When was the last time a stranger wished you a nice day, or a shop owner greeted you with a smile? Have you only seen a whole town come together to celebrate or help those less fortunate on TV or in movies? Depending on where you live, these sorts of things might seem like fantasy—we’re looking at you, Manhattan and Los Angeles—but what if we told you there are real places where this stuff still happens? The Movoto Real Estate blog has found them: America’s friendliest small cities.
There are places where people will still get the door for you; where they’re more likely to return your wallet than mug you for it. Places like San Luis Obispo, CA, the friendliest small city around. When you’re friendly, you attract others, and San Luis Obispo brought nine of them to the party: our top 10 friendliest small cities in America. Say hello to:
There’s a reason SLO could be your next BFF, and why Palm Springs will make your heart sing. You see, we actually came up with a unique way to measure a place’s friendliness, and if you’ll be our friends and continue reading, we’ll explain just how we did it—and why the 10 spots above ended up being so gosh darn delightful. Put on this virtual friendship bracelet and let’s get started.
What Makes A Friendly City?
When we decided to tackle this question, we realized that we’d need to look at it in some unique ways. Thankfully, we’re used to coming up with creative ways to analyze places using data, like when we figured out the worst dressed cities in America last year. It’s just a matter of looking for the right data. In this case, we picked seven measurable criteria to look at:
- Violent crime rate (friendlier residents = less stabbing)
- Percent of income given to charity (friendly folks spread the wealth around)
- Flower & gift stores per capita (more stores = more demand for gifts)
- Card & stationery stores per capita (ditto)
- Bars per capita (the classic socializing spot)
- Farmers’ markets per capita (a great place for residents to interact)
- Religious organizations per capita (being nice to your neighbors is kind of a big deal in all religions)
- Facebook Likes (friendly places make more digital friends)
Unfortunately, we couldn’t include some other criteria we initially wanted, like the number of high-fives per capita or cups of sugar given to neighbors. Still, we feel like these are a good mix of serious and fun data points that fit perfectly with our special blend of Saturday Night Science and the lighter side of real estate.
With our criteria determined, we assembled a list of small cities to look at. Just like you can pick your friends, we picked the 100 largest cities with populations under 50,000 people. Nine cities (Huntington, WV, Euclid, OH, Hattiesburg, MS, Lawrence, IN, Bonita Springs, FL, Coeur d’Alene, ID, Summerville, SC, DeKalb, IL, and Kannapolis, NC) were passed up due to incomplete crime and other data.
We collected data on all of the cities—from the FBI, philanthropy.com, and business listings—and gave them a rank from 1 to 100 (with one being best) in each criteria. We then averaged those rankings into one overall Big Deal Score, with the lowest score being our friendliest city, San Luis Obispo. It should be noted that crimes were looked at on a per 100,000 residents per year basis to create a level playing field between cities of varying populations.
Now that we’ve told you the how, we’ll go into what made our top 10 cities the kind of places you’d want to be best buds with. Oh, and if you didn’t see your favorite place up there, there’s still a chance that it made it into our top 50, which you can check out at the end of this post. Now, let’s make some new friends.
San Luis Obispo is famous for a lot of reasons, from the prestigious Cal Poly to the wacky Madonna Inn and even an alley covered in used chewing gum. To those who call it home, though, it’s known as one of the sunniest, friendliest places in the Golden State. Based on its top-five placing in five of our seven criteria, we’re happy to say that when it comes to small cities, it really is the friendliest.
Its best showings were in flower and gift shops and farmers’ markets, where it has one for every 1,699 and 6,554 residents, respectively. The city has also managed nearly 30,000 Facebook Likes, a number that can be attributed at least in part to Cal Poly alumni, we’re sure. SLO sits about halfway down the list in terms of violent crime in 56th place with 293 crimes per 100,000 residents annually. When it comes to charity, the city’s residents donate an average of 5 percent of their salary each year. The amount of Bazooka Joe donated to Bubblegum Alley annually, however, is immeasurable.
Once home to America’s third, fourth, and fifth Presidents—that’d be Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, for those who spent more time chatting with pals than paying attention in history—Charlottesville has gone from housing Founding Friends to being a generally friendly city. It’s a place where you might spend the day with friends at the Downtown Mall or meet up with your buddies on the quad between classes at UVA.
Standouts in our data included second-place finishes for flowers and gift shops, purveyors of greeting cards, and farmers’ markets, plus one of the highest ranks (second-place) for religious organizations. While some of Charlottesville’s former residents gave us democracy and the Declaration of Independence, its current residents give 4.6 percent of what they make to charity each year, on average.
3. Olympia, WA
While the Pacific Northwest may be known for its rainy weather, the frequent drizzle clearly hasn’t put a damper on Olympia’s friendly spirit. In fact, we can only imagine that all that wetness would actually help friendships blossom. It certainly doesn’t affect farmers’ markets, it seems, as the city placed first overall for those with one for every 3,669 of its 47,698 residents.
