Metrics for Great Cities

The Most-Livable Cities Share Common Traits

I recently noticed, while writing an article about walkability, some overlap among top-performing U.S. cities in positive metrics. I think these are important because they’re all the result of good policies, not mere good fortune. What are the metrics for great cities?

Urban Forests

The urban forest is the collective tree and shrub cover in and around cities, located on both private and public land. According to American Forests, a nonprofit forest-advocacy organization, the urban forest is able to:

  • Remove air pollution
  • Produce oxygen
  • Absorb rainwater and pollutants in rainwater that would otherwise run into streams and groundwater
  • Provide shade
  • Block wind
  • Reduce energy demand
  • Reduce noise levels
  • Store carbon
  • Provide habitat for animals, and
  • Make people happier and more relaxed.

American Forests evaluated the 50 most-populous U.S. cities’ urban forests in regard to:

  • Civic engagement in maintaining the urban forest
  • Urban forest strategies and city greening to address city infrastructure challenges
  • Accessibility of urban forest and greenspaces to the public
  • Overall health and condition of the city’s urban forest
  • Documented knowledge about its urban forests, and
  • Urban forest management plans and management activities.

Why did American Forests undertake the project?

Scott Steen, American Forests CEO and one of the judges for the project, said the group wanted to “showcase the tangible value that urban forests provide to cities and their residents, including economic, aesthetic, social and physical well-being. Various studies have shown a correlation between trees and lower rates of crime, reduced levels of stress and lower body mass.”

Image #1: New York City skyline, Graham Styles

In addition, “No two cities have worked exactly the same way to achieve their place on our top 10 list, but they each serve as a role model for others,” Steen said.

Energy Efficiency

Achieving greater energy efficiency, like living in a healthy urban forest, results in a better quality of life for people. It also saves people and businesses money, and has the potential to obviate the need for more power plants as the country’s population grows.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) evaluated 34 major U.S. cities on their efforts to reduce energy use and costs. ACEEE ranked each city based on the following sectors’ successes to reduce energy use:

  • Local government
  • Community initiatives
  • Buildings
  • Utilities
  • Transportation

Boston walkable neighborhood

Walk Score

My previous article looked at Walk Scores in more detail. You can review it here. The walkability rankings were compiled by the group Walk Score. It’s important to remember that different neighborhoods in a city can have hugely disparate scores. Denver’s overall score is 55.7, but the Berkeley neighborhood on Denver’s west side, for example, at 93 is a “Walker’s Paradise.”

Here’s how the data looks when combined:

Urban Forest

Energy Efficiency

Walk Score

New York City

Top 10

69.75 (3rd)

88 (1st)


Top 10

65.25 (5th)

71 (8th)

Washington, D.C.

Top 10

56.25 (7th)

74 (7th)

Portland, OR

Top 10

70 (2nd)

63 (15th)


Top 10

55.25 (8th)

65 (12th)


Top 10

52.75 (11th)

56 (23rd)

Austin, TX

Top 10

62 (6th)

35 (34th)


Top 10

40.75 (18th)

43 (24th)

Charlotte, NC

Top 10

23.75 (31st)

24 (50th)


not ranked

76.75 (1st)

80 (3rd)

San Francisco

not ranked

69.75 (3rd)

84 (2nd)


not ranked

54.5 (10th)

77 (4th)


not ranked

54.75 (9th)

75 (6th)

Milwaukee, WI

Top 10

not ranked

59 (20th)

Clearly many other metrics would be useful. These three are interesting, I think, because each confers benefits beyond the individual person. Energy efficiency is good for individuals, businesses, and the environment. Walkable cities are good for people’s health and for property values. The urban forest gives people cleaner air and water, cooler temperatures, and often a sense of peace and well being.

What other metrics would be useful in this sort of comparison?

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture