Money

Check out these small cities that live large

These days, most Americans want big city opportunity and culture — with more green space and less stress. If that's what you're looking for, you’ll want to check out the list of the 90 best, small, livable cities, found in the August issue of Money magazine. “Today” financial editor Jean Chatzky was invited to appear on the show to share a look at some of the hot spots. Here’s more from the magazine:

When it comes to a place to raise a family and live, most Americans want two things: The ability for themselves and their children to prosper, and a quality of life that lets them enjoy the products of their work. For several generations, that meant moving from big cities to suburbs. But that wasn't perfect either.  It came with a long commute and a certain lack of community and cultural life.

Now the tide has turned in the other direction. The best places to live these days offer big city opportunity and amenities — with a lot more green space and a lot less stress. In conducting our search this year, we set out to find the best small livable cities that had the best possible blend of good jobs, low crime, quality schools, plenty of open space, rational home prices and lots to do.  We started with a list of hundreds, and winnowed the list to 90.  Here's more on the top five:

Fort Collins, Colorado: The Best Place To Live
Population:  128,000Home price: $215,000Prop taxes: $1,700Pros: Outdoor lover's paradise, good schools, very little stressCons: Tech dependent economy

Founded as a military outpost 60 miles north of Denver in 1864, the city is now home to a thriving tech industry (HP, Eastman Kodak and Agilent Technologies have a big presence here) and the main campus of Colorado State University. It is situated 5,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, with restaurants (particularly in the Old Town section), nightlife (including four microbreweries) and culture and natural attractions like the Horsetooth Reservoir for boating and swimming. There are 60 miles of hiking and biking trails and most major roads have bike lanes. Although the tech crunch hit the city hard, the city is forging ahead with two new schools in the southern part of town. It already boasts the highest ranked high school in the state, and students in the district beat the state averages in all subjects at all grade levels.

Naperville, Illinois: Best of The Midwest
Population: 141,600Home price: $360,000Property taxes: $5,000Pros: Thriving downtown, greenspace, top-rated schoolsCons: Congestion

Naperville started as a traditional suburban town and really started to grow as companies followed their workers out of older cities. Its population has quadrupled since the 1970s and is always popping up on Money's "best places" lists. Why? There's a lot to like there. The Riverwalk — four miles of bricked pathways that border the DuPage River as it meanders through downtown — is perfect for running, strolling, people watching or listening to concerts on Rotary Hill. Shopping, jazz and restaurants are easy to find. And Naperville has more greenspace than most cities due to a 1972 land-donation ordinance. Many residents commute to Chicago, but there are major companies there too — Office Max, Tellabs, ConAgra among them. College entrance exam scores are among the state's highest. On the downside: People really want to live there. The waiting period for a parking permit at the city's train station has soared to eight years. 

Sugar Land Texas: Best of the Southwest
Population: 75,800Home price: $170,000Property taxes: $4,500Pros: Diversity, affordable housingCons: Humidity

Sugar Land Texas was a sleepy place until low costs started attracting residential and commercial developers as well as big corporations. It has transformed the area in less than a generation. You can still buy a roomy house in a landscaped neighborhood with a community pool. No wonder the city's head count has tripled since 1990 and shows no sign of slowing down. The Mayor expects it to expand to 200,000 within the next 10 years. Growth will follow a detailed plan; no community will join without utilities and services already in place. The area's heat and humidity tend to remind Asian immigrants of home, and in the 1980s — as Sugar Land became less of a sleepy small town and more of a land of good jobs and affordable housing — more Asians moved in. Today the city is one-quarter Asian and home to mosques as well as Hindu and Buddhist temples. The booming population has led to crowded schools, but the district produces dozens of National Merit semi finalists each year, and SAT scores are consistently higher than state and national averages.

Columbia/Ellicott City MD: Best of the East
Population: 159,200Home price: $350,000/$550,000Property Taxes: $5,900/$5,500Pros: Planned community; old-town charmCons: Tough commutes to D.C. and Baltimore

The residents of these two neighboring communities reap the benefits of the old and the new.  Ellicott city has grand homes and a charming downtown. Columbia has park space totaling more than one-third of the community's 14,000 acres, a wide selection of townhomes and a mall with everything. Because the cities aren't incorporated they share Maryland's top-performing school district (test score averages are 50 percent above state average), there's a major music venue (the Merriweather Post Pavilion), and a center for African-American culture. There are ample employment opportunities at companies like Verizon and Howard County General Hospital (affiliated with Johns Hopkins). This is one of the most racially diverse cities on the list: 20 percent African-American, 10 percent Asian.

Cary, NC: Best of the South
Population: 106,400Home price: $280,000Property taxes: $2,900Pros: Great schools, good arts sceneCons: Road crews everywhere

People come to the Research Triangle of North Carolina for opportunity. They settle in Cary because they can't believe how pretty it is. More than 30 parks and greenways dot the region, and regular arts and crafts festivals bring tens of thousands to the downtown area to browse.  Cary residents don't lack for jobs. Software maker SAS is based here, and about 50 percent of its 10,000 jobs are in the area. The city has one of the country's lowest crime rates. The schools, despite experiencing growing pains, are great — more than 90 percent of elementary and middle school students passed state reading and math tests for the year running.

For the rest of Money magazine's 90 best, small livable cities, pick up the August issue of the magazine or got to .

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .

TOP