Olympia residents are probably spending more time with friends at bars than in our top two cities, as it placed fourth for that criterion with one watering hole for every 1,163 people. It’s also one of the best cities in our top 10 in terms of violent crime, with 267 for per 100,000 residents annually.
Having been born and raised in Palm Springs, I can personally attest to its friendliness. In fact, this city has managed to retain its small town atmosphere even as the world outside the Coachella Valley has become more and more cynical. Every trip back home is like a journey through time to a place where the locals all know each other and the dispositions are as sunny as the sky is year-round. Palm Springs is also renowned for its LGBT-friendliness, something that has no doubt helped residents (including yours truly) of this small town have a distinctly 21st century world view when it comes to equality.
Looking at the actual data, this famous party and resort town deservedly took first place for the number of bars per capita (there’s one for every 792 residents) and actually placed second overall for Facebook Likes with a whopping 43,741. While not everyone can enjoy Palm Springs’ picturesque climate, residents of the city do try to bring a little sunshine into the lives of others through charitable donations. They give 5.6 percent of what they make to charity on average each year.
The third state capital to make our top 10 friendliest small cities, Harrisburg is a city in transition. Despite its financial woes, it has maintained a reputation for friendliness and quality of life, which has led to it being singled out as a top spot for raising a family and weathering the recession.
While its violent crime ranking placed it near the bottom of our list for that criterion, Harrisburg made up for it in nearly every other respect, including a second-place rank in religious organizations (one for every 503 residents) and a third-place finish in bars. It also ranked in the top 25 percent of cities for charitable giving, with residents donating an average of 5.3 percent of their yearly earnings.
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At 43,775 people, Littleton is the smallest small city in our top 10, but it was a big deal during the Pike’s Peak gold rush of the 1800s. Today, the community still has plenty of gold… in the form of friendliness. A big part of Littleton’s placing in our top 10 has to do with its violent crime rate of 130 per 100,000 residents per year, which placed it 24th overall for that criterion and makes it the least violent place in our top 10.
Littleton also fared well for flowers and gift shops (sixth) and greeting card shops (11th), and had an impressive 14,343 Facebook Likes (for such a small city).
7. Joplin, MO
On May 22, 2011, a massive tornado caused nearly $3 billion in damage to Joplin, killing more than 150 people and destroying 2,000 buildings in the process. Needless to say, Joplin was devastated, but the city held together and is on the road to recovery thanks to the strength of its community, and the friendliness it brought out in the rest of the country.
It seems trivial to talk about things like greeting card stores and Facebook Likes in the wake of such an event, so we’ll just say that Joplin did really well in general, but particularly in matters of faith—no matter what the type. It ranked fourth overall for religious organizations, the highest of any city in our top 10.
The folks in Texas are a notoriously big-hearted bunch, so perhaps that’s why the state brought two small cities to our top 10. Our first, Grapevine, represents the Dallas-Fort Worth area and owes its inclusion to top 50 (or higher) finishes for every criterion we looked at.
Its highest ranking was ninth overall for bars (it has one for every 1,730 residents), followed by 14th for greeting card shops and 18th for Facebook Likes (13,029 of ‘em). We also like to think that Grapevine being the birthplace of Joe Bob Briggs—famous drive-in movie critic, “MonsterVision” host, and one of the friendliest guys around—also had something to do with it.
This Texas tourist hotspot clearly leaves quite a positive impression on visitors. How else would you explain it taking first place in terms of Facebook Likes, with a staggering 95,285 (for a city with just shy of 50,000 residents)?
Of course, Galveston had to do well in other areas in order to make our friendliness top 10. It placed second for bars, eighth for flowers & gift shops, and 10th for religious organizations. While residents give around 4 percent of their yearly earnings to charity on average, Galveston has attracted the attention of several charities including the Shriners, who operate a highly specialized children’s hospital in the city.
10. Coral Gables, FL
We started this post talking about a sunny, seaside small city and we’ll end it with one, too. Coral Gables is many things when it comes to friendliness. It’s fourth overall for flower and gift shops; 15th in terms of greeting card stores; 11th for bars; and first where customizable teddy bears are concerned. Yes, Coral Gables is an important place in the history of stuffed animals—the kind made at Build-A-Bear Workshop, whose founder, Maxine Clark, was born there.
It’s probably the city’s remarkable beauty, though, and not this obscure fact, that spurred more than 11,000 Facebook Likes (a paltry sum compared to Build-A-Bear’s 2.5 million).
Become BFFs With SLO, CA
The next time you’re just not feeling the love from your town, you’ve now got 10 new friends you can visit. Based on what we’ve seen, they’d all like to meet you, especially San Luis Obispo.
We’d recommend keeping an eye on this Barnstable, MA place, though. According to our data, it’s especially unfriendly. It might want to work on ways to be a better friend—in fact, we can think of a few places that need to, like Ceres, CA—in case we return with a look at the least friendly cities soon.
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