City Ratings Confuse, Confound


IF you are considering moving to Columbus, Ohio, you may be interested in how it stacks up to other cities in the United States. According to three recent rankings, it is: One of the top 10 (Newsweek magazine).

No. 61, out of 333 metropolitan areas (Places Rated Almanac).

No. 185, out of 300 (Money magazine).

What's going on here? A deluge of city rankings by news media and publishers this year has left the public more at sea than before.

Many critics say the rankings are nothing more than a handy way for publishers to make money. Some qualify their answers: ``There is a very large group of Americans that are highly mobile, in footloose industries, who can locate anywhere,'' says Peter Hall, director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at the University of California, Berkeley. ``[They] need this information'' because ``they don't have direct experience to draw upon.''

Seven million Americans each year move to a different state, according to Places Rated Almanac (Prentice Hall, $16.95).

``By the same token,'' adds Mr. Hall, ``cities are in big competition to attract industry, and increasingly they're in the business of `selling' themselves. They care a lot about these ratings.''

City officials in Pittsburgh jumped for joy in 1985 when the second edition of Places Rated Almanac named it America's most livable city. ``It did a great deal to dispel that 25-year-old image'' of Pittsburgh as a steel-based ``smoky city,'' says Justin Horan, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

The rating helped attract more high-tech companies - ``there's no question about it,'' says Mark Kurtzrock, assistant executive director of the Pittsburgh High Technology Council. He himself chose to move back to Pittsburgh after college because of an improving city environment.

Despite public interest in such studies (1985's ``Places Rated'' sold more than 300,000 copies), critics have argued that ranking cities is ``attempting the impossible'' - too subjective to be taken seriously.

``I think it's snake oil,'' says William Alonso, professor of sociology at Harvard University. ``What's a nice place for older people may not be a nice place for young people.'' While one survey may give points to Los Angeles for its balmy temperatures, ``if you add that to the smog, it ends up not so good. You can make these things come out any way you want,'' he says.

Places Rated Almanac grades American cities in nine areas, among which are education, crime, the arts, and cost of living. Conclusions are based upon the number of points a city ``earns'' in each area. The lower the score, the more ``across-the-board strength'' a city has, according to the authors.

It's a controversial methodology. ``Adding the ranks is an arbitrary way of coming up with a single number,'' says Geoff Loftus, a statistician in the psychology department of Washington University in Seattle. ``You could multiply, just as well. But if you do that, the order comes up differently.''

Co-author David Savageau is frank about some shortcomings of the almanac's approach, but says ``it's the fairest way to rate a city.'' While he says he's no authority on ``quality of life'' issues, ``we've attempted to understand what motivates people or attracts them to a new place to live.''

Mr. Kurtzrock of Pittsburgh is married and has three children. He says his quality-of-life priorities are education, housing costs, and cultural benefits. ``Pittsburgh is just a generally good place to raise a family''; more people are discovering the good things about the city that he's known for years, he says.

Some people in Seattle, however, are not too pleased with the spate of high rankings it's received lately.

``There are too many people moving here!'' says Mr. Loftus.

Before the media hype, ``nobody knew we were up here,'' says Emmett Watson, a columnist at the Seattle Times. ``We had a nice little town where you could park and you didn't have any tall buildings. Now there's a tremendous building boom, and it's literally ruining the city.''

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