Travel and Leisure has a few thought-provoking wrenches to throw into the gears of quick anti-listicle derisions, though. Mainly, the magazine’s angle-specific methodology. While it looks to be a pretty standard voluntary survey (billed as T+L “teaming up with CNN Headline News [to ask] travelers to rank 25 top U.S. cities in 45 categories, ranging from food and shopping to people, culture, nightlife”), noting that the rankings have nothing to do with participants’ views of cities as places to live, work, and raise families, and everything to do with cities as they are experienced as entertainment, makes all the difference.
In some ways this travel orientation seems to lend a helpful self-awareness to the findings – what appears to be a superficial, surface-impression take on America’s cities is here touting itself as just that. But when the ranking categories turn from “shopping” and “late night clubs” to things like “people” and “safety,” the waters get murky.
For instance, Nashville and Charleston, two cities that consistently rank near the top of lists of annual per capita violent crimes, are both found in the top ten of the T+L list’s “safety” category. A ranking of visitors’ perceptions of a city’s safety is certainly an interesting way to begin accessing the way people perceive places foreign to them, but what is its actual value to travelers? More dramatically, what is the value to a city’s residents, who — if they’re anything like me — are most interested in how their own city fares when looking at the rankings, but would seemingly benefit far more from objective measures of crime and safety?
The disconnect between the lived experience of the city and the perceptions of tourists is made even more problematic when measures such as “culture” rank cities like New York and Washington D.C. near the top of their lists, and a category called “people,” ranks the same cities near the bottom. What is a city to do with that juxtaposition of information? Traditional wisdom would have it that a culturally flourishing city would have people with the most enriched and open souls. Apparently those souls are not on prominent enough display to those just passing through.
I might, however, be asking too much, or be overly pessimistic — Philadelphia did rank dead last in the “people (overall)” category. If, like most of these types of lists, the value is more entertainment than a source of practical information, then T+L has it covered. There is an NCAA tournament-style seeding chart game that enters each of the 25 cities into a fight to the finish to be named “America’s overall best city,” and a feature that allows you to choose any two cities from the survey and see how they fare in a head-to-head match-up in each of the 45 categories.
The whole affair is well designed and surprisingly interactive. It’s definitely worth a look, but it’s also worth some serious thought.