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From 781 cities...

The months-long process begins with data, provided by OnBoard Informatics, on all 781 U.S. cities with populations of 50,000 to 300,000. (On alternating years, including our 2013 survey, we survey small towns with populations between 10,000 and 50,000.)

…to 537...

We cut that number 537 by screening out areas that are likely to be retirement communities; places with a median family income of less than 80% of the state average; anywhere that the population is comprised of more than 95% of a single race, cities with poor educational scores, and any place located more than an hour from an airport.

…to 100...

Next, we narrow down the list further by excluding places with a median family income of more than 210% of the state average or a median home price of $1 million or more. Then we use a proprietary formula to rank the remaining cities according to 45 factors in eight categories: Economic opportunity and jobs, housing affordability, education, crime, health, arts and leisure, ease of living, and diversity.

We give the most weight to the first four factors, and evenly represent the major regions of the country (West, Northeast, Midwest, South). That leaves us with about 100 cities.

…to 50...

Finally, we limit our final list of 50 to three places per state and one per county.

…to 10...

Our reporters then visit 35 of the top ranking places to choose a top 10 that not only look good on paper, but also have happy residents, manageable traffic, attractive parks and gathering places, plus intangibles like community spirit.

Notes on the data

Economic opportunity is based on purchasing power, foreclosure rate, tax burden, and state’s fiscal strength. Job opportunities is based on income growth, county employment (not seasonally adjusted), and projected job growth. Housing affordability is based on median home-price-to-income ratio and average property taxes. Education is based on test scores, educational interests and attainment, and percentage of kids in public schools. Health is based on number of doctors and hospitals in the area and health of residents. Crime is based on property and violent crime rates. Arts and leisure is based on activities in the town and area, including movie theaters, museums, green spaces, and sports venues.

Notes on data sources

The data we use is drawn from OnBoard Informatics, American Alliance of Museums, Bureau of Labor Statistics, C2eR, Census, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, county assessors offices, Environmental Protection Agency, FBI Uniform Crime Report, Federal Aviation Administration, Gallup, Greatschools, Infogroup business database,, Kaiser Family Foundation, League of American Orchestras, Moody's, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, National Cancer Institute, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office on Women's Health, RealtyTrac, Standard & Poor's,, Trulia, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Best Big City data was drawn from NeighborhoodScout, OnBoard Informatics, and CoreLogic.