Reflecting on McKinney, TX as Money’s Best Place to Live

Following the pool incident McKinney, Texas, one former resident thinks through how the event matches Money‘s claim that it is the Best Place to Live in the United States:

Before this month, the last time McKinney made major news was in the fall, when it was named the best place to live in America by Money magazine. It’s among the fastest-growing cities in the country, and lately big companies have infused the region with thousands of jobs in fields such as energy and aviation. Starting this year, Money wrote, every high-school freshman in McKinney would be issued a Macbook Air to aid in his or her studies.

“Underlying McKinney’s homey Southern charm is a thoroughly modern city,” the Money story gushed…

But the events of recent weeks suggest that even as McKinney has boomed and prospered, some of the more repressive aspects of small-town thinking persist. Perhaps now that so many have come to McKinney to claim what they feel is theirs—a better job, a bigger house, a more private swimming pool—people feel more entitled than ever to push away anyone unlike themselves. Perhaps some cops believe they have an even bigger mandate to crack down on those who pester the well-heeled. Adults at the pool were reportedly telling the black children to “go back to Section 8” housing, and in the aftermath of the incident, local homeowners defended the police. “I feel absolutely horrible for the police and what’s going on… they were completely outnumbered and they were just doing the right thing when these kids were fleeing and using profanity and threatening security guards,” one anonymous woman told Fox 4 in Dallas…

McKinney, more modern than ever, isn’t always recognizable as its former, sleepy southern self. (The Money article speaks of its art galleries, boutiques, and, oddly, shoe-repair shops.) But becoming a “thoroughly modern city” doesn’t just mean a job at Raytheon and access to craft beer. It implies compromise and integration. It requires an understanding of the fact that, in order for a newly rich town to keep growing, it needs a diverse environment in which every person feels at home. When McKinney tops the rankings as the best place to live, it’s worth considering for whom, exactly, that’s actually true.

A few thoughts:

1. Even the best places to live have ugly incidents. This reminds me of Naperville, Illinois which was ranked several times in the top 5 places to live by Money but which has some high profile crimes in recent years. Granted, the crimes were rare. But, Naperville has also dropped to #33 in the rankings.

2. Rapid population growth always comes with adjustments to the character of a community, particularly for suburbs. As late as 1990, McKinney had a population of just over 21,000. There will be rifts between old-timers and new-comers, people who remember when they could know everyone and those who are used to anonymity, those who resent new developments and others who like the new housing options. New populations will arrive – McKinney is over 10% black and over 18% Latino. The suburb will wonder how they can have a single community – and maybe this isn’t possible any longer.

3. Quality of life issues are huge in suburbs. Protecting private property through homeowners associations (and their private pools and security guards) and expensive housing (often leading to separate parts of town based on housing values) is common. Of course, there are places within suburbs where people across these divides do come together. But, the emphasis is often on private lives and avoiding open conflict with other suburban residents.

Where is the best place to live in Russia? A city in Siberia

I’ve tracked some of the best American places to live but what is the equivalent in Russia? A booming oil city in Siberia:

Siberia’s booming oil capital Tyumen has been named Russia’s best city for quality of living. A study, conducted by sociology experts from the Russian Government’s Financial University, ranked the city ahead of the likes of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Founded in 1586 and located on the Tura River, the experts studied parameters including the standards of medical care, access to education, wealth, and life expectancy. Whether people felt satisfied with their own lives was taken into account, along with aspects such as whether they were happy with the quality of roads and their own salaries…

The authors of the new survey wrote: ‘When we analysed the data, it showed people’s satisfaction with life is mostly affected by how good communal housing services in the cities are and how well they manage properties in terms of maintenance and repair, as well as how well developed the city is in general, their level of incomes and the work of health care institutions…

Tyumen was the first ever Russian settlement in Siberia and was founded to support the eastward expansion. Over the centuries it has progressed from a small village located on important trade routes, to a military settlement, and now a large industrial city and vital business centre.

The Tyumen Oblast is a vast oil-rich region stretching from Kazakhstan to the Arctic Ocean and it is home to a number of major Russian companies.

There are three universities and the city is a popular tourist destination, particularly for German visitors.

While this description is suspiciously similar to the Wikipedia entry on Tyumen, I’ve never heard of this city of over 581,000. I saw the headline involved the word Siberia and didn’t imagine this kind of vibrant city. Granted, this is located in the southwestern part of Siberia – not as far away from western Siberia as is much of Siberia. But, oil money can apparently do wonders for quality of life in Siberia…

How to define a good college town

Livability recently released a list of the Top 10 college towns and here is some discussion of how they defined such communities:

And for starters, we need a basic definition of a college town. “True college towns are places where the identity of the city is both shaped by and complementary to the presence of its university, creating an environment enjoyable to all residents, whether they are enrolled in classes or not,” Livability’s editors write. “They’re true melting pots, where young minds meet old traditions, and political, social, and cultural ideas of all kinds are welcomed.”

That’s pretty broad. But the editors go on: In a college town, “the college is not only a major employer, but also the reason for more plentiful shops, restaurants, and entertainment businesses.” And it has to look like a college town, too: “It doesn’t seem right to call a place a college town if you can’t tell classes are in session with a quick glance at the mix of people on a busy sidewalk.”…

For example, what would Baltimore be without the Johns Hopkins University? The economic equivalent of a smoldering hole in the ground, that’s what. Or consider Rochester or Syracuse, N.Y., from the same perspective. And what about Boston and Philadelphia—are they “college towns”?

