Top 10 Best Cities for Families 2012

by Sara Vigneri

Top 10 Best Cities for Families 2012

The best cities to live in, based on the quality of schools, affordable homes, low crime rates, jobs and parkland. 

Many parents don't have the opportunity to choose where they want to raise their children—job location and finances usually dictate where we set roots. But if you were given the choice of anywhere in the United States to settle down, where would you go? There are countless cities to choose from with diverse cultural experiences, varying approaches to education and distinct climates and geography. With so many options, choosing the best spot for your kids can seem like an overwhelming task. But, certain cities rise to the top as particularly great places to raise a family when you look at specific factors such as health, economy, culture or safety. We decided to examine 36 sets of data and what we found may surprise you. Below are the results of our third annual Best Cities for Families based on ranking 100 cities using nearly 4,000 pieces of data.

1. Boston, Massachusetts (2011: #3)
Last year Boston was third on our list but managed to snag the top spot this year as our best city for families. A thrilling hometown baseball team, incredible institutions of higher learning, gorgeous parks, historical neighborhoods and a new highway system are the obvious reasons why Boston is a great town to live in. But the city also offers exciting opportunities for kids. For example, the White House committee selected a Boston elementary school to participate in a prestigious arts program headed by artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Forest Whitaker. Boston is also home to the premier Boston Children's Hospital which houses the world's largest research center based in a pediatric hospital with more than 1,100 scientists working to find treatments and cures for childhood diseases. Boston Children's Museum recently announced a $365,000 grant to ensure that their programs appeal to all children, including kids in underserved populations. And students at 25 schools across Boston are enjoying a before-school exercise program created by a local mom—a program so popular it has attracted the sponsorship of Reebok and is spreading to other cities. Offering urban life with a focus on education, Boston is a classically great town in which to raise a family.

2. Burlington, Vermont
You don't have to be a skier to appreciate what Burlington has to offer: there is outdoor fun all year-round with summer activities by Lake Champlain and plenty of snow in the winter. "If you want your kids to have the autonomy and health benefits that come with growing up outside, that's one of the reasons to live here," says Sascha Mayer, a mother of two kids age 6 and 8, who works for JDK, a marketing company in Burlington. Home of the University of Vermont, Burlington attracts college students who initially come for school and return to the city when they are ready to settle down. "A lot of people head off to the big cities after graduation," says Mayer, a UVM alum. "But they come back here to raise kids because of how easy it is to find a healthy balance between work and family." The school district's Farm 2 School program provides students with locally grown veggies in the cafeteria, kids take field trips to the local farms and farmers visit their classrooms to help kids create a connection to the food they eat. With afterschool ski programs (often free), fresh veggies at school, parks at every turn, farmers’ markets and plenty of snow, Burlington offers an idyllic place to raise a kid.

3. Portland, Maine
New to this year's list, Portland is another small, northeastern city that lures parents with clean air, plenty of outdoor space for kids to play and a laidback lifestyle that encourages healthy, active family living. Low crime and easy commuting make this coastal town an inviting locale for working families. It also snagged third place in our education rankings (see the Best Cities for Education). Are you a locavore family? The Public Market House exemplifies the community aspect of living in Portland with its commitment to supporting small businesses and fresh Maine produce. Want an easy family vacation? A three-hour drive brings you to one of our country’s most beautiful wonders, Acadia National Park, where kids can take part in a Junior Ranger Program or various other children's programming. Away from the hustle of the big urban centers of the Northeast, Portland is a tranquil kid-friendly city to call home.

4. Austin, Texas (2011: #2)
Austin is a unique oasis in the midst of the Lone Star State. With a temperate climate and lots of green space, Austin is the kind of place where families can take strolls through the city and participate in numerous outdoor festivals. "Kids are a part of the music culture here," says Tara Doolittle, a mother of two kids ages 2 and 5 who works for the University of Texas. "Organizers usually make sure events are family-friendly." Doolittle also says the city's relaxed pace and easy commute make it easier for working parents to balance family and career. The Austin Independent School District (AISD) recently announced a $320,000 grant towards the Active Play Project, a program that encourages kids to get active by providing outdoor activities. AISD also announced a $1 million anonymous donation to support the arts education program in the district with hopes of becoming an urban model for using arts and creativity to engage students and increase academic achievement. Already known as the Live Music Capital of the World thanks to its renowned music festivals, the city hopes to foster creativity in their kids to make Austin the Creative Capital of the World.

