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The Best Cities for New Families

When New Yorkers Bari Nan Cohen and Jeff Rothchild vacationed in Park City, Utah, a few years ago, it changed their lives. The couple was gearing up to start a family and saw that Park City was a young community with lots of kids. Cohen, a freelance magazine writer, loved the idea that in Utah she could afford to work part-time once the baby arrived, and Rothchild, who longed to open his own marketing company, thought he could make a go of it there. "We could never do that in New York City," she says.

After explaining themselves to befuddled family and friends, they packed up and moved across the country. The result? Both parents now work for themselves and enjoy a better quality of life with their son Lance, now 2. "We bike with Lance in a trailer and hike with him at local resorts," says Cohen. Their new home meets the needs of this growing family in ways they couldn't have imagined.

Whether you're looking for a new place to call home or just curious about what other towns have to offer, the following pages will give you a picture of what family life is like across the map.

What Are Your Priorities?

If you're thinking of moving, first ask yourself what kind of environment you're looking for. Urban, suburban, or rural? A progressive area or one with a conservative value system? "The decision is very individual, and it won't be the same answer for everyone," says Linda Gillespie of Zero to Three, an organization that supports the healthy development of infants and toddlers. Once you determine the type of place you're looking for, you'll want to address the day-to-day practicalities.

  • Prepare for trade-offs. Where there's low-cost housing, there may not be high-paying jobs -- and conversely, where there are high-paying jobs, housing might cost a fortune. Figure out which situation is most comfortable for your family.
  • Consider your individual needs. Do your job skills make you employable only in specific markets? Do you want to find a stellar public school system or are you looking for a community that supports homeschooling? Factors that make one community appealing on some levels may not have the mix your family needs.
  • Plan for a healthy support network. That doesn't necessarily mean living around the corner from Mom. "Many people live without extended family near them these days," says Gillespie. A community of friends and like-minded parents, convenience to shopping and doctors, and access to quality childcare are just a few of the ways new parents can build infrastructure into their lives.

Begin Your Search

Talking to friends and new parents is an easy way to start, and real estate agents are always a great source on relocation issues. Here are a few Web sites to help you with your search:

  • U.S. Census Bureau (www.census.gov) The champions of demographic record-keeping post their considerable findings here.
  • Sperling's Best Places (bestplaces.net) allows you to compare your community directly to others according to housing costs, school districts, and other variables.
  • National Child Care Information Center (nccic.org) provides links to dozens of reports on daycare issues, organized by state.
  • PSK12.com ranks public schools by language arts, math, and science test scores in 25 different states.
  • Slowlane.com Stay-at-home dads can search this site to find local playgroups and other handy resources for fathers.

Where are paychecks a little fatter or living costs a little cheaper? Where can you get more bang for your real estate buck? Looking to get the best maternity leave? Check out these finds.

  • Lowest Monthly Mortgage: Buffalo, New York With a median payment of $760 per month and an average total mortgage of less than $60,000, residents here pay just one third the housing costs of list-topper Honolulu.
  • Highest Household Earnings: San Jose, California Residents of this warm-weather community earn an average annual salary of $70,240 per household. "Even after the tech bubble burst, the truly creative jobs -- thinking up and designing new computer hardware and software -- stayed here and still tend to command higher-than-average salaries," says Robert Mullins, a San Jose Business Journal reporter.
  • Best Parental Leave: California The Golden State is truly family friendly. It's the only state in the entire country to receive an A grade in a National Partnership for Women & Families report comparing policies on job-protected, family, pregnancy, maternal, paternal, and paid leave.
  • Lowest Rate of Childhood Poverty: Appleton, Wisconsin Only 7.5 percent of children here are raised under impoverished conditions, compared with 16 percent of all children living at or below the poverty level nationally.
  • Lowest Unemployment: Fairfax County, Virginia With a jobless rate of less than 1 percent, most people here can feel secure about providing for their growing family.
  • Cheapest City for Commuters: Brownsville, Texas Short commute times and low gas prices mean these Texas residents spend less money fueling up than drivers anywhere else, according to the Sperling's Best Places Web site.

Even for parents of newborns, it can't hurt to think ahead about daycare and schooling.

  • Smallest Infant-Class Size: Maryland The student-to-teacher ratio is 3 to 1 for all kids less than 18 months, and the maximum group size is only six if three or more children are under 6 months.
  • Most Funding per Child for Head Start: Washington State More than $9,000 is allotted for every child enrolled in the programs, nearly $2,000 more per child than the national average.
  • Most Licensed Childcare Centers: California This most populous state still has nearly 30,000 more licensed facilities than runner-up Ohio.
  • Best Kindergarten: Georgia and Oklahoma Both states have programs available to all 4-year-olds in a majority of school districts, regardless of income. Most parents choose to enroll their children.
  • Best Public Education: Massachusetts The Bay State was ranked tops by an independent research firm that compared schools according to per-pupil expenditures, graduation rates, and reading, writing, and math proficiency.
  • Most Public School Funding: Washington, D.C. The nation's capital spent $13,187 per student in the 2001-02 school year -- that's nearly triple the expenditure per pupil in list-low Mississippi.
  • Best SAT Scores: Washington State Washington has the highest verbal and math scores among states where more than 50 percent of graduating seniors take the exam. (Iowa has the overall highest scores, but only 5 percent of seniors take the SAT; most take the ACT, another college entrance exam.) Honorable mention for participation goes to New York City, where a whopping 87 percent of graduating seniors take the exam, a bigger share than in any other city in the nation.

For some families, QOL is a major moving factor. Looking for a bustling rhythm or a slower pace? One of these communities may have what you're after.

