Best Places to Live 2011

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As a writer, Ken McGoogan has more freedom in choosing where to live than a lot of Canadians. The author of seven non-fiction books, who most recently penned How the Scots Invented Canada, has lived in every region of the country during his 64 years—from east to west, including a jaunt up north. McGoogan eventually chose to settle in Toronto, where he has lived with his wife, Sheena, for the past nine years. With a certainty that will raise the hackles of non-Torontonians across Canada, McGoogan extols the virtues of his chosen city. “To me, this is the best place to live in the country.”

McGoogan’s opinion, controversial though it may be, is nevertheless well informed. As he’s moved around the country, McGoogan has always been aware of what makes each place unique. His upbringing in Deux-Montagnes, Que., exposed him to French-Canadian culture early in life. In his youth he answered the call of the big cities of Toronto and Montreal, and he loved the vibrancy of each one. The French-speaking world of Montreal can be alienating for English speakers, however. “If you’re not francophone, you’ll have trouble participating in 80% of the city’s life.”

He later lived in Vancouver while completing a degree in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, and he loved being able to explore the scenic Pacific coast. The constant rain? Not so much. “If you get 20 or 30 days in a row of rain, that can wear on you after while.” The promise of a job in television took him to Nelson, B.C., but he ended up working in a sawmill. McGoogan admires Nelson for its population of “back-to-the-landers,” people holding out against the increasingly upscale and suburban nature of other B.C. towns.

He completed stints as a writer-in-residence in both Dawson City, Yukon, and Fredericton. Dawson City is nearly an eight-hour drive north from Whitehorse, but to McGoogan’s surprise, he could still buy his favourite magazines on the newsstand. “I see Dawson City as the farthest point where western civilization reaches,” he says. Fredericton, though not nearly as remote, was similarly quiet, which made it perfect for writing.

The biggest chunk of his life—two decades—was spent in Calgary, where he and his wife reared two children. “It’s a great place to raise a family,” he says. The surrounding natural landscape allowed them plenty of opportunities for family activities, such as skiing, which they did nearly every weekend.

Through all of his roaming, McGoogan has developed a good sense of what he wants from the city he calls home. Near the top of his list is access to a well-stocked library. “Odd as that may sound, that is important to me.”

That preference illustrates that where we choose to live is a deeply personal decision. And because where we call home is so personal, it is easy to feel hurt by perceived criticism. This is an issue MoneySense runs into each time we publish our ranking of Canada’s Best Places to Live. Last year, for example, Bay Roberts, Nfld., ended up on the bottom of the list. “It’s mind-boggling,” mayor Glenn Littlejohn told CBC News. “I’m so frustrated by the article today I can’t even express to you my disappointment.”

MoneySense receives hundreds of scornful emails and phone calls each year, and even a casual perusal of the comments left on the online version at MoneySense.ca reveals that many question the wisdom of the list’s creators. We are faulted for not taking a bunch of factors into account that, for some, are of utmost importance. What about the scenery? What about the friendliness of neighbours?

It’s true those attributes contribute to a city’s livability, but they are also subjective and impossible to measure. That’s why we stick strictly to the numbers and examine objective criteria common to every community. Taken together, these factors give a very good picture of the quality of life across the country. We look at housing affordability, incomes, job prospects, crime rates, and access to health care. We even look at weather—in a country with as many extremes as Canada, the importance of good weather cannot be overstated.

We crunch this data for every single community with a population of more than 10,000 people—180 cities and towns in all. Each one is ranked in more than 20 different categories and assigned points based on how they stack up. A community at the top could be awarded full marks, while those near the bottom receive just a fraction of a point. All of these scores are tallied to arrive at a final figure out of a possible 105 points. The scores are close (we go to four decimal places) and no city is perfect. Only two scored higher than 70, and just barely.

The focus on hard data may seem cold and technical, but the results are useful for anyone thinking about where to move to begin a career, raise a family, or retire. Municipal officials can see how their town stacks up against neighbouring communities and determine where they can improve. The discussion—and controversy—generated by the list is ultimately beneficial, as we can get closer to answering a tricky question: what makes a city livable?

Blame it on the rain

Certainly one aspect is the weather. There is a reason the northern expanses of Canada are largely uninhabited: most of us like a little warmth now and then. Weather, in fact, is the most influential category in our ranking. Communities can receive up to 18 points depending on the amount of annual precipitation, the number of rainy and snowy days each year, and how often the temperature dips below zero.

Two additional points are awarded for air quality—one for ozone levels, and another for fine particulate matter. Both are major components of smog. Interestingly, the places suffering most from poor air quality are not the big cities with lots of cars, but industry towns. Thetford Mines in Quebec, which scores the lowest, was built on asbestos mining.

