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Which Is America's Best City?

(This story has been corrected. A reference to a former pedestrian mall has been removed. )

Ask most people which city they would most want to live in and usually their answers would be shaped by such realities as proximity to their jobs and what they can afford. But suppose you could choose to live anywhere you wanted regardless of cost? What if you could live in a city that offered a wealth of culture, entertainment, good schools, low crime, and plenty of green space? Many people might opt for obvious choices such as New York or San Francisco, but great as they are, data reveal other cities are even better. spent months working with data that would help us to identify the best cities in the U.S. We looked at a range of positive metrics around quality of life, counted up restaurants, evaluated school scores, and considered the number of colleges and pro sports teams. All these factors and more add up to a city that would seem to offer it all. When we began the process we had no idea which cities would come out on top. The winner? Raleigh, N.C.

Raleigh No. 1

To most residents of Raleigh, it may not come as a surprise that their city earned the title of America’s Best City. Raleigh shows the cultural graces that go along with anchoring the so-called Research Triangle, home to North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Among its many attributes the city sports 867 restaurants, 110 bars, and 51 museums, according to Onboard Informatics, as well as a thriving social scene, good schools, and 12,512 park acres, equal to several times the green space per capita in cities like New York and Los Angeles, according to the Trust for Public Land. It also offers a great deal on nights and weekends—from concerts and opera, to the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and college sports, to the 30,000-square-foot State Farmers Market.

Raleigh may have a population of only about 400,000 and span about 144 square miles, yet data show it still offers a lot, if only in a smaller package. True, Raleigh may not be the center of the tech universe like San Francisco, a hub of higher education on the same scale as Boston, or a vibrant 24-hour metropolis like New York, but all those cities also offered higher unemployment, a dearth of parks, worse public education, and other negative factors that weighed against them.

“We’ve always said, you can find about every amenity that you want, even in a city of our size,” says James Sauls, director of Raleigh Economic Development, a partnership between the City of Raleigh and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

The city has been home to an array of celebs including Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi, Dexter star Michael C. Hall, and singer Clay Aiken (whose dog was even named Raleigh).

Better, Not Bigger

With help from Bloomberg Rankings, evaluated 100 of the country’s largest cities based on 16 criteria including: the number of restaurants, bars, and museums per capita; the number of colleges, libraries, and professional sports teams; the income, poverty, unemployment, crime, and foreclosure rates; percentage of population with bachelor’s degrees or higher; public school performance; park acres per 1,000 residents; and air quality. Greater weighting was placed on recreational amenities such as parks, bars, restaurants, and museums per capita, educational attainment, school performance, poverty, and air quality. As living in great cities can be expensive, affordability was not taken into account.

The data for this ranking came from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Sperling’s BestPlaces, GreatSchools, Onboard Informatics, RealtyTrac, Bloomberg, and the Trust for Public Land.

After Raleigh, the next highest-ranked cities were Arlington, Va.; Honolulu; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Irvine, Calif. Larger cities placed lower: New York was 14th, while Los Angeles ranked 53rd and Chicago 75th. The highest-ranked city with a population greater than 1 million was San Diego, at seventh. Washington, D.C., which has 588,433 people, came in sixth. Since some criteria were evaluated on a per population basis, places did not necessarily score higher for having a larger number of establishments or amenities.

At the bottom of this ranking of 100 cities were Detroit; Stockton, Calif.; Akron, Ohio; Laredo, Tex.; and Cleveland.

A Park With a City in It

Many urbanites appreciate cities’ bustling streets and constant activity. Raleigh, though active, is often described as “a park with a city in it,” according to the city tourism site, and the downtown area has wide sidewalks, public art, and outdoor cafes, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. With several colleges in the area, it is also a young city and about one-fifth of the population are in their 20s, compared to a national rate of 13.8 percent, show 2010 Census data.

“The Raleigh area features a cluster of great universities, so education is part of the culture of the community,” says Ford W. Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. “Integral to this culture are the region’s museums, rooted as they are in education and lifelong learning.”

Most residents drive, though Raleigh also has a public bus system, including a free bus service downtown.

High quality of life combined with new and expanding business in the region have attracted more residents to Raleigh, one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities: The population in the metro area expanded by an estimated 12.2 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to economic and demographic data company Woods & Poole Economics.

Growing Economy

The city’s largest employers are the state and public school system, according to Raleigh Economic Development. Strong technology, defense technology, biotechnology, and life sciences sectors and emerging cleantech and smart grid industries have bolstered the local economy, says Sauls.

In the weak U.S. economy, Raleigh’s unemployment rate increased to 7.6 percent in July 2011 from an annual average of 4.4 percent in 2008, BLS data indicate, but joblessness in the city remains lower than the metro area, which reached 8.4 percent, and lower than the U.S. rate of 9.1 percent.

Even in today’s tough environment, a number of Raleigh companies are expanding, including software company Red Hat (RHT), which announced in January that it would add 540 jobs. The company had looked at other cities, but as Chief Executive Officer Jim Whitehurst told reporters, Raleigh offered the best overall package.

“It’s a combination of things: There’s a great university system here so it’s easy to find qualified talent and it’s a great place to hire people. The relative cost of living is low, the cost of real estate is dramatically lower [than other cities], and the state is pro-business,” says Whitehurst, who moved to the area in 2008 from Atlanta. And with most of the benefits of a major metropolitan area, he says, “it’s a wonderful lifestyle.”

Click here to see which 50 cities placed highest in our ranking.

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