Washington, D.C. Tops Forbes 2014 List of America’s Coolest Cities


Flooded with politicos and political junkies, Washington, D.C., often comes off as a city steeped in raw ambition. But the nation’s capital deserves to be known for something else: coolness.While “cool” might not be the first word that comes to mind when contemplating the latest standoff in Congress, D.C. nonetheless has a lot to offer those who call it home. Among its best features: abundant entertainment and recreational options, an ethnically and culturally diverse population, and a big chunk of people age 20 to 34–nearly 30% of the metro area’s population. There’s certainly plenty to do, from visiting the many museums along the National Mall to taking in a Washington Nationals game to simply enjoying the cherry blossoms in springtime.

“D.C. is a high-amenity city. It has its share of cultural arts. It has its share of natural beauty,” says Stuart Gabriel, Director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Add the city’s constantly refreshing population–the metro area has grown by 4.9% since 2010 thanks to net migration alone–and Washington, D.C., holds the perfect formula to land the No. 1 spot on Forbes’ list of America’s Coolest Cities. And by “cool,” we mean cool to live in.

Behind the Numbers
How do you define “cool”? Clearly, one person’s definition–all-night World of Warcraft sessions, say–could be another person’s total dorkdom. We sought to quantify it in terms of cities, partnering with Sperling’s BestPlaces to rank the 60 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas and Metropolitan Divisions (cities and their surrounding suburbs, as defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget) based on six data points we weighted evenly. (Orlando, unfortunately, had to be excluded due to a problem with its data.)

To compile our list of America’s Coolest Cities, Sperling’s helped us calculate entertainment options per capita in each metro area. This metric essentially measures ways you might spend a Saturday, quantifying the availability of professional and college sports events, zoos and aquariums, golf courses, ski areas, and National parks, among others. It also factors in art and cultural options, measuring the presence of theater and musical performances as well as local museums.

Next we considered each city’s cultural make-up using Sperling’s Diversity Index, which measures the likelihood of meeting someone of a different race or ethnicity. We think cities with a cultural mix are more interesting in terms of restaurants, shops, and events–as well as simply providing the opportunity to get to know someone whose perspectives may diverge from your own.

Population growth is a big part of our ranking system. Using the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, we factored in the age of a city’s population, favoring places with a large share of people aged 20-34. We looked at overall population growth since 2000, figuring long-term growth indicates people want to live in a place (whether for job opportunities, cost of living, or amenities), and also at how much recent growth was due to net migration (people who relocated there from 2010 to 2013), favoring cities with higher influxes of new people, since this suggests their city is a desirable place to live. We culled this data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Moody’s Analytics.

Washington, D.C., is one of six East Coast cities that make the top 20 of our list of America’s Coolest Cities. Perhaps not surprisingly, California one-upped the entire East Coast. A whopping eight Golden State metro areas make our list: San Francisco, 5th; San Diego, 6th; Riverside, 8th; Oakland, 12th; Sacramento, 14th; Los Angeles and San Jose tied for 16th place; and Santa Ana, 20th. They all boast large young adult populations and relatively high levels of cultural diversity.

“We’ve entered an era now where certain cities are magnets for young, innovative, productive workers,” says Dennis Hoffman, professor of economics at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.  ”It’s having this magnetism that a number of the rest of us in places that are not on this list are trying to aspire to: the Salt Lakes, the Phoenixes, the pretty much anywhere in Middle America.”

The other Washington contributes the N0. 2 metro area on our list: Seattle. With its abundant outdoors attractions, Seattle came in behind only Los Angeles and New York City (both cities have a greater number of sports teams) in terms of recreational options. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, residents in their 20s and early 30s make up about 29% of the metro area’s population–an increase by 6.3 percentage points from 2000.

Seattle also scored highly thanks to its foodie culture: the crunchy city has a relatively high preponderance of farmer’s markets, breweries, & CSAs per capita, compared to other metro areas, and 81.6% of its restaurants are local rather than chains. Seattle could have edged out D.C. for the number one spot were it not for its fairly low diversity: 72.7% of the metro area is white, 13% Asian, and 5% black.

The cities on our list fall into one of two categories: established, wealthier cities and up-and-coming places where low costs of living, outdoor attractions, and strong economies have attracted young adults who can’t (or prefer not to) afford to live in those more established areas. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of America’s most expensive cities also made the cut: San Francisco ranked 5th, Boston 9th, New York took 11th and San Jose 16th. Up-and-coming, more affordable metros on our list include Austin (No. 3), San Antonio, Texas (No. 15), Raleigh, N.C. (No. 18).

“Cities are expensive in large measure because they’re cool,” says Gabriel.

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