Most people think big when they imagine moving to their dream city. These are some alternatives you might like better.
New York. Seattle. Los Angeles. Portland. Austin. Denver.
Most people have one of those big, hip places in mind when they think of “dream cities.” What is it that makes those cities stand out?
They’re walkable. They have plenty of restaurants and places for recreation and entertainment. But rent is usually astronomical, and crime rates in some of them are scary.
So where can you move to have it all?
GoodCall® analysts looked at data from cities with fewer than 300,000 people and ranked them based on walkability, crime rate, cost of living and amenities. The result was a list of Overlooked Dream Cities – places where you’d want to, and can actually afford to, live.
- All of the top cities are in the Northeast or Midwest. These areas tend to have lower crime rates and much better walk scores.
- Cities in the South tend to be much less walkable and have fewer restaurants and entertainment venues.
- Despite the reputation for the Northeast being an expensive place to live, only one of the top 10 cities had a cost of living higher than the national average – the rest averaged 13% below it.
The top 10 dream cities
- Erie, Pa.
Pennsylvania’s “Gem City” tops the list in large part due to its impressive cost of living and walk score. The city sits on the shore of Lake Erie and is a popular tourist spot in the summer months. The area was fought over for more than a century, first among Native American nations, then European settlers, and finally among states that tried to claim the territory after the American revolution. It’s long been a center of trade: Erie served as the primary access point to the lake for the entire state, was a major railroad hub during the westward expansion, and now has connections to three interstate highways. The area has plenty of attractions and entertainment venues. Its Walk Score is tied for 71st among the 461 cities studied. And, most notably, cost of living is about 18.5% lower than the national average – 34th best in the nation. It’s an area with deep roots, rich history, and a strong community feel without breaking the bank.
- Scranton, Pa.
There’s more to this Pennsylvania town than the popular goings-on at Dunder Mifflin – the fictional paper company from NBC’s “The Office.” Scranton was founded in the mid-1800s and sits in Lackawanna County in the northeastern region of the state. Like many Pennsylvania towns, the area has a long history of industry, including iron and steel, boosted by a thriving railroad and one of the nation’s first electric trolley systems. Today the city stands out for its affordability – cost of living is more than 20% below the national average – walkability, and abundance of restaurants and bars.
- Parma, Ohio
With almost 80,000 people, Parma sits just southwest of Cleveland. It’s one of the safest cities in the country, with just 13.9 crimes per 1,000 people. That’s a remarkable statistic given the low cost of living – more than 12% below the national average. The city has more than 160 restaurants and bars and is booming with small businesses for that great, community feel you’ve been looking for.
- Appleton, Wis.
Appleton is a good place to get out and enjoy a nice meal or a drink with friends – and feel safe doing so. The city has a crime rate of just 19.4 incidents per 1,000 people and boasts more than 200 restaurants and bars, and both stats rank in the top 20% of cities studied. The Fox River runs through the middle of the city, which sits just a couple of miles north of Lake Winnebago. Cost of living is more than 8% better than the national average, and entertainment abounds. Residents enjoy the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers minor-league baseball team, more than 25 parks, and the exhibits at the History Museum at the Castle – a building that was once a Masonic temple.
- Allentown, Pa.
The third-largest city in Pennsylvania stands out for its impressive walk score (37th highest among the 461 cities reviewed) and its affordability. Cost of living in Allentown is 13% lower than the national average. Allentown, a city of about 120,000 people, sits on the Lehigh River, and a revitalization effort has spawned the new Riverfront district adjacent to it, with residential, office and retail stores and restaurants. It’s a nice area to enjoy a nice walk; average annual temperatures range from 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and the weather from spring to fall is mild and comfortable.
- Racine, Wis.
The number of entertainment and dining options in Racine make it a nice place to live, and the cost of living makes it a great place to live. With almost 78,000 residents, Racine sits on the banks of Lake Michigan about 25 miles south of Milwaukee. The city ranks in the top 20% of cities studied for the number of entertainment venues as well as its walkability. There are three art museums, a zoo, about a dozen theatre companies and music organizations, and several art galleries. But it’s the affordability of this waterfront community that makes it really stand out: cost of living in Racine is nearly 19% below the national average.
- Grand Rapids, Mich.
Across the lake from Racine, Grand Rapids sits at the intersection of three highways: Interstates 196 and 96 and U.S. 131. Named for the Grand River, which runs through the city, Grand Rapids stands out for its walkability and affordability. It was among the top 100 most walkable cities in the country, and its cost of living is nearly 13% below the national average. But it’s also a hub of entertainment, with attractions including the John Bell Zoological Garden, various museums, the Grand Rapids Symphony, the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, and several professional and semi-pro sports teams. The city has also been named Beer City USA twice, in 2012 and 2013.
- Cicero, Ill.
Cicero is a great place to live if you want to be near Chicago and all its amenities but want to avoid the outrageous housing costs. The suburb of 84,000 people is about 10% more affordable than living in the city. Crime is also remarkably lower in Cicero: 21.8 crimes per 1,000 residents, compared with Chicago’s 38.5. It’s an area where you’d feel more safe taking a walk outside – good thing, too, because the town has one of the best walk scores in the country. Enjoy the feeling of a big-city life with the benefits of a much smaller town. It’s just a 15-minute drive or a 35-minute ride on the Pink Line.
- East Orange, N.J.
Those with dreams of living in New York might find East Orange, N.J., a more pleasant place to live. The city sits west of Newark, about a 30-minute commuter-train ride into Penn Station. East Orange is the 12th-most walkable city in the nation. Crime rates are among the top 15% of cities studied – 19.2 incidents per 1,000 residents, compared with 21 in New York and 38 in Elizabeth, N.J. And while cost of living is slightly above the national average, it’s a whopping 40% lower than what it costs to live in New York. Most of that cost difference is housing (cheaper by almost 70%), but food is also about 12% cheaper in East Orange.
- Green Bay, Wis.
It’s not as cheesy as it seems. Green Bay, ranked in the top one-third of cities in almost every metric, sits at the mouth of the Fox River, which empties into the Green Bay, the largest of Lake Michigan. The city of about 105,000 stands out for its low cost of living (12.7% below the national average), relatively low crime rate (25.7 incidents per 1,000 residents), and abundance of restaurants and bars (2.4 per 1,000 residents). And if the fans of the Green Bay Packers are any indication, people who live there sure love it. Attractions include a zoo, arboretum, the historic Meyer Theatre, and several recreational trails.
See the full list of all 461 cities here.
GoodCall analysts reviewed data from 461 cities in the U.S. Cities were ranked based on five metrics:
- Cost of Living: Data from Sperling’s Bestplaces.com cost of living index accounted for 30% of the total score. The number represents an area’s cost of living as a percentage of the national average.
- Crime rate: The number of violent and property crimes per 1,000 residents, from the FBI 2015 city data. Those without city-level data were excluded. Crime rate made up 30% of the final score.
- Walk Score: Data from walkscore.com in 2017 for cities. The score indicates how easy it is to complete typical errands without a car. This accounted for 30% of the score.
- Dining Amenities: The number of food and drinking places per 1,000 residents from the 2012 Geographic Area Series for economic places from the U.S. Census Bureau. This accounted for 5%.
- Entertainment and Recreation Amenities: The number of arts, entertainment and recreation venues per 1,000 residents from the 2012 Geographic Area Series for economic places from the U.S. Census Bureau. That rate made up 5% of the total score.