What makes a city great?

Money has been debating this question since our first issue of Best Places to Live hit newsstands 30-odd years ago. And it’s a question we’ve always turned to heaps of data to answer.

But data, of course, only tells part of the story.

So this year, we tried something new.

Instead of using a predetermined dataset to whittle thousands of American cities down to a “winning” 50, we crafted our list from the ground up through meticulous research and in-depth reporting — paying special attention to those deeply invested in the livability, equity and sustainability of their communities. We asked readers for suggestions, too, in a newsletter poll that produced hundreds of responses. (Some of which, like Buffalo, New York and Lexington, Kentucky, ended up making the cut.)

During the vetting process, we compared each city, town and neighborhood on our list of contenders against a handful of metrics, including (but not limited to):

  • The health of the local job market
  • The average housing costs borne by homeowners and renters
  • The percentage of residents in poverty
  • The quality of public schools

We took a holistic approach, acknowledging that many factors that make a place worth living can’t be quantified. To that end, we also considered research from a breadth of public policy and industry advocacy groups like the American Planning Association, Brookings, Main Street America and the Project for Public Spaces, and supplemented our findings with data from Moody’s Analytics, SchoolDigger, Realtor.com, the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, among others.

In another departure from previous years, we decided not to assign a numerical rank to the cities we chose, grouping them instead into five categories that highlight their strengths:

  • Suburbs with a soul
  • Hidden gems
  • New boomtowns
  • Not just college towns
  • Culture hubs

Our final list spotlights 50 places built around thoughtful policy, civic engagement and community spirit — each with its own identity, and each embodying what it means to be a “best place to live” in 2024.

A special thanks to the education data firm SchoolDigger, the nonprofit GreatSchools and the economic research firm Moody’s Analytics.

SchoolDigger provided math and reading test score data on nearly every public elementary, middle and high school in the nation and helped Money calculate a city-level measure of these scores that shows how well schools in a particular area score versus the state’s average.

To help narrow down our final 50 cities, the nonprofit GreatSchools identified public high schools within Money’s shortlist of contenders that have received the organization’s College Success Award, a designation that highlights schools that excel at preparing their students for college and careers.

Finally, Moody’s Analytics supplied economic data that forecasted job growth between 2023 and 2028 on over 900 cities.