As you’ll see from the list below, most of Livability’s “best” college towns are relatively small, remote places, based on colleges that are highly ranked by the Princeton Review. Livability, true to its name, also factored in cost of living and walkability. (College towns, by their nature, should be among the most pedestrian-friendly communities America has left.)

This sounds like a very traditional use of the term “college town”: places that are heavily dependent on the university or college and that are quaint yet cosmopolitan enough. I like the contrast with the big cities which often have a variety of colleges and amenities that cater to college students, faculty, and staff.

This leads to a few thoughts:

1. How many college students today pick colleges based on it being in a “college town”? The surrounding atmosphere must matter some.

2. How have college towns been affected by the recent economic downturn and its effects on college campuses? Let’s say the college bubble bursts like some are predicting: how badly hit will college towns be? Another way to put it might be to ask how resilient these communities would be if the college/university started struggling or is this another example of what could happen to communities that rely too heavily on one industry.

3. Why not include an attitudinal component with local residents asking how much they like or approve of or even know what is going on with the college? Town and gown relationships can be difficult and simply because a place is a “college town” doesn’t mean there isn’t some tension.

4. It would be interesting to trace the history of college towns and their appeal. Historically, were there advantages to having colleges in communities that were heavily dependent on them?

5. Just because a place looks like it is where learning should take place (and this seems very constructed), does it actually improve learning?

What influences how residents feel about their communities: social ties

New research to be published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that how people feel about their particular community is not influenced by the community itself:

Prior to this research, many sociologists believed that certain community traits influenced how attached residents felt. That list of suspected factors included cultural heritage, levels of acquaintanceship, the pace of economic development, population density and habits of the predominant ethnic group.

Instead, the BYU researchers found that none of these dimensions of a locale produce a higher sense of attachment – or at least they don’t anymore.

“I take our findings to be part of the bad news of modernity,” said lead study author Jeremy Flaherty, who is completing a Ph.D. at BYU. “How people interpret their local community has probably changed substantially over the generations.”

While the researchers found that no characteristics of the community played a role, they did find that feelings of attachment develop if a person develops social ties where they live – and that usually takes time.

So it is not really about the community but rather the relationships one builds and the social standing one has in a community. This would fit with a lot of research in the last decade or so about community life in places where many would suspect there is not much community life. For example, Sudhir Venkatesh has written several books that show there is a strong community structure in poor neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. While outsiders would look at each community and see chaos or disorder, Venkatesh found a well-established social structure where people were still tied to each other.

I will be interested to read then how if it is really about social relationships, some people do come to have such attachments to particular places. Do they not find such social relationships elsewhere? Do these relationships then taint or influence their view of every community thereafter?

If this is the case, perhaps the “Best Places to Live” lists should include some new measures of things like friendliness, openness, and social ties within a community. Does the average new person who moves to the community become part of new social networks in a relatively short amount of time? Do neighbors know each other beyond just saying hello? And if people knew that some places were friendlier or more open than others, would that be a draw to majority of Americans or a detriment?

The methodology behind Money’s 2010 best places to live

Every year, Money magazine publishes a list of “the best places to live.” I’ve always enjoyed this list as it attempts to distill what communities truly match what people would desire in a community. The winner in 2010 (in the August issue) was Eden Prairie, Minnesota

But one issue with this list is how the communities are selected. In 2009, the list was about small towns, communities between 8,500 and 50,000. In 2010, the list was restricted to “small cities,” places with 50,000 to 300,000 residents. Here is how the magazine selected its 2010 list of communities to grade and rank:

746
Start with all U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 to 300,000.

555
Exclude places where the median family income is more than 200% or less than 85% of the state median and those more than 95% white.

322
Screen out retirement communities, towns with significant job loss, and those with poor education and crime scores. Rank remaining places based on housing affordability, school quality, arts and leisure, safety, health care, diversity, and several ease-of-living criteria.

100
Factor in additional data on the economy (including fiscal strength of the government), jobs, housing, and schools. Weight economic factors most heavily.

30
Visit towns and interview residents, assessing traffic, parks, and gathering places and considering intangibles like community spirit.

1
Select the winner based on the data and reporting.

A couple of questions I have:

1. I agree that it can be hard to compare communities with 10,000 people and 150,000 people. But can the list from each year be called “the best place to live” if the communities of interest change?

2. I wonder how they chose the median income cutoffs. So this cuts out places that might be “too exclusive” or “not exclusive enough.” Are these places not desirable to people?

3. Some measure of racial homogeneity is included in several steps. How many home buyers desire this? We know from a lot of research that whites tend to avoid neighborhoods with even moderate levels of African-Americans.

4. Weighting economic factors heavily seems to make sense. Jobs and economic opportunities are a good enticement for moving.

5. I would be interested to see what kind of information they collected on their 30 community visits. How many residents and leaders did they talk to? How does one measure “community spirit”? If a community says it has “community spirit,” how exactly do you check to see whether that is correct?

Overall, this is a complicated methodology that accounts for a number of factors. What I would like to know is how this list compares with how Americans make decisions about where to live. Do people want to move up to places like this and then stay there or is the dream for many to move on to more exclusive communities (if possible)? How many Americans could realistically afford to or possibly move into these communities?

(A side note: the four Chicago suburbs in the top 100 for 2010: Bolingbrook at #43, Naperville at #54, Mount Prospect at #56, and Arlington Heights at #59. Naperville used to rank much higher earlier in the 21st century – I wonder how it has slipped in the rankings.)