Are City “Best Of” Lists Worth the Buzz?

Stories about Boise often start the same way. First, writers rush to mention that the City of Trees is Idaho’s largest and capital city, and that it’s a relatively liberal oasis in an otherwise conservative state. For less inventive journalists, a mention of Boise State University, its football team and/or the team’s head coach Chris Petersen, warrant working into most introductory paragraphs. Change, a snippet of the state’s history and promise typify stories about many western towns, Boise included. Even The New York Times, echoed those themes (with considerably better writing) through Matthew Preusch’s “36 Hours in Boise,” and this wry opening line: “Boise, once ruled by the bait-and-bullet crowd, has embraced the lycra lifestyle.”

But writers both here and abroad often make note of another peculiar phenomenon, something Boiseans also seem excited to point out: that the city ends up on numerous “Best Of” lists every year. Inevitably “shared,” “tweeted” and “tumbld,” these “Best Of” lists often place Idaho’s largest metropolitan region on par with Palo Alto, California, and Boulder, Colorado.

How livable is this Boise neighborhood? Don't check the LivScore.

How livable is this Boise neighborhood? Don’t check the LivScore.

In every category, from America’s “Most Inventive” places to locations with the “hottest music scenes,” to a list of “Top 10 Turnaround Towns,” and “Top Ten Places to Live,” Boise topped the charts, including the number 13 slot on a list of “America’s Luckiest Cities,” according to the October 2011 edition of Men’s Health. The City of Boise’s Office of Economic Development goes so far as to maintain a healthy “list of lists” to sample just some of the “Best Ofs” Boise has managed to achieve.

The gravitas of these accomplishments are, one could infer from the way proponents breathlessly recite and share the study’s lame blurbs, on par with the highest level of excellence.

And today, the Idaho Statesman published a brief, fawning showcase of yet another list. Boise didn’t quite make the upper echelon of America’s “Top 10 Best Places to Live,” according to Livability.com, but came close, clocking in at number 11.

“It’s not top 10,” the Statesman staff point out in the opening paragraph. “But it’s close.”

Close enough, residents seem to agree.

But is Boise’s so-called “LivScore,” a metric specifically cooked up to rank cities for Livability.com, (a website owned by a Milwaukee, Wisc.-based media company), really an accurate measure of the community’s success, or its future? Is Livability.com or its parent company really the best arbiter of how well our community stacks up, or is the LivScore, and this Top 10 list, just a gimmicky attempt to drive visitors to the website? Furthermore, is the methodology biased? What biases exist among the members of the advisory board used to vet the process, a group which includes urban studies luminaries Ellen Dunham-Jones, Jeff Speck (recently flown in to pass executive judgement on the city’s progress)  and Joel Kotkin?

In short, it’s puzzling that a metric designed to evaluate how enjoyable it is to live in a place would leave out entirely the opinions of those who actually live there. Especially when such polls are commonplace in many communities.

Take the City of Boise’s 2010 Citizen Survey. A consultant company polled real live Boise residents on a number of factors influencing how well the community works. 92% of residents polled told researchers that the quality of life in Boise exceeds their expectations. More importantly, 68% said that the city is heading in the right direction. Questions go on to detail how well citizens feel their tax dollars are spent, opinions on specific policy issues and other local questions the LivScore and other metrics don’t touch. Researcher Brian Stipak examines local government use of these surveys (Public Administration Review), and how they can “aid in promoting responsive, democratic administration,” as long as city leaders go the extra mile to truly evaluate what the community’s response really means.

Boise: a livable city? How do planners engage the public?

Boise: a livable city? How do planners engage the public?

However, it’s worth asking, who is the survey’s target audience? Is it businesses considering moving to Boise? Is it for Boise residents? Or, as a document furnished to city officials, is it meant to inform policy decisions? Could citizen surveys borrow from the flash, and panache of “Top 10” lists to provide residents with something narrative-based to better understand where they are, and where they’re going, as a community?

Back to stories, and news articles. Part of what makes a community unique is the narrative tied to that place. Boise’s leaders and citizens should look to better communicate the successes and challenges facing their community, rather than rely on vague statistics and “Top 10” lists. Communities should strive for more detailed, comprehensive signs of success, or face the unfortunate, so-far-unbestowed title of “Top 10 Winners of Top 10 Lists.”

From a planning perspective, the ease with which these “Top 10” lists command the community’s imagination may be a big concern. However, the popularity of the LivScore and social media contests may also be indicative of a need unfulfilled by planners, a need for better outreach and polling on how well a community meets the needs of its citizens. How well does the City of Boise brand its message that this is a desirable place to live? How well do planners and policymakers perform outreach efforts to find out where problems with livability occur? When does policymakers and planners own up to mistakes, and endeavor to provide community members opportunities to fix them?

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3 thoughts on “Are City “Best Of” Lists Worth the Buzz?

  1. Great post Andrew, I’ve always thought that all of the top ten hype in Boise from the local media was kind of funny. The question you posed about who the target audience actually is and why the top ten lists are even made are good questions to explore. I do think the top 10 tactic is often just being used to generate traffic. When I look online and see things like “top 150 mid sized cities in America,” and you have to click to go to a new page to view each city, and (view new advertisements each time) it’s obvious a lot of people are just trying to see if their city made the list or find out who number one is.

  2. What a great post. I’d be curious to know more about what this means for planners and the planning perspective especially when matching up are positive top lists with negative top lists. I wonder if planners had a different scorecard, what it would look like especially is we stopped thinking just about the built environment and physical health and thought more about education and living wages.

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