As infants we begin with barely a dim awareness of our surroundings. Eventually that blurry upward view of crib rails and ceiling lights turns into faces and walls. Shapes, colors, figures. Next an awareness that this is MY room. Then MY house.
We get older and learn to recognize our own street. We become familiar with our own schools and eventually our own neighborhoods and cities.
Some of us move away from these first towns and make our own homes elsewhere. A very small subset of the population identify specific criteria for the place they want to live and seek out that perfect place. Most of us, however, stay near where we grew up or move for employment.
Here’s the thing, though: For those in already pretired or driving toward pretirement, the city where you choose to settle matters. A lot. And, yet, it’s one of the most ignored keys to finding your freedom.
I think we tend to ignore this because it feels intractable. Maybe we don’t want to move away from family. We already own a home here. All our friends are here. I could ridicule each of those as excuses, but they’re actually all really great reasons to stay put.
But as I’ve said many times, pretirement calls for sacrifices. Even if you made a high salary, saved a massive percentage of it, and theoretically could pretire comfortably, it’s all for naught if you are set on living somewhere extremely expensive, such as Manhattan. It’s not just the expense of your home. Cities themselves have widely varying costs.
And it goes beyond cost as well. What’s the point of living inexpensively if you have to dodge bullets every day? Or have to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water?
What makes great cities great?
It’s impossible to make a comprehensive list of what makes a city great. But I’ll share a few things that top my list of things I find in most great cities. Feel free to add your own in the comments. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about, so the more ideas we can collect, the better.
I guess this one is obvious since it’s so fundamental to a place not sucking. But it’s not a binary element. You’re not “safe” or “not safe”. You’re more or less safe. And that can vary quite a bit even by neighborhood. Unfortunately there is some correlation (somewhat overblown, however) between the cost of an area and how safe it is. Because you’ll want to be living a low-overhead lifestyle AND be as safe as possible, it’s something of a balance. The way I look at it is there should be a reasonable level of safety and once that’s met, I’ll just move on to other factors. Besides you probably have about the same odds of being flattened by a latte-slurping soccer mom in her SUV as you are to get mugged in most cities.
I won’t dwell on this because it’s somewhat obvious, but the cost of living and especially the cost of real estate is a key determining factor. This can be tough, though, because there’s a conundrum at work here: When a place is nice, rich people want to live there and thus drive up prices. If an area is a craphole, the people who can move away do so and you get self-selecting conditions for blight. Cities struggle with this all the time when they try to keep housing affordable. They allow cheaper construction and the area turns into a ghetto and they end up paying a fortune for police service and basic public safety. They make an area nicer and wealthier people move in and drive out the original residents. But if you’re pretired, you may be able to live farther from job centers and thus be able to keep your housing costs low while still enjoying a great area.
This one is so often overlooked but it’s so important in allowing you to drop your car expenses. If you and your spouse no longer need to commute, you might be able to drop down to one or even zero cars. Plus you’ll enjoy your lifestyle more than ever as you don’t have to get in the car to go anywhere. Another thing to think about is your transition into traditional retirement, or to be blunt, think about when you’re old. Driving is difficult and scary for seniors. Build yourself a lifestyle now that takes that strain off your future self.
I’m a huge public transportation fan. Unfortunately I live in one of the worst cities for getting around without a car. Here in Seattle, they’ve had many opportunities to build robust transit systems and they’ve been voted down repeatedly by short-sighted voters. It’s surprising given how liberal we are here. It’s only been in recent years — decades after nearly every other major city has deployed at least a light rail system — that we’ve taken the plunge. Our bus system is OK, but depending on where you live and where you need to go, it could double your travel time. It was disheartening returning to Seattle from a trip to Tokyo a few years ago. Their system is mind-meltingly awesome and to step off the plane in Seattle to our rinky-dink system was just pathetic.
Bicycling is by far the most efficient way to travel short distances but so many cities and towns make this so difficult. Seattle has been improving its bicycle infrastructure in recent years, but I’ll be honest: it’s still ridiculously bad to the point where I do not feel it’s safe. A bicyclist dies here every couple months and our city leaders are still thrashing around and throwing tons of money at the car culture still. On top of the safety issue, we are renowned for our many steep hills. I’ve actually never seen a bike going up the hill I live on, although we see bikes going down quite often. The best way to end up in a bicycle friendly town currently is to move out of the U.S. or to a smaller town. Hopefully in a few years that changes drastically.
