It’s a sunny winter day in Ottawa, and Andrea Tomkins’ husband Mark is skating to work on the frozen Rideau Canal. Andrea, a 39-year-old freelance writer, is in their quaint three-bedroom home in Ottawa’s vibrant Westboro neighbourhood updating her blog, A Peek Inside the Fishbowl, which details family-oriented activities in Ottawa. Her subject today: an unforgettable visit to the city’s Funatorium complex, where her daughters Emma, 12, and Sarah, 10, tried out rock climbing, jousting and even sumo wrestling.
Tomkins is not an Ottawa native—she moved to the nation’s capital from Brampton, Ont., for university and stayed on to raise her two girls, drawn by the abundant green spaces, the great museums and galleries, and the neighbourhood feel. “I like Ottawa because size-wise it falls somewhere between big city and small town,” she explains. “If you’re the kind of person who likes going to a concert or sporting event, or seeing a show, Ottawa has that kind of stuff. But it’s not so big that it’s daunting.”
Ottawa’s cultural offerings and family-friendly lifestyle were just some of the factors that helped the city take the No. 1 position in MoneySense’s annual Best Places to Live ranking of Canadian cities for the third year in a row. While Ottawa doesn’t get the top score in any specific category, it gets above-average marks in many of the key economic and quality-of-life measures that we use to compile our list.
The city’s residents enjoy high household and discretionary incomes, thanks to the large number of well-paying government jobs, which insulate it from some of the vagaries of the economy. At the same time, the average home price in Ottawa proper ($335,300) isn’t as high as in Canada’s biggest centres, meaning families can comfortably afford decent homes. Ottawa has a low crime rate that is the envy of many other Canadian cities, and it gets a good score for having a healthy rate of population growth. Sure, big-city folks like to gripe that Ottawa is a snore, but it’s undeniable that the capital punches above its weight for culture. “No matter what the season, there’s always something going on,” says Tomkins, who points to the numerous galleries, museums, and events like the Tulip Festival and Winterlude.
While it may be no surprise that Ottawa ranked No. 1 again this year, there was nonetheless a fair number of changes among our other top-ranked communities. Most notably, western cities like Regina and Red Deer pole-vaulted up the list, fuelled by economic growth—a trend that impacted Saskatchewan and Alberta cities generally. Halifax was another city that skyrocketed from 21st place to fourth place due to gains in population growth and employment. Meanwhile, Burlington, Ont.’s mild weather, low crime rate and high incomes helped it push Victoria out of second place.
MoneySense’s Best Places to Live sparks hundreds of letters and emails and endless web chatter when its results are announced each year. In order to come up with our list, we get numbers from sources like Statistics Canada, Canadian Demographics and local real estate boards for every city and town in this great big country with a population of more than 10,000. This year’s list covered190 communities in total, 10 more than last year, and we scored each of them in more than 20 different categories, for a total of 105 points. In many cases, the scores are so close that we calculate down to four decimal places before feeding them into a ranking system that compares them to each other. The 25 winners are listed on the right; to see the complete 190-city ranking.
Now, if you’ve just scanned the list and discovered that your beloved hometown isn’t there, we feel your pain. But don’t shoot the messenger. There are obviously a host of intangibles that we can’t possibly calculate on a spreadsheet. I, for one, adore my adopted city of Toronto. I have fabulous neighbours and a wonderful little shopping street nearby with coffee shops, bookstores and pubs. Great theatre and concerts are a short subway ride away, and when my kids were growing up, they were always able to walk to school safely. Admittedly, the traffic in the city can strike a sour note, but since I work in my basement, that’s not a big problem for me.
Well, Toronto ranked just 47th on the list this year—albeit up from a measly 88th place in 2011. (That upward movement was based mainly on new figures that showed Toronto’s population growing at a healthier 4.5%, compared to the flagging growth rate of 0.9% from the last census in 2006.) Now, I could stomp my feet, harrumph loudly, and send snarky emails to those who compile the numbers. But here’s the thing: we can’t sum up everyone’s individual experiences in the places they’ve chosen to call home. We can’t measure the number of neighbours you could hit up for a bottle of wine in a pinch, or your proximity to the best croissants this side of the ocean, or even your access to the most amazing hikes and blazing sunsets.
Instead, we try to find quantitative measurements of the things that make each city and town livable. While it’s true that friendly neighbours and beautiful scenery add to the appeal of a hometown, they are impossible to measure—and they’re highly personal. We stick to hard data that apply to just about everyone. We look at climate, because most of us don’t enjoy being deluged by rain or shivering uncontrollably for a good part of the year. We consider culture, because having plenty of things to do is a selling point for most people. And we focus on practical things that indicate quality of life, such as income, affordability of homes, whether sprawl is a problem, and how easy it is to get around via public transit or bicycle. Finally, we assess communities based on air quality, crime rates, employment, taxes and access to health care. For more detail, we invite you to checkout the full methodology.
Do we aim to change your mind about how desirable your little patch of the planet is? Not in the least. You know how you feel about the place you call home. We’re trying to provide some objective information that might enable city governments to get a handle on where they need to improve. We also think our rankings will appeal those of you contemplating a move. If you’re considering a retirement spot, for example, you will want to know if the locale you’re considering has more than its share of murder and mayhem. Or that it rains. A lot.
