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The Migration to Smaller Cities Will Continue Post-Pandemic

Small cities can offer equal or better qualities of life than large cities for many people and the pandemic only further reinforced that trend. A report evaluates 1,322 of America’s small cities to determine which ones are best.

Pine,Lake,Neighborhood,Sammamish,Washington,Usa,Aerial,View
Sammamish, Wash.
Cascade Creatives/Shutterstock
As stores reopen, restaurants allow dine-in meals and public transit ridership creeps back up, many people are returning to the cities they fled during the coronavirus pandemic. But, a number of Americans have found that the big urban lifestyle is no longer something they crave and are joining the millions who live in small cities across the nation. This COVID-driven suburbanization is not new; studies have shown that city growth was slowing down even before the coronavirus pandemic began. There are a variety of reasons why people move — education, safety, affordability, space — and a new report tries to quantify those factors to identify the best small cities in America.

Determining which small city to move to can be a difficult task, however. The report from personal finance company WalletHub evaluated 1,322 of America’s small cities to identify the best and found Sammamish, Wash., has the top overall score. The report grouped cities by percentile due to the large sample size, with the 99th percentile representing the top 1 percent of small cities in America. This year, 19 cities made the 99th percentile.

Source: WalletHub


Only cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 were considered for the study. Using data from several agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, County Health Rankings, TripAdvisor and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the cities were compared across five key factors: affordability, economic health, education and health, quality of life and safety.

The report also measured how each city performed based on 43 different metrics, including median household income; cost of living; population growth; unemployment rate; foreclosure rate; high school graduation rate; COVID-19 vaccination rate; adult obesity rate; average commute time; number of restaurants, bars, clubs, coffee shops per capita; and crime rates. Each of the metrics were graded on a 100-point scale and that score was then used to create a weighted average to determine an overall score and percentile ranking for each city.

Of the 19 cities in the 99th — or highest — percentile, eight of them are in Massachusetts; of the 20 cities in the first — or lowest — percentile, 17 of them are in the South.  

Eight of the top 10 cities for quality of life are beach cities, with Myrtle Beach, S.C., ranking the best. However, five of those same cities are also among the least affordable cities in the report: Key West, Fla.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Santa Monica, Calif.; Monterey, Calif.; and Miami Beach, Fla. Unsurprisingly, a large majority, 18 out of 30, of the least affordable cities are in California.

More than half of the top 20 safest cities are in either Virginia or Massachusetts, the remainder are in New York, New Jersey and Idaho. The 13 least safe cities are in Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Twenty of the top 30 cities for education and health were in Massachusetts, with three of the top 30 in Connecticut and the remainder in Maryland.

For economic health, 11 of the top 30 cities are in California’s Bay Area, many of which make up Silicon Valley: Mountain View, Dublin, San Carlos, Belmont, Los Altos, Foster City, Milpitas, Redwood City, Pleasanton, Burlingame and Cupertino.

In many ways, college towns can bring many benefits of the city without the urban density. According to Professor Robert J. S. Ross of Clark University, two of the largest drawbacks of living in a small city may be alleviated in college towns. Living in small cities may require traveling further to access things such as cultural opportunities, like museums and art exhibits, or high-end medical services, he says. But college towns can often be more endowed with facilities and events than big cities.

Overall, small cities often provide many great benefits to their residents. Jerry Anthony, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, identified five main benefits of small city living: “Usually lower-cost housing, a better sense of community and connectedness to events and activities in the community, more opportunities to make a tangible difference through civic engagement, a greater sense of fulfillment and life satisfaction [and…] much less time spent commuting or traveling within the city.”

Experts agree that the trend toward small cities was exacerbated by the pandemic and will continue even after large cities normalize. “This is an accelerant of prior trends,” Professor Ross explains. “The rise of work-at-home employment in the pandemic is a powerful outward force in the settlement pattern.”

99th Percentile Small Cities


CityTotal ScoreAffordabilityEconomic HealthEducation & HealthQuality of LifeSafety
Sammamish, WA72.55178357122830
Carmel, IN71.79313616027527
Brentwood, TN71.57284411539098
Lexington, MA71.543883711927
Reading, MA71.1381143310919
Zionsville, IN70.923117132766104
Portland, ME70.8810012475612381
Milton, MA70.661974772453312
Melrose, MA70.6550188864822
Dublin, OH70.44660611204132
Westfield, IN70.183917518483837
Redmond, WA70.12486564121375
Brookfield, WI70.076319953279270
Arlington, MA69.9287410871968
Princeton, NJ69.87604312757861
Newton, MA69.8260378435114
Needham, MA69.82141541559726
Burlington, MA69.8228033951586
Leawood, KS69.78911485796195

1st Percentile Small Cities


CityTotal ScoreAffordabilityEconomic HealthEducation & HealthQuality of LifeSafety
Sumter, SC43.08991119912914831294
Rocky Mount, NC42.99962127612585961289
Petersburg, VA42.811207128313214261163
Goldsboro, NC42.801073126312502651303
Camden, NJ42.6212881307899890743
Danville, IL42.54783126712294991307
Gadsden, AL42.1277189313044361314
Wasco, CA41.816631313124712931287
Florence, SC41.79584101712873011318
LaGrange, GA41.131176128613139901276
New Iberia, LA40.35791131913104271317
Fort Hood, TX39.531264132011146711243
Alexandria, LA39.16804109513183531319
Albany, GA38.241106123813204551306
West Memphis, AR37.777461297131111371311
East Point, GA37.4511781303108611901313
Greenville, MS36.751072132213227001277
Monroe, LA36.181099131013172851315
Bessemer, AL36.181154119612866591321
Pine Bluff, AR35.921013130413158501312

Zoe is the web producer and a writer for Governing.
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