Take a look at my picture of the bicycle lanes from my recent trip to Barcelona. Cars, separated from buses, separated from grade-separated bike lanes, separated from a lovely walking path. Brilliant and simple. (And they have a wonderful underground subway system.) Contrast that to here where you’re lucky if you find a crosswalk that still has some paint on the road.
We all like a clean city, but this goes beyond where there is litter blowing down the sidewalk (important as that is). Cleanliness extends to things like the air you breathe or the water you drink. It’s important to think about the long-term risks to your air and water. Are they fracking near your home? Are there coal-burning plants nearby? How clean is the water in your area? This is important not only for enjoying the many, many years of awesome life you have in front of you, but also for ensuring your health. What’s the point of living an amazing life of pretirement if you end up hobbled with chronic illness?
There’s another important point to finding an unpolluted city: Your home value. Those homes that had their wells poisoned by fracking are now valueless. Those people who thought they were being so clever by leasing some land to natural gas companies have wound up trapped in a house they can’t sell, suffering from devastating illness. It may not be as dramatic, though. Just in general, a rundown, dirty or polluted neighborhood can mean lower equity growth and a harder-to-sell property.
I used to always say that if I ever moved again, I wanted an upgrade from Seattle’s dreary weather. That’s actually becoming less important to me in recent years, although I still often long to live somewhere with more sun. As a native Washingtonian with webbed feet, however, I’m finding it harder to deal with the heat than the cold. Although I still hate being cold. Probably I’d adjust after a few months somewhere warmer and that’d probably be good for my overall health. The important point, though, is that I’m not moving somewhere where the weather sucks just because it’s cheaper. Nasty muggy summers and frigid snowy winters? No thanks! I do like the weather in many parts of California, for example. In Northern California, the weather is quite temperate and when I lived there I rarely remember being either too hot or too cold. That could be why it’s so overpopulated, though.
What do I mean by infrastructure? I’m not necessarily referring to the classic governmental meaning or roads and bridges. Rather, I’m talking about the various functions that support your lifestyle. For example, transportation, medical facilities (you may not want to be too far from a hospital for instance), grocery stores or anything else you might need. This is probably the main reason I’ll likely stay within or near a reasonably large city instead of moving to a rural location. I once considered moving out to the country but I imagined rushing to a hospital an hour away in case of an accident, and the move just didn’t seem too wise. Add to that the need to drive nearly everywhere and country living just wasn’t as inexpensive as it first appeared. So I’m focused now mostly on medium- to small-sized cities.
Humans have a very real need to be outside. Beyond fresh air and exercise, there is something in us that needs the natural world to keep us functional. I think it’s safe to say that someone who is outside in nature every single day is highly unlikely to suffer from depression. Open spaces act as the lungs for cities clearing the air and softening the landscape. We have some great in-city areas here in Seattle, where you almost forget you’re in a city. And we can be deep in the mountains within a 30 minute drive. From an open space perspective, Seattle is hard to beat.
If your local town looks like a Long John Silver’s raped a Wendy’s it may be time to re-evaluate your life choices. Car-oriented, strip mall development is extremely hard on the psyche and is a very expensive way to live, especially if you’re still commuting to work. This cheap development also leads to a cultural desert, where there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. Contrast that with a similarly-sized city with a cute downtown area, parks and open space. You’ll find charming restaurants opening in such an area, art galleries, plus many free entertainment options will sprout up in the shadow of the trees. You might say work and money are HOW we live, but culture and family are WHY we live. Don’t overlook it.
Not everyone will agree this is important, but to me it’s critical. Something about my temperament demands I live without being visually assaulted by atrocious surroundings. I paid way too much for my current house because I (thought I) needed to see the shimmering Puget Sound every day. Not unlike the importance of culture, living in a beautiful place brings a lot of light into your life and will make all those pretirement years that much more enjoyable.
I could probably come up with another 50 important things, but I’d rather hear from you about what you look for in a place to live. What am I missing? I’d really like to have a robust list of criteria because if and when I decided to move to a different locale, I want to make sure I approach my choice intelligently.
Let me know what you think in the comments!