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Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Washington DC has more than just politics to boast about. It also shot up a recent rankings list of the best cities in America.
New York is number one, again. Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco round out the top four – all in the same positions as last year.
But the surprise was that the nation’s capital gained six spots, rising to fifth spot this year, displacing Las Vegas.
The results come from rankings by destination-branding firm Resonance Consultancy, which collected public data focussing on 23 different criteria including crime rates, air quality, housing affordability, entertainment offerings, cultural diversity, and economic vitality.
The survey also takes into account social-media metrics - Facebook check-ins, Google search results, TripAdvisor reviews, and Instagram posts - to identify how a city tells its story.
Resonance’s rankings stand out because the company is looking at more than just the tourist industry. It gathers comprehensive data about a city’s public perception and appeal to locals, visitors, and businesspeople.
Kristin Kurth, a partner at EquiBrand Consulting, says the best cities are the ones at the intersection of working, living, and playing – places that meet the needs of the most consumer segments.
Cities are in a constant battle to attract and retain talent to grow their economies. “The ones that know their customers better than their competitors do are the ones that will win,” she says.
DC’s jump was not a surprise to Resonance president Chris Fair, especially after Amazon chose Crystal City, just outside the capital, as half of its second-headquarters plan. “I think the growing vibrancy of the city in terms of the culinary, entertainment, and nightlife activities is under-reported,” Fair says.
The US capital scored points for its museums, and not just the famous ones under the Smithsonian umbrella.
A slate of new attractions include the Kennedy Center’s US$175 million expansion called the Reach, scheduled to open in September, plus Phase III of the Wharf, a US$2.5 billion mixed-use development that features more than 20 restaurants to add to the city’s growing culinary scene. The list includes the casual Southern Italian-inspired Officina, from Michelin-star chef Nicholas Stefanelli, along with Del Mar, featuring Spanish cuisine from Michelin-star restauranteur Fabio Trabocchi.
The survey defines a big city as one having more than 1 million people. The top 10, with their highlighted attributes, are:
- New York (shopping, restaurants)
- Chicago (airport connectivity, convention center)
- Los Angeles (museums, restaurants)
- San Francisco (people, neighborhoods)
- Washington (educational attainment, museums)
- San Diego (parks and outdoors, crime rate)
- Las Vegas (weather, attractions)
- Miami (foreign-born population, parks and outdoors)
- Seattle (educational attainment, household income)
- Boston (neighborhoods, crime rate)
There isn’t much hope of cracking into the top four, Fair concedes. The four best cities in America – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco – coincidentally also have the best culture and infrastructure for entertainment, a key tourism driver.
“There are factors that have a higher correlation with attracting visitors,” he says. “They tend to be in the category of programming - thinking about the experiential quality of the city in terms of arts and restaurants.”
In particular, New York is “so far ahead of many of the other cities,” he says, that its ranking is unlikely to change using this criteria.
Chris Heywood, executive vice president of NYC & Co., New York’s official destination-marketing organization, says the city has stepped up its promotion efforts abroad, especially in the U.K. and Western Europe. It’s also encouraging visitors to explore more neighborhoods and boroughs beyond Manhattan.
The aim is to avoid 'over-tourism' which can become a burden on locals instead of an economic opportunity.
“The goal is to move people around and have them spread the wealth to all the businesses in the city – and the small businesses in particular,” he says. Another goal is to attract people to the city during the first months of the year, to help redistribute the visitation and alleviate pressure during the warmer season.
In the category of best small city - defined as having a population from 200,000 to 1 million - Honolulu once again took the top ranking.
The Hawaiian capital’s outdoor areas, especially Waikiki Beach, helped propel it to the top of the list. Also notable are its growing nightlife and shopping scene, including Ala Moana, the largest open-air shopping mall in the world.
Fair says that the smaller city rankings vary more from year-to-year than the bigger ones do, since the smaller cities have fewer differences among them in terms of the scale of their entertainment and cultural offerings. A slight change can tip one over the other.
And yes, Myrtle Beach, the tourist hotspot of South Carolina, makes the top 10. Fair says it scores high for its attraction and accessibility – similar to how Las Vegas, another tourist stop, ranked seventh in larger cities.
In ranking order, the top 10 small cities were:
- Honolulu, Hawaii
- Omaha, Nebraska
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Tulsa, Oklahoma
- Reno, Nevada
- Asheville, North Carolina
- Colorado Springs, Colorado
- Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
- Madison, Wisonsin
These are the USA's best big (and small) cities to live in
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