As for precipitation, we’ve determined that the ideal amount is 700 mL annually. That’s enough for healthy greenery to thrive, but not so much that you need a raincoat in your daily wardrobe. Coastal towns tend to do poorly in this regard. Soggy Prince Rupert, B.C. receives the most precipitation and the highest number of wet days per year. A full 240 days in an average year—two out of three—are rainy. Communities like Whitehorse, Kamloops and Yellowknife are at the other extreme. Such bone dry contenders also scored low.

Naturally, northern cities and those in the Prairies experience some of the coldest temperatures. The people of Thompson, Man. brave roughly 240 days a year that fall below zero, whereas B.C. cities are the warmest.

The ideal spot for agreeable weather, however, is southern Ontario, where four of the top five towns are located. The lone is exception is Victoria, which ranked highly thanks to its temperate climate and stellar air quality.

Homes in the range

Browsing Vancouver real estate listings is always sure to elicit gasps. The city is notoriously expensive, and despite persistent talk of a bubble set to burst, Vancouver real estate is still going strong. The average house price increased by more than 4% to $795,900, according to our list, allowing Vancouver to firmly secure its place as the most expensive housing market in the country.

But house prices don’t mean much in isolation. Housing affordability, which takes income into account, is arguably a more useful measure. That’s why we not only dole out up to 7.5 points based on average home prices, but allot another 7.5 based on the amount of time it would take someone earning the average local salary to purchase a home. After all, what does it matter how great a city is if you can’t afford to live there?

On that basis, Vancouver is still the most expensive city for housing in the country. The average home price is roughly 9.5 times the average salary. Ask any Vancouver real estate agent about the city’s astronomical prices, and they’ll likely tell you that people are paying for the lifestyle—the warm climate, the proximity to the ocean, and the amenities of a large city. Indeed, the entire Vancouver area is pricey. The neighbouring cities of Richmond and Burnaby round out the bottom three for housing affordability. In fact, 17 of the 20 most expensive cities are in B.C.

There are still plenty of cities where prices do not induce shock. Some of the cheapest housing can be found in the Maritimes and the Prairies. Portage la Prairie, located just outside of Winnipeg, consistently ranks among the most inexpensive cities. Incomes are fairly robust there, too: they’re equal to about half the average home price. By this measure, the most affordable city is Timmins, Ont., where the average home price is just $130,121, less than twice the average income.

Making it work

The catch is that housing is really only affordable if you’re working in the first place. And in Timmins, that might not be the case. The unemployment rate in the city is high: it ranked 136th out of 180 when it came to job prospects. Its fortunes are largely dependent on the cyclical nature of the mining industry, and the recession hit it hard. Just last year, Swiss giant Xstrata PLC scaled back operations in Timmins dramatically, axing 670 jobs.

It is safe to say few people want to move to a region experiencing high levels of unemployment, which is one factor we measure to gauge a city’s overall prosperity. The jobless rate is the most important component, with 10 points up for grabs.

As a whole, the country’s unemployment rate stands at 7.8% and has a ways to fall before it reaches pre-recession levels. Some regions were impacted more by the recession than others, typically those that rely on a single industry. Towns on both coasts are victims of the decline of forestry in Canada, while communities in the Maritimes have not recovered from the collapse of the fisheries. Prince Rupert, despite its best efforts to revitalize the local economy through developing its port facility, is still beset with high unemployment.

The good news is that the communities suffering from double-digit unemployment have seen the rate fall slightly over the last year as the economy improved. Even the auto manufacturing hubs of Oshawa and Windsor, beset by job losses during the downturn, are seeing better days. And North Bay, Ont., experienced a massive improvement. The number of unemployed fell from 11.2% to just 4.9% in 2010. That dramatic move in percentage terms may have been aided by the fact that North Bay’s population shrank, but a more balanced labour market is indicative of a healthier city. North Bay’s improving climate for jobs led to a jump from 75th place last year to 22nd this year in our final ranking.

Income is another important measure of prosperity. Four points are awarded for healthy salaries, but like home prices, such statistics are not entirely illuminating on their own. A high salary may not be substantial when the costs of living in a particular city are exorbitant, after all. To account for this, we also award four points for discretionary income—play money after basic expenses are paid. Finally, we look at provincial income tax and sales tax rates, and recent car purchases as a percentage of total vehicles, which is an indication that citizens are spending money.

Residents in the territorial capitals of Whitehorse and Yellowknife have some of the most cash to throw around, despite the generally high costs of living so far north. A number of Toronto suburbs—such as Markham and Whitby—also rank highly, showing that being situated near a major job market without the obligations of paying the high costs of city life has its benefits.

Get a life

Lifestyle is a nebulous concept, and it’s hard to define in numerical terms. Nevertheless, there are a few universal factors that we apply.