One of the fascinating things about our Best Places to Live list is how it chronicles the rise of cities and regions as they grow in power and influence. This year’s rising star is unassuming Red Deer, Alta., which vaulted to number nine, up from 96th place in 2011, thanks to lower unemployment and a more moderate rate of population growth. Positioned between Edmonton and Calgary, Red Deer is a natural transportation and distribution hub, and it boasts a diversified economy that has been booming, particularly with the growth of the petrochemical industry in the area. “The average age here is the mid-30s,” says Shazma Charania, a 31-year-old hotel owner. “You get opportunities here—to be on boards, to network in the community—that you wouldn’t get in a larger centre. You can climb the corporate ladder faster.”
Charania, who has a 16-month-old daughter and another child on the way, isn’t surprised that Red Deer also ranked high as a great place to raise kids. In a smaller community, the moms get to know each other, she says. And as kids get older, Charania notes that there are many activities to keep them busy. “Being in the hotel business, I know that our weekends are packed with sports teams,” she adds. If there’s a fly in the ointment for Red Deer, it’s the city’s high crime level, which the local newspaper, the Red Deer Advocate, has associated with the plethora of young men flush with oil patch earnings to spend on booze, women and motorized toys. I guess higher earnings can have their downside.
Halifax also enjoyed a strong economic performance this year that helped propel it up the list, from 21 to four. The move was due to an improved unemployment rate (5.5%) following growth in the transportation, education and service sectors. The city also gets high marks for the number of people who bicycle or walk to work, its affordable housing, decent public transit system, high household income, culture, and the number of healthcare professionals and doctors.
For Gordon Allen, a 48-year-old lawyer and married father of two who lives with his family in Halifax’s Dartmouth area, it’s all about quality of life. “Not that we don’t work hard here,” he says.“But there’s a difference. It hit home for me when I saw someone from Toronto on vacation—he was away for four days and he only had to work for two of them. He was thrilled that he had two full days when he didn’t have to call the office. What’s the point of that?”
In his city of 390,000, Allen feels he gets the best of both worlds. Halifax boasts cultural diversity, great theatre and restaurants, and a nightlife for the many university students, all combined with a slower pace of life and shorter commutes to work, he says. Although Allen lives on a lake on the outskirts of Dartmouth, he can make it to his office within 30 minutes, even in traffic. “I love Toronto, but if you have a young family and you want a bit of a backyard, to get a decent house you’d often be out in the suburbs,” he says. “You’d have an hour or more commute with traffic.”
In addition, he contends, while some cities similar in size seem bland, Halifax has a lot going on, even apart from the beaches, recreational trails and myriad other outdoor pursuits. “I think it may be because we’re a port city with five degree-granting institutions, as well as three universities,” he says.
“We’re an economic and health centre for the region and the site of Canada’s East Coast navy. All of that adds to the livability.”
While no one denies that our most westerly province is strikingly beautiful, its high real estate prices have pushed its cities lower down our list in recent years, a fate that also befalls the country’s biggest cities. It will probably surprise no one that the bottom spot for both housing costs and affordability (the amount of time it takes to buy a home) went to the city of Vancouver, where the average home rings in at a shocking $857,400. The high prices helped push the city down from 29th place last year to 56th position this year.
Of course, you can always argue that high housing prices merely reflect the fact that a lot of people want to live in a community. Vancouver gets great scores for the number of people who are able to walk or ride their bikes to work, as well as the temperature, culture and even pollution levels. But, unless you’re filthy rich, you’ll likely have to consider Vancouver’s increasingly unaffordable real estate as a big negative when you’re deciding where you want to live.
Kathy McConnell, a native Ontarian, lived in Vancouver for 10 years and loved the city for its social life and proximity to mountains and sea. But10 years ago now, she decamped for Calgary. The reason? No matter how hard she saved, house prices soared beyond her reach. In Calgary, she says, “I bought a house for a quarter of the cost.” When higher than average housing prices combine with other problems, such as low household income, high unemployment, declining population and high crime, it can be enough to sink a city to the end of our list. Campbell River, on B.C.’s Vancouver Island, scrapes near the bottom, coming in 184th out of 190 cities. (The last place city on our list is New Glasgow, N.S., which happens to be in the home riding of national defence minister Peter MacKay).
Although Campbell River has been hit hard bythe decline in resource industries like fishing andpulp and paper, residents like John Kerr, a retiredprincipal who has lived in the town with his wifeDarlene for two decades, continue to sing itspraises. In fact, he admits to being pleased byCampbell River’s position near the bottom of thelist. “That way, all those people out there won’tcome here and ruin it,” he says. “We know it’s good. It’s a well-kept secret.”
Kerr loves the West Coast lifestyle it offers. “There are all kinds of outdoor activities—fishing, kayaking, mountain biking,” he says. “I’m 62 and I’m going out bike riding today in the second week of February.”
Campbell River also ranked poorly on our list for both its high number of wet days and overall amount of precipitation, although its fair temperatures meant it had few days below zero. “At least we don’t have to shovel it,” says Kerr. “Some cities get high rankings even though they get snow four or five months of the year. We get snow and it’s gone in a week.”
In the end, of course, where your community falls in the rankings is unlikely to drastically change your feelings for the place you live. I will continue to love Toronto, despite those of you out there who insist on referring to it as the Big Smoke and who mock it mercilessly for having given in to the (admittedly daft) impulse to call in the army for snow removal after a series of blizzards back in 1999. However, reflecting on Toronto’s 47th place standing made me acknowledge the fact that there are some pluses and minuses to living here. On the positive side, Toronto ranked a respectable 61st for total crime—much lower than even tiny communities like Yorkton, Sask. (ranked 185th).
On the other hand, we’re definitely paying a premium to live in this city in terms of high housing prices—a fact that may become more important to my own family as we gaze off into the distance at retirement. Is there a Kingston or a Halifax in my future? I can’t really say, but for now, I’m content to love the one I’m with.