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How We Chose The Coolest Suburbs in America

published May 22, 2019
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When we started working on our list of the coolest suburbs in America for 2019, our team got two consistent questions: What’s a suburb? And what’s “cool”? Now that the list has officially launched, we’re breaking down exactly how we approached identifying these 24 burbs.

Our methodology:

First things first, we got out a trusty map. We considered suburbs within the Census-designated parameters of a metro area, looking at populations around 20,000 to 100,000. However, some of our burb picks break this mold with populations as large as 400,000—in the case of our “inner-suburb” choices, like Arlington, Texas. And some are admittedly contentious picks, like “commuter suburb” Hoboken, New Jersey. (Don’t worry, we further break down our rationales for you in our individual suburb guides.)

We shortlisted suburbs after considering several factors, including cost of living, household income, demographic diversity, and more. We then did qualitative research on the cultural scenes in the suburbs of the top 35 metro areas nationwide. Next, we asked our Apartment Therapy editors, writers, freelancers, sources, contributor network, and Home Team Panel to help us choose 19. Given their recommendations, we interviewed locals, did more research, discussed, and voted. For our “Class of 2019 Superlative” categories, we also reached out to partners like Google and Etsy for custom numbers that would tell unique data stories about top-ranking suburbs in “cool” categories like “Most Searched” and “Best for Crafters.”

What even is “cool”?

It takes a village to measure “coolness”! We’re grateful for our reliable, generous, in-the-know team of staffers and contributors. Together, we ultimately assessed suburbs for stand-out cultural options like diverse dining options, awesome coffee shops, walkable areas, outdoor recreation, unique boutiques, family-friendly activities, a sense of community, and a lively arts scene. Overall, we were looking for suburbs in which it didn’t feel like you’d be making a ton of sacrifices by moving out of the city.

And what exactly is a “suburb”?

Actually defining what a “suburb” means was surprisingly the trickiest part. Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, a senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, explained to Apartment Therapy that there’s really no one way to cut it.

“When defining ‘suburb,’ there is nothing that’s considered to be ‘accepted’ across the board,” she says. “Everyone has their way of doing it. Pretty much whatever you choose as long, as you can justify what you did, is OK. There’s nothing agreed upon, and you’re not going against anything.”

Suburbs are often incorporated jurisdictions, meaning they are cities, towns, or villages. But suburbs can also be unincorporated places, meaning they don’t have their own municipal government. Unincorporated suburbs could also include subdivisions that are on the very periphery of metropolitan development in almost rural areas, which are often referred to as “exurbs,” Airgood-Obrycki explains.

In its simplest terms, Airgood-Obrycki explains that there are typical anecdotal characteristics of a suburb most residents can agree on.

“If there’s high home ownership, high car travel, and single family housing, you can call that a suburb,” she says.

Why the suburb buzz? (And is everyone moving to one?)

Multiple trends are contributing to the fact that suburbs are becoming more desirable places to live, Airgood-Obrycki says—but they’re not seeing solid data indicating a flight to the burbs just yet.

Airgood-Obrycki also points out some suburban areas are bringing in features that are appealing to young professionals and families, and, realistically speaking, these decisions are often propelled by money and trends. Suburbs building up commercial areas might do so to generate revenue from taxes, she explains: “If you’re only a residential area, you can only raise property taxes so much.” Then there’s also the fact that environmental concerns surrounding suburban development has ultimately lead to more walkable areas, mixed-use spaces, and outdoor recreation.

Credit: Hayley Lawrence/Apartment Therapy

“The suburban sprawl criticism leads to a new urbanist movement,” she says. “There is an argument that you’re going to attract [an] aging population who are downsizing from their homes or millennials who are more hip and looking for features like that.”

Generally speaking, Airgood-Obrycki says the very concept of cities and suburbs might become more blended in the public’s mind in some areas. She says as many cities become increasingly gentrified (and sometimes even suburban-feeling), some inner-suburbs have seen increases in poverty, causing us to question these “city” and “suburb” labels in the first place.

“Those distinctions are breaking down,” she says, “and making us think what these terms even mean. Things are crossing these artificial boundaries.”

Now that we’ve broken down the background on the project, check out Apartment Therapy’s official “Coolest Suburbs in America” list for 2019. Be sure to click through to our comprehensive guides, compiled by local writers in each burb!