Housing & Mortgage
How to Find a Hometown That Makes a Social, Active Life Easy
Moving for Happiness, Part 2: Landscape
Growing up, my brother and I often spent weekends in a quite popular Dallas neighborhood. But for years, both of us thought it was deserted.
Cars raced through it to get to a nearby freeway, so the adults discouraged us from playing in the front yard. A lack of sidewalks made biking or walking out of the question, and there was nothing but more houses to see for many blocks anyway. We were driven everywhere, returning to a garage we closed behind us before traipsing through a fenced backyard into the house. Maybe there were kids three houses down just dying to hang with us, but how would we know? There was never a reason to open the front door.
By contrast, I can hardly leave my current home without saying hello to someone. The sidewalks in my traditional neighborhood are well-used paths to jobs, restaurants, bars, festivals, parks, markets, art galleries, music and museums. I bike, run, sail and paddleboard at whim, without getting in the car, often with friends. The city swimming pool five blocks down is a gem — heated in the winter, chilled in the summer, with a separate waterpark for kids — that costs $5 a go.
Daily contact with friends and physical activities are incredibly important to me, and, as it turns out, to most happy people. Researchers agree that the happiest people typically spend a lot of time with people they like, and they live active lives. Obviously, some places make achieving these goals harder than others.
This series aims to help you discover where in this country you can be happy before you pick a relocation destination. I offer 21 questions to help compare the people, landscape and financial impacts of different places on factors most likely to affect your sense of well being.
The questions in Part 1 evaluate where you’ll likely find good candidates for your own social network. Part 2 questions gauge how much the landscape facilitates efforts to engage with your group, and to get moving. Part 3 questions allow you to compare financial impacts of potential hometowns beyond salary and housing cost differences.
The most important questions for me aren’t necessarily the same ones for you. Weight them with however much relevance to your decision as you think they need.
Is it pleasant and feasible to walk to destinations? You’re not going to meet people driving around in your car. Sidewalks and walkable destinations connect us, to neighbors and the broader community, in part by giving us reasons to be outside and visible. Inviting an acquaintance on a walk to a nearby park or coffee shop is a delightfully low-stress way (on both sides) to get to know each other. Take those walks before deciding where to land.
Can you bike, scooter or skate to get around? Poor urban planning can make travel outside of a car logistically difficult or even dangerous. Does the place have convenient bike lanes? Do drivers respect them? Chicago, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston consistently score high marks for bike friendliness. Bicycling magazine offers detailed descriptions of bikeability in 50 U.S. cities. Fun fact: The happiest cities in America are also some of the most walkable and bikeable, according to research by National Geographic, Gallup and academics.
Are there farmers markets, art walks, music festivals, political rallies or movies in the park? Things like this are on every week in my city, and they’re wonderful for keeping me in touch with disparate friends. It takes no planning and little commitment to text a group on Saturday morning to see who’s game for fresh produce in an hour. (The follow-up coffee is implied.) Any community event that’s frequent peaks your interest and draws a crowd is a huge bonus for newcomers and residents. Google for local possibilities, but what3words is a useful app for finding your group amid the masses once you get there.
Coffee shops, happy hours, church basements, restaurants or other places two or a few of you might gather? It is certainly possible to build a social life by entertaining in your own home. But you’ll likely get to know more people if there are neutral places you can meet informally. Are your preferred hang-outs abundant and convenient in this potential hometown? For the record, Salt Lake City has almost as many coffee shops per capita as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, according to Apartmentguide.com. San Antonio, Texas; Oklahoma City, and Knoxville, Tennessee, have the most affordable restaurant food, says Money magazine.
Parks and other green spaces. The prevalence of parks and recreation areas says a lot about a community’s priorities. Parks are home to festivals, corn-hole tournaments, group cookouts, Little League and other activities that bring people together. They offer respite from city noise and traffic. They put us in contact with vacation-worthy beaches, forests, mountains and sunsets. They facilitate exercise and car-less transportation, even in the most car-dependent cities. It’s hard to safely bike five miles in much of Dallas, but its White Rock Lake Park is filled with cyclists, plus walkers, skaters, marathoners, fitness boot campers, rowers and sailors.
All of those things facilitate a sense of well-being. The Trust For Public Land details and ranks the size, quality and amenities of park systems in the 100 largest U.S. cities.
Can your kids be independent there? In middle school, my son routinely biked with friends to movies, hot dog stands and ice cream a couple of miles from home. They got there riding on wide sidewalks through parks, crossing only a couple of small streets along the way. The safety of it allowed him a freedom I wouldn’t have allowed at that age any other place we’d lived. Can your kids safely get to school, sports or friends via public transportation or their own power? Or does the place require you to chauffeur them everywhere until they can drive themselves? Sometimes the confidence and life skills that independent kids learn are worth a move.
Is the climate tolerable, inviting, oppressive, depressive or refreshing? Some people think a crisp overcast day is invigorating, but they put me to sleep. And I’ve met quite a few people who found 350+ days a year of sunshine as depressing as dark cold Februaries. They miss seasons.
If you’re considering a move to different weather, ask yourself if it might grow old. Climate change might give you more and more days of 100-plus temperatures, as well as subject you to more floods, wildfires, hurricanes and other weather-related threats. Get an idea of how weather will change in your potential destination with this interactive graphic from Vox. Don’t move to a place where the climate might become an excuse to hole up in your home.