  • Most Relaxed: Albany, New York Low unemployment, short commute times, and modest divorce rates make this state capital the least stressful large city, according to a Sperling's Best Places study. The mountain air and greenery help, too!
  • Least Road Rage: Corpus Christi, Texas With an average commute time of only 16 minutes, these Gulf Coast residents get to spend more time with their families and less time glowering behind the wheel. And you can always count on good beach weather.
  • Largest Children's Population: Merced, California Eleven percent of all city residents are under the age of 5, ideal for finding playmates and playgrounds!
  • Most Literate City: Minneapolis When measured by libraries, booksellers, newspaper circulation, and education levels, this Twin City was named most literate by a recent study. Karen Louise Booth of the Minneapolis Public Library jokes, "We have plenty of time to read here because our winters are so harsh!"
  • Lowest Crime Rate: Newton, Massachusetts Just west of Boston, leafy Newton won the Morgan Quitno Safest City Award, which ranked 354 cities around the country according to reported incidences of rape, robbery, and motor vehicle theft.
  • Best Park Access: Denver Nearly 9 out of 10 Mile High City dwellers live within six blocks of a park. Resident Kerry Ryan, father of one, says those parks are great, too. "There are always kids to play with, and every park I've seen has playground equipment."

When it comes to birthing and raising children, you'll want quality healthcare. You'll need good prenatal services, a well-equipped hospital or birthing center, and breastfeeding support -- and that's just when your baby is born! As your child grows, you'll want a reputable, accessible pediatrician, a children's hospital or one with a pediatric emergency unit, and your choice of child-friendly specialists.

  • Most Children's Hospitals: Chicago and St. Louis Both Midwestern cities have five pediatric hospital facilities in their metro areas.
  • Most Birthing Centers: Dallas; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle With three apiece, these progressive communities offer pregnant women alternative birthing options (usually with midwives instead of doctors) and pre- and postnatal support.
  • Best Children's Hospital: Philadelphia Open since 1855, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia developed the closed incubator and vaccines for rubella, mumps, and influenza, and offered the nation's first pediatric intensive care unit.
  • Most Affordable Family Health Insurance: Kansas City, Missouri Plans for self-insured families here can run as low as $43 per person, per month, or about $172 for a family of four.
  • Most Pediatricians Per Capita: Massachusetts This state has more than 165 pediatricians per 100,000 children, the highest ratio in the country.
  • Most Breastfeeding Support: Boston There are 34 branches of La Leche League, a breastfeeding support network, in the metro area. Group leader Janna Frielich says Bean Town's many universities and medical institutions help spread a positive message about breastfeeding. "I've always felt like I could nurse anywhere I go with my baby," she says.
  • Lowest C-Section Rate: Utah This state has the lowest cesarean rate at 17.2 percent, compared to 25 percent of all births in the country.

Whether you're the outdoorsy type who loves weekend hikes and regular strolls in the park, appreciates sunshine on a regular basis, or are concerned about air and water quality, these communities rank favorably on the sun, green, and clean scale.

  • Warmest Temperature: Honolulu There's a reason Hawaii residents are so friendly. With an average year-round temperature of 71 degrees, you'll never need to wrestle your toddler into a snowsuit -- but you will need an extra swimsuit or two!
  • Most City Green Space: San Francisco Nearly 20 percent of the Bay City is dedicated parkland, more than double the national average. The beaches aren't bad either!
  • Most Backyard Playtime: Las Vegas With an average rainfall of just over 4 inches a year, there's little chance your swing set or tricycle will rust, and your children will have lots of opportunities for outdoor fun in the sun.
  • Cleanest Tap Water: Chicago Take a sip of this: The Windy City was the only city in the Natural Resource Defense Council's drinking-water report to receive a grade of excellent for water quality and compliance.
  • Best Air Quality: Cheyenne, Wyoming Cheyenne residents always breathe easy. The reason? This city was named the American Lung Association's cleanest city in terms of long-term particle pollution.

These towns have premiere attractions and stores for moms with babies in tow.

  • Best Children's Museum: Indianapolis The Children's Museum of Indianapolis is the world's largest, housing 11 major interactive galleries. "It's great for people of all ages," says resident Tracy Miller, mother of three. "Grandpa enjoys it as much as the kids do!"
  • Busiest Zoo: San Diego More than 3 million visitors come each year to see the nation's largest collections of koalas, tree kangaroos, and giant pandas.
  • Most Babies 'R' Us Locations: New York City This metro area boasts nine stores, all of them filled with infant essentials.
  • Most Motherhood Maternity Stores: Houston The Lone Star State's largest city has seven Motherhood Maternity stores, a higher density than any other U.S. city.
  • Most Dog-Friendly: Salt Lake City Dogfriendly.com lauds this city's affordable housing (with yards!) and pet-friendly parks. In fact, Liberty Park has an amusement park that allows pooches in with their owners.

Did You Know?

  • Many major attractions in Washington, D.C., including the National Zoo, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian, are free.
  • New York City's outdoor swimming pools are free from July to September. Just take a lock, a towel, and a suit.
  • It's a tradition in Maui to have a big luau for a child's first birthday.
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee, has the largest freshwater aquarium in the world, plus a children's discovery museum and zoo.
  • Your kid's favorite television shows come to life in Dallas (Barney), and New York City (Sesame Street).
  • Seattle has 21 community centers offering indoor playgroups and dance and art classes for toddlers.
  • Sesame Place and the Crayola Factory are within easy driving distance of each other in eastern Pennsylvania.
  • Austin, Texas, is home to Barton Springs, a natural swimming hole in Zilker Park where the water averages a cool 68 degrees even when the mercury soars.
  • Nashville, Tennessee, aka Music City, has the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, plus countless warm-weather outdoor music festivals and shows, including a free concert every Thursday night in Riverfront Park.

Cathy Garrard is a writer in Brooklyn, New York.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2005.