an important consideration when choosing where to live; however, the AARP Public Policy Institute’s Livability Index is designed to give people and local policymakers the information they need to determine how well their communities meet their residents’ current and future needs. As local officials have no control over their weather, the index does not penalize a community because of climate. In addition, climate preferences differ. Some people prefer to take a break from the cold and head south, but others find snow and skiing ideal. We measure those things that matter most in people’s lives and that local leaders can influence.
So while these heartland places may be cold six months out of the year, they have a lot going for them throughout the seasons. The Midwestern cities that score well on our index consistently outperform others on engagement, especially with respect to social and civic involvement. These are places where residents eat dinner with household members, see or hear from friends and family, and do favors for neighbors. They are also places where people feel invested in the community and where voter turnout is high.
Madison, Wis., is one of the top-performing cities in the AARP Livability Index.
Take Madison, Wis., for example, which scores 68 out of 100 on our index, our second-highest-scoring city in the United States after La Crosse, Wis. Madison scores higher than average on the social involvement measures mentioned above. Residents have above-average access to cultural, arts and entertainment venues, as well as civic, social, religious, political and business organizations. Eighty percent of adults voted in the past presidential election, compared with only 58 percent nationally. Other Midwestern cities show similar results for engagement.
Midwestern cities score high on other categories of livability as well. Small and midsize Midwestern cities are 14 of 15 of our top-scoring cities that perform better than average on income inequality. All have access to public transportation.
What about popular warm-climate retirement destinations? Take, for example, Myrtle Beach, S.C. At just above average, it scores 53. As with those winning Midwestern cities, one of its strong suits is social and civic engagement. It also scores above average on environment and transportation. On the flip side, Myrtle Beach could raise its health score if fewer people smoked. Residents across South Carolina would benefit from passage of a state law that would protect them from having their utilities cut during temperature extremes — an extremely important safety policy in both warm and cold climates.
Ironically, the popularity of retirement destinations among people 50-plus actually tends to bring down their scores somewhat, as the AARP Livability Index rewards age-diverse communities. Not to fret, though, those who differ with our value judgment on this particular indicator can take advantage of our customization feature and reduce the relative weight of our opportunity category, and thus see their score rise.
Whether you put on a parka to go outside in the winter or don a bathing suit for the beach, your community has both redeeming qualities and areas to improve. Come explore your community and our resources to make it even better, and let us know what you think. Send us your suggestions for how we can make the index better.
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This blog is part of a series of posts on the Livability Index: Great Neighborhoods for All Ages. Join our conversation about it on Twitter using the hashtag #LivIndex. Visit our website to learn more about AARP’s livable communities policy work and find additional resources on livable communities.
Jana Lynott is a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute and project manager of the AARP Livability Index. As a land-use and transportation planner, she brings practical expertise to the research field.