Recently a Washington Post blogger posted an article "Every county in America, ranked by scenery and climate" and the article started with "Ventura County, Calif., is the absolute most desirable place to live in America."
Another Washington Post blogger referenced that article in a separate post "The most beautiful and ugliest counties in America, ranked."
Great news for Ventura County! Everyone started sharing the link to the article in social media and half a dozen folks sent the headline over to me.
Websites like CBS Los Angeles wrote about the study with the misleading statement "The U.S. Department of Agriculture has named Ventura County the most desirable place to live in America."
The USDA did not say that. A blogger did. At least the VC Star got that right in their article "Washington Post blog calls Ventura County 'most desirable" place to live."
So how exactly did this blogger, Christopher Ingraham, come to the conclusion that Ventura County is the "absolute" most desirable place to live in America?
Based on a Study Done in 1999
Ingraham based his statement on a 16 year old report, "Natural Amenities Drive Rural Population Change," issued by USDA researcher David A. McGranahan in September 1999.
In that report, McGranahan asserted that population change in rural counties over the last 25 years was strongly correlated with counties that have higher "natural amenities," features that don't change significantly over time. The natural amenities used in his analysis of 3,111 counties were:
- Warm Winters - Average January temperatures over the period 1941 to 1970 (remember, this study was done 16 years ago).
- Winter Sun - Average days of sunlight in January over the period 1941 to 1970.
- Temperate Summer - The gain in average temperature between July and January over the period 1941 to 1970 (as opposed to just using the actual average temperatures in July).
- Summer Humidity - Average relative humidity in July from 1941 to 1970.
- Topographic Variation - Each county was assigned a score from 1 to 21 based on variation in topography. In other words, counties with bigger mountains score higher.
- Water Area - The proportion of water to total county square footage was determined; the higher the percentage, the higher the amenity score.
Data from these 6 natural amenities were quantified and summed for each county.
Granahan did not state which counties scored the highest. He simply indicated there was a clear correlation between natural amenities and the attractiveness of an area as a place to live. He also did not factor in other natural amenities including land cover, land use regulations (e.g. can we climb that beautiful mountain), propensity for natural disasters and such in this particular research.
Four of Six Amenities Climate Related
With 4 of the 6 amenities measured consisting of weather related factors, the deck is definitely stacked towards California. The underlying data file does show that Ventura County received an aggregate score of 11.17, followed closely by Humboldt County at 11.15 and Santa Barbara County at 10.97. That's pretty darn close.
In fact, the entire top 10, 18 of the top 20 and 40 of the top 100 counties in the country were from California.
The other 2 amenities were topology and water area. The higher the mountains and the higher proportion of lakes and oceanfront, the higher the natural amenity score. That's it. The beauty and accessibility of mountains and water are subjective factors not taken into account.
Since Florida is literally the flattest state in the country, its 67 counties get hammered in the topology amenity category. No mountains = low score = low amenity in this study. Only 4 Florida counties cracked their way into the top 100, starting at #59 ranked Pinellas County. Florida does benefit from being the hottest state in the country in January...every single one of the top 25 counties are populated by Florida, topped by Dade County, with an average January temperature of 67.2.
Faring much worse was the state of Illinois, which not only is the 2nd flattest state in the country, but is obviously much colder in the winter than Florida. As a result, the highest ranked county in Illinois is Williamson, at #794. The overall average ranking of 102 counties in Illinois is 2,530.
And then there's North Dakota, with an average ranking of 2,654 among its 53 counties. Its highest ranked county of Sioux landed at #1,310.
Perhaps the worst ranked state of any due to its cold weather is Minnesota, with an average ranking of 2,780 among its 87 counties. Cook County landed at #310 overall however because 57% of its area is water, considered a positive amenity.
So how did McGranahan take 6 factors and aggregate them? I won't go too deep into this because it involves a lot of technical statistics. He standardized the data by computing Z scores, ranking each attribute based on the number of standard deviations from the mean, then adding them up.
But he didn't always use just the raw data. For example, one natural amenity is "Temperate Summer." What does that mean? The average July temperature from 1941 to 1970 across all 3,111 counties was 75.9. Does a county score higher if they are below 75.9 and lower if they are above 75.9? One might think so, but that was not assumed. Here, "temperature gap" between January and July was computed by county and used to compute a factor which hugely impacts the rankings.
How about an example. Both Ventura County and Jefferson County, Montana, had an average July temperature of 65.2 degrees. But since Ventura County's January temperature was 53.8 and Jefferson County's was 19.5, Jefferson is penalized because of the larger gap between summer and winter. So while Ventura County received a "Z" score of 4.67 for this amenity, Jefferson County received only 1.71. For the exact same July temperature. While I can see his reasoning, it is a bit arbitrary.
Stepping back a bit, why use 4 climate amenities (winter temps, winter sun, summer temp gap and summer humidity) and only 2 "other" amenities? What if we were to use only 2 climate factors, January and July temperatures (ignoring the "temperature gap" described above). If we do this, California occupies just 5 of the top 10 spots and Ventura County falls to 11th. San Francisco County becomes the theoretical "most desirable" county to live in, followed by Humboldt County, California and Clallam County, Washington (where you only get 48 hours of sunlight during the month of January).
Or let's say we take out just one factor, July temperatures (since we already have January temperatures). If we do so, Santa Barbara County becomes the "most desirable" county with a score of 6.73, followed by Ventura County at 6.50. How did that happen? Because the average July temperature in Santa Barbara from 1941 to 1970 was 66.6 vs 65.2 in Ventura County. Yes, that small difference changed the ranking.
It would also be interesting to see this ranking done using more current climate data rather than data that is 45 to 75 years old.
So, is Ventura County the most desirable place to live in the country? ABSOLUTELY in my book! But how you actually quantify this is quite subjective. Natural amenities for sure should be taken into account, but how about the economy, jobs, schools, culture, the arts, things to do, affordability, etc