We start with population growth. A shrinking community is obviously a worrying sign. Fewer people means a smaller tax base and ultimately less revenue to support basic services and infrastructure. Unchecked growth can be just as bad, particularly if the city cannot meet the needs of an expanding population.

That’s why we try to find a balance. Cities are awarded up to 10 points based on how closely they come to reaching 7.4% growth annually, which is slightly higher than the national average. Shrinking locales get zero points.

A number of places are ticking along well above the average, most of them on the outskirts of Toronto, such as Milton, Brampton and Vaughan. But the secret to hitting the sweet spot for growth is to be situated near a bustling second-tier city. The township of Centre Wellington, bang on with 7.4% growth, benefits from its proximity to Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario. Vernon, B.C., which boasts 7.5% growth, is near to Kelowna.

To get a sense of how well a community is planned, we look at the number of people who either  walk or bike to work. A higher ratio is a sign of smart, well-managed growth. Cities with compact downtown cores or cycling paths (Yellowknife, Victoria) top the list, while those maligned for sprawl (Vaughan) fare poorly. Of course, adequate public transportation is vital in such areas, which is why cities can earn another five points based on the percentage of the workforce that takes a bus, train or streetcar to work.

Access to health care is vital, particularly with our aging population. Communities are awarded points based on the number of physicians per 1,000 residents, along with the number of people employed in the health-care industry. Communities can earn another point if there is a hospital nearby. Personal safety is also important, so we award points for low violent and total crime rates, as well as for low crime severity. Caledon, Ont., scores as the safest community on all three fronts.

The safer you feel, the more likely you are to go outdoors and enjoy the amenities. To attempt a measure of a community’s buzz-worthiness, we look at the percentage of people employed in arts, culture, sports and recreation. It should come as no surprise that the big cities score well in this regard. Canmore, Alta., however, does look a little strange at the top of list next to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. But the community is surrounded by natural parks, meaning a sizable number of people are employed in the sports and recreation space. It also hosts a variety of festivals each year, ranging from ice climbing to folk music.

So who’s best?

For the second year running, Ottawa-Gatineau snagged the top spot. In fact, it came in first in four of the past six MoneySense rankings.

What does Ottawa-Gatineau have that other cities don’t? The key to the city’s success appears to be consistency. It does not rank particularly high in any individual category (its best scores are for tax rates and culture and sports employment) but it usually comes in just above average across the board. There are jobs to be had, household incomes and real estate are not drastically misaligned, doctors are accessible, and crime is barely a concern. Temperate summers make up for the bone-chilling winters. A visitor from a bigger city may sneer at Ottawa-Gatineau’s lack of nightlife, but there are plenty of museums and galleries in the city to keep the culture-lover occupied.

Of course, much of the city’s success is due to the fact that it is home to the federal government. Bureaucracy, for all of its unsexiness, means jobs, healthy incomes, local business development, and amenities. The city is also very well maintained. After all, it plays host to countless foreign dignitaries, so all levels of government need to keep the region looking its best. The same is true for the seats of provincial governments. Four of the top 10 cities are provincial capitals.

Young people, namely students, clearly play an important role in a city’s prosperity: six of the top 10 are home to universities. Educational institutions ensure a steady population, provide jobs, sustain local businesses, and can raise a region’s profile on an international level.

Victoria is both a capital and an education hub, so it is not surprising it rebounded from eighth place in 2010 to the No. 2 spot this year. The city made its biggest jump in employment. Last year, it ranked 74th in this category, but an improving job market boosted it up to 36th place this time around. The major strike against Victoria continues to be housing affordability: the average price is six times the local household income.

Employment, it turns out, is a significant factor in the movement of the cities near the top of the list. Edmonton cracked the top 10 this year, up from 16th last year, thanks to an improving job market. Moncton suffered the opposite fate, falling from fifth place to 11th this year. Its unemployment rate ticked up nearly three percentage points to 8.1%.

Toronto, the country’s biggest city, finished in the middle of the pack at number 88. But the fact that Toronto scores poorly for housing, unemployment and crime severity isn’t likely to change Ken McGoogan’s feelings for the place.

When he and his wife left Calgary for Toronto nine years ago, they found a home in the neighbourhood of their choice—the Beaches, an area that McGoogan likens to a village unto itself—and the expansive library system is among the world’s best. His hunger for the outdoors is satiated, too: he’s just a short walk from the Lake Ontario waterfront. “And whenever you’ve got a big expanse of water, you’ve also got a big expansive sky.”

But he is aware that one’s needs change with time. McGoogan may yet return to Montreal: as a writer, he’s interested in exploring the French-English dynamic. But Toronto is still home for now. “If I could find a better place than here, I would move,” he says. “But realistically, it’s going to be difficult to dig me out of here.”  Research by Alan Smith

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