Washington among top five in best US city survey

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on June 11, 2019.

Washington is the new darling of the destination-branding industry. Photos by Bloomberg

New York again took the first place.

San Francisco came in fourth in the ranking survey.

People riding the Cyclone roller coaster on Brooklyn’s Coney Island during the weekend in New York.

Waikiki Beach on the southern shore of the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

Reno is No 6 on the list of best small cities.

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Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Washington has more than just politics to boast about. It also shot up a recent ranking list of the best cities in America.

New York is No 1 again. Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco round out the top four, all same as last year. But the surprise was that the nation’s capital gained six spots, rising to No 5 this year. The results came from rankings released last Tuesday by Resonance Consultancy, a specialist in the destination-branding industry. Las Vegas, last year’s No 5 city, fell two spots to No 7.

To determine the list of best big and small cities in America, Resonance collected public data on cities that focused on 23 different criteria, including crime rates, air quality, housing affordability, entertainment offerings, cultural diversity and economic vitality. The survey also took into account social-media metrics — Facebook check-ins, Google search results, TripAdvisor reviews and Instagram posts — to identify how a city tells its story.

Washington’s jump was not a surprise to Resonance president Chris Fair, especially after Amazon Inc chose Crystal City, just outside the capital, as half of its second-headquarters plan. “I think the growing vibrancy of the city in terms of culinary, entertainment and nightlife activities is under-reported,” he said.

The US capital scored points for its museums, and not just the famous ones under the Smithsonian umbrella. A slate of new cultural offerings includes the Kennedy Center’s US$175 million (RM728 million) expansion called the Reach, scheduled to open in September, and the Museum of the Bible, with an immersive, 17-projector theatre, which opened in 2017.  

Plus, there is Phase III of the Wharf, a US$2.5 billion mixed-use development that features more than 20 restaurants to add to the city’s growing culinary scene. The list includes the casual Southern Italian-inspired Officina, from Michelin-star chef Nicholas Stefanelli, along with Del Mar, featuring Spanish cuisine from Michelin-star restauranter Fabio Trabocchi.

The survey defines a big city as one having more than one million people. The top 10, with their highlighted attributes, are:

1. New York (shopping and restaurants)

2. Chicago (airport connectivity and convention centre)

3. Los Angeles (museums and restaurants)

4. San Francisco (people and neighbourhoods)

5. Washington (educational attainment and museums)

6. San Diego (parks and the outdoors, as well as the crime rate)

7. Las Vegas (weather and attractions)

8. Miami (foreign-born population, as well as parks and the outdoors)

9. Seattle (educational attainment and household income)

10. Boston (neighbourhoods and the crime rate)


Top four dominance

There is not much hope of cracking into the top four, Fair conceded. The four best cities in America — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco — coincidentally also have the best culture and infrastructure for entertainment, a key tourism driver.

“There are factors that have a higher correlation with attracting visitors,” he said. “They tend to be in the category of programming — thinking about the experiential quality of the city in terms of arts and restaurants.” In particular, New York is “so far ahead of many of the other cities”, he said, that its ranking is unlikely to change using these criteria.  

Chris Heywood, executive vice-president of NYC & Co, New York’s official destination-marketing organisation, said the city had stepped up its promotion efforts abroad, especially in the UK and Western Europe. It is also encouraging visitors to explore more neighbourhoods and boroughs beyond Manhattan.

The aim is to avoid the over-tourism that such places as Venice, Italy, or Dubrovnik, Croatia have experienced, which turns into a burden on locals instead of an economic opportunity. “The goal is to move people around and have them spread the wealth to all the businesses in the city — the small businesses in particular,” he said. Another goal is to attract people to the city during the first months of the year to help redistribute the visitation and alleviate pressure during the warmer season.


Small gems

In the best small city category — defined as having a population from 200,000 to one million — Honolulu once again took the top ranking.

The Hawaiian capital’s outdoor areas, especially Waikiki Beach, helped propel it to the top of the list. Also notable are its growing nightlife and shopping scenes, including Ala Moana, the largest open-air shopping mall in the world.

Tulsa, Oklahoma moved up from the seventh place to fifth, while El Paso, Texas dropped out of the top 10, replaced by Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Fair said the smaller city rankings vary more year-to-year than the bigger ones do since the smaller cities have fewer differences among them in terms of the scale of their entertainment and cultural offerings. A slight change can tip one over the other.

And yes, Myrtle Beach, the tourist hotspot of South Carolina, made the top 10. Fair said it scored high for its attraction and accessibility — similar to how Las Vegas, another tourist stop, ranked seventh among larger cities.

In ranking order, the top 10 small cities and their highlighted attributes are:

1. Honolulu (neighbourhoods, as well as parks and the outdoors)

2. Omaha (prosperity and Fortune 500 companies)

3. Charleston, South Carolina (promotion and museums)

4. Albuquerque, New Mexico (restaurants and culture)

5. Tulsa, Oklahoma (prosperity and Google trends)

6. Reno, Nevada (Instagram hashtags and convention centre)

7. Asheville, North Carolina (nightlife and shopping)

8. Colorado Springs, Colorado (attractions and promotion)

9. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (attractions and Facebook check-ins)

10. Madison (educational attainment and Google trends)



Resonance’s rankings stand out because the company is looking at more than just the tourist industry. It gathers comprehensive data on a city’s public perception and appeal to locals, visitors and businesspeople.

Kristin Kurth, a partner at EquiBrand Consulting, said the best cities are the ones at the intersection of working, living and playing — places that meet the needs of the most consumer segments.

Cities are in a constant battle to attract and retain talent to grow their economies. “The ones that know their customers better than their competitors do are the ones that will win,” she said. Millennials are an especially valuable demographic to attract, with a recent study showing that many are relocating to New Haven-Milford, Connecticut along with Madison, Wisconsin and Syracuse, New York.

But the reasons people choose a particular city is hard to explain in a single list, said Clayton Reid, the chief executive officer of MMGY Global, a Kansas City, Missouri-based travel- and destination-branding company. Most of the lists he sees “tend to follow pretty predictive patterns”.

People who grew up on the coasts tend to stay there because that is what they are used to, he said. “I tend to believe there are strong cities everywhere.” — Bloomberg