America’s 10 Most Enlightened Towns

Communities showing the way to a better future

Burlington Vermont

Church Street in Burlington, Vermont.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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So what is it that makes a town enlightened?We’re looking for something deeper here than the usual “Best Places” tabulation of hot job markets, low taxes, booming real estate, temperate climate, and the absence of freeway congestion. Cities can rank quite high in these categories and still be dreary, soulless places. Indeed, such “qualities” sometimes diminish the spirit of a community, as the push for a narrowly individualistic vision of the Good Life results in economic inequality, environmental degradation, social fragmentation, urban sprawl, and lousy public services.

It seems to us that a good place to live ought to offer more than just high salaries and a low crime rate. That’s why we set out to find towns that are making a special effort to foster connectedness and contentment among all the people who live in them. In the process of selecting our Top 10 towns (plus one Canadian city), we gave high marks to places that hold together as communities even though they may not score that well on a traditional checklist of advantages and disadvantages.

Our list is not meant to be a tipsheet pointing to cities that have luckily sidestepped the problems of modern American life. Nor is it a handy guide to help you plot your next move across the continent. Rather, we chose communities that we think are dealing creatively with the challenges they face, places that can provide inspiration and practical ideas about how to improve life in your own hometown.

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Most of these towns happen to be great spots to sip latte, watch foreign films, visit naturopaths, join kayak clubs, browse used-book shops, buy organic chevre, or find meditation centers. Indeed, our criteria included access to alternative health care, lively media, a breadth of cultural activity, and diverse spiritual oppportunities. But those factors alone aren’t enough to make a town enlightened. There are other qualities that matter just as much as a cornucopia of hip consumer offerings and alternative lifestyle options. That’s why some likely suspects—Santa Fe and Seattle, Boulder and Boston—were edged out by far less glamorous places such as Ithaca, Durham, and Chattanooga.

The cities on our list are all rich in what Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam calls “social capital”—a strong strain of civic involvement that a town constantly draws on to ensure its vitality. In his oft-quoted 1995 essay “Bowling Alone,” Putnam points to the alarming decline in social capital—especially traditional institutions like PTAs, church groups, unions, service organizations such as the Kiwanis, and bowling leagues—as a key factor in the breakdown of neighborliness and community in American life. Without the presence of a lively mix of citizen organizations, government and private sector efforts to maintain a healthy community will go nowhere.

Informal groups, from activist coalitions and neighborhood associations to book clubs and cooking classes, abound in our Top 10 cities. We singled out Ithaca, New York, as the most enlightened town in America, in part, because of its truly breathtaking array of opportunities for citizen participation—everything from tireless historic preservation groups and enthusiastic union organizing drives to a bicycle recycling program that has fixed up more than 1,000 donated bikes for low-income kids. This kind of yeasty civic involvement generally gives rise to innovative, progressive local politics. Ithaca claims seven unabashed leftists on its city council, while Green Party members run the city council in our #6 town—Arcata, California—third-party Progressives have controlled city hall for most of the past 15 years in Burlington, Vermont, (#4) and the New Party has made inroads in #5 Madison’s municipal government. Not all the towns are left-leaning. Providence, Rhode Island, (#9) has an independent party mayor who once was a Republican, but he’s a creative one who has revitalized downtown by turning it into a free trade zone for artists.

Progressive politics in these towns means more than passing resolutions opposing destruction of the rainforests and proclaiming solidarity with the people of Sarajevo. Many of them have pioneered important policies that offer new ways of dealing with thorny issues such as the environment, economic opportunity, civil rights, sustainable development, transportation, historic preservation, and housing. This approach to politics represents what E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post political columnist and author of Why Americans Hate Politics, heralds as an emphasis on the “public good” rather than the empty ideological posturing of most politicians. And being progressive also means making sure that everyone in the community can enjoy the advantages of living there. That involves a commitment to racial equality and tolerance for gays and lesbians, but also decent conditions for working-class citizens. This is why many of the most beloved big cities are missing from the list—New York or San Francisco become a whole lot less wonderful if you’re trying to raise a family there on a janitor’s or hairdresser’s pay.

A sense of local culture is another big factor that set these 10 apart from your average American town. Rather than slavishly imitating the latest trends, these communities look inward to find strengths and chart their own course. These are places that celebrate regional products—especially locally brewed beer, locally baked bread, and locally grown produce—and enthusiastically support indigenous artists, performers, and cultural institutions. Often, they buck national trends when it comes to public policy—as Portland, Oregon, has for many years in setting limits on urban sprawl and promoting downtown development instead. Out-of-control sprawl, in fact, was one the major reasons that several areas often lauded for their livability—Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis-St. Paul—didn’t make our list.

Good urban design is another criteria that we weighed heavily--parks and green spaces, bikeways, solid public transportation, architectural integrity, strong downtowns, and, particularly, pedestrian amenities. The chance to walk around town, rather than being forced into your car by thoughtless urban planning, is one of the most basic measures of a community’s enlightenment. This is not only because walking is one of life’s most underrated pleasures, but because having large numbers of pedestrians fosters other benefits such as cleaner air, more human-scale architecture, low crime, and increased neighborliness. Architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the most influential urban planners in America today, argue that a great city is merely a confederation of great neighborhoods. And they point out that great neighborhoods are easily identifiable by the presence of a lively business district within easy walking distance of everyone who lives there. Also known as urban villages, these neighborhood centers include public spaces like coffeeshops and parks where people can meet one another and talk over what’s happening around town. And that’s the kind of community engagement and connectedness that distinguish the following towns as good places to live—and great places to learn from.

Special reporting for this section was provided by Ryan Johnson, Daniel Kraker, Lisa Niforopulos, and Elaine Robbins.