Perspectives, Preferences and Priorities

I have never been to Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Normally, that would not cause me much disappointment. But, when I recently read Money magazine’s “Best Places to Live” issue, and Eden Prairie topped their list, I thought perhaps I should see it one day if for no other reason than to educate myself. That is, until I read Jonathan Hiskes’ reaction to Money’s list on Grist. I no longer have such a desire to visit. I am an urbanist who grew up in the suburbs. I understand that different perspectives, preferences and priorities necessarily result in conflicting ideals of livability. I certainly prefer one way of life, and I do not fault others for choosing a way of life different than that which I prefer. Nonetheless, Eden Prairie seems to miss the mark.

Hiskes’ article does raise an important issue, however, about what constitutes “best” when discussing livability. As he points out, jobs, schools, “charm” and unemployment matter. Further, different people attach different values to those and other items, so that “best” is, not surprisingly, hard to codify. Eden Prairie’s unemployment rate is quite low, perhaps enough in and of itself to raise it to Money’s top spot due to the prolonged economic and unemployment morass in which we collectively find ourselves ensconced. But, still, “best?”

I do not have first-hand experiences in Eden Prairie, but I do have friends and colleagues who do. Some of them like it, some of them decidedly do not, but all of them were surprised that any neutral assessment would call it the best place to live. Given the difficulty in choosing one city or town among thousands upon thousands of candidates, perhaps Money could have done better.

How could they do better? Understand that the “best” is not entirely quantifiable. There are just too many intangibles at play. And, even for those that are quantifiable, how do you weigh one more than the other? Dig in to Money’s rankings a bit, and there are some items that are decidedly negative. For example, of the top ten cities, Eden Prairie has the highest property crime incidents per capita and the third lowest air quality (not to mention a significantly lower average January temperature). So, I want to know more about those intangibles.

Urban neighborhoods just are not going to make mainstream lists of livability, due to school quality, home prices, true outdoor recreation and, most likely, crime rates as compared to suburbs. I get it. But, the most promising places for livability across the board may be those suburbs that are actively working to create centers of activity and promote sociability and a range of amenities in the midst of auto-oriented suburbs. A place with something akin to a “park once” strategy – where most visitors drive from their large homes and backyards by car, but can walk to a range of amenities and activities once there – seems closer to an idealized solution.

A town where city hall – which should be an icon of the community – sits amidst a sea of parking isolated from pedestrian activity either to or from it simply should not be idealized. Eden Prairie may very well be a nice place to live, but placing it on a pedestal as symbolic of city and town planning aspirations seems misguided.