5. Cheyenne, Wyoming
Another new addition to our list, Cheyenne offers residents good schools and low crime. The city's culture is heavily tied to the presence of the F. E. Warren Air Force Base, which helps keep the unemployment rate low. Living on the frontier means kids will grow up with access to the outdoors and likely a love of the rodeo. The city's premier event is the week-long Cheyenne's Frontier Days, a family-friendly festival celebrating life on the range with a parade, carnival, free pancake breakfast, chuck wagon cook-off and of course, a rodeo. A short 20-minute drive brings residents to some amazing hiking, fishing and horseback riding at Curt Gowdy State Park. But the city itself provides plenty of opportunities for outdoor exercise including the Greenway, a 10-foot wide concrete path that winds through 32 miles of the city providing a safe place to push a stroller or for kids to ride their bikes. As a community gathering place and a safe way to get active, the Greenway exemplifies the city's dedication to providing a healthy city to raise kids. 

6. Arlington, Virginia and Washington, DC
As last year's best of the best, Washington DC, stirred up a lot of controversy. Critics focused on the city's reputation for crime and poor performing schools while ignoring the large number of Blue Ribbon schools and the unique cultural cache of raising a kid in our nation's capitol. This year, we figured we should include the broader DC area and include Arlington, VA, which is nestled right across the Potomac River. Arlington shares the capitol's amazingly low unemployment rate thanks to a plethora of government jobs and numerous corporate headquarters. The Metro system connects Arlington to DC, giving residents the ability to live in Arlington and work in the capital or vice versa. Houses are comparatively expensive, but low property taxes help ease the burden. Education is a focus in Arlington with 90 percent of high school graduates continuing their education and nearly 37 percent of Arlingtonians holding graduate or professional degrees. With a bustling economy, the Arlington/DC area provides great jobs for parents and a great cultural spot to raise kids. 

7. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota (2011: #4)
The Twin Cities ranked high on our list for healthy air, healthy people and safe streets for strolling as well as a lower unemployment rate. Minneapolis has made a commitment to its cyclists by doubling the miles of on-street bike lanes over the last two years for a total of 81 miles of on-street lanes and 85 miles of off-street bike paths. St. Paul is committed to creating a sustainable city by reducing pollution, constructing green buildings, developing more transportation alternatives like light rail and restoring green space by planting trees and native plants in the parks. The Twin Cities’ dual commitment to green living gives parents the opportunity to enjoy big city life without sacrificing health and safety.

8. Madison, Wisconsin (2011: #6)
The city by the lake makes a repeat appearance on our top 10 list, and it's no wonder that Madison is a perennial favorite when it comes to healthy, safe living for families. Unemployment and crime are low, the air is clean and there are plenty of parks and trails for families to go outside and stay active. The Madison farmers’ market, which takes place around the capitol square, is more that just a place to buy veggies. The market is a community event harkening back to the days when farmers arrived on horse and buggy to the town square to sell their wares and everyone assembled in the streets to shop and socialize. Today, you might see groups of families enjoying locally grown produce and baked goods while listening to live music. Madison is the type of city where parents can enjoy the culture and entertainment that such an urban environment offers while appreciating the green space and healthy living for their children. 

9. Omaha, Nebraska (2011: #8)
Home of the amazing Omaha Zoo with the largest indoor rainforest in the U.S., Omaha is brimming with kid-friendly activities including the Omaha Summer Arts Festival which features a children's fair with crafts, music and dancing. But this little city in the Midwest offers more than just fun, it provides a family centered lifestyle. "There are good lifestyle options for whatever fits your family's spirit," says event planner Heidi Walz who works with Vic Gutman & Associates in Omaha where she was born and raised. "There are beautiful condos and lofts downtown, major redevelopment in midtown or newer homes in the suburbs of West Omaha. There's something for everyone." One of her son's favorite activities is helping pick out ingredients for dinner at the Omaha Farmers’ Market. "I think it's a great place for a working parent," explains Walz. "Commute time is minimal no matter which direction you live or work which means more family time."

10. Sioux Falls, South Dakota
This little city on the banks of the Big Sioux River offers parents a combination of low unemployment—the city scored four percentage points lower than the national average—and a stable housing market. Sioux Falls managed to avoid the subprime mortgage crisis and rapid new construction that the rest of the country experienced, and therefore never had a big housing bubble to burst. Sioux Falls boasts a low rate of violent crime and was given an A by the American Lung Association for their air quality thanks to negligent levels of ozone in the air. A small city means easy commutes, and you can get anywhere in Sioux Falls within 20 minutes. It's also easy to get outside for some family exercise. Sioux Falls boasts a 10-mile trail that loops around the city, winds along the river and ends up at the beautiful Falls Park where you can witness the waterfalls for which the city is named. In the winter, the park illuminates with Christmas light to transform into a Winter Wonderland; in the summer, families can enjoy shopping at the Falls Park Farmers’ Market which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.