Believe it or not, where you live affects your health. Whether you hang your hat in an urban high-rise, a farmhouse on the plains, or a suburban raised ranch somewhere between the two, your hometown plays a big part in your overall well-being. For better or worse, a variety of factors–from air quality and open space to health services and crime–affect you personally.
Current Health set out to identify the 10 healthiest cities for teens in the United States. We compared statistics from 20 medium- and large-sized cities in three general categories: environmental factors, health services, and lifestyle choices (see “And the Winners Are …”). The findings may surprise you.
Behind the Rankings
First CH examined the physical environment of each locale. If your city ranked high, you can breathe easy. None of our top choices were on the American Lung Association’s 2004 list of most polluted cities. Los Angeles leads the country in both smog and particle pollution-microscopic emissions from power plants, diesel engines, and other sources. Honolulu rates the cleanest air. However, each of our top 10 cities has acceptable or improving air quality, according to studies by the Foundation for Clean Air Progress.
Eight of our 10 cities have been singled out as great places either to walk (says the American Podiatric Medical Association) or run (according to Runner’s World magazine). New York, Honolulu, and San Francisco made both lists. “New York is a place where you walk around a lot,” agrees 15-year-old resident Charles. “Nobody in their right mind has a car in New York.” And San Francisco’s topography makes for scenic strolls. “There are so many hills!” says 18-year-old resident Jessica. “We all do a lot of walking. Since I’ve gotten my driver’s license, I do less–although I did go to Golden Gate Park to do pedal-boating recently,” she adds.
Local communities manage environmental issues in different ways. Six of our locales made the grade as top U.S. “green cities,” according to the Green Guide Institute, an environmental news service. Green cities get a thumbs-up for using renewable energy sources such as solar power and for employing building practices that produce less waste and preserve the environment.
Next CH looked at teen health care and other services. All 10 cities offer adolescent health clinics, where health-care professionals provide teens with confidential advice on a range of sensitive medical issues. Sex education–an important tool in controlling the rate of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases–is on the schedule of every high schooler in seven of our top 10 cities. And phys ed is required at public high schools in each city on our list. That’s only fitting, since experts note that regular exercise helps prevent many maladies, including heart disease and some forms of cancer.
All 10 of our top cities are in states that earned passing grades on the obesity “report card.” Published by the University of Baltimore, the report card compares states’ efforts to pass obesity control legislation. And even though all of our winners have their share of fast-food eateries, San Francisco, Portland, and New York City made the list of best vegetarian cities, according to the online guide Vegetarian-Restaurants.net. “I’m a vegetarian, but not a strict one,” says our San Franciscan Jessica. “There’s a diner we like where you can order things like vegetable omelets. We also go to this crepe place; my favorite is the mushroom and cheese crepes.” But Seattle’s no slouch in the restaurant category either, according to 17-year-old resident Xuyen. “I’m not a vegetarian,” she says, “but I have friends who are, and wherever they go, they have options to choose from.”
Recreational services are top-notch in New York City, which has about 50,000 acres of parks and preserves within its borders. “There are many parks near where I live,” says Jacob, 14, who attends the city’s Horace Mann High School. “If you want, you can skateboard or walk by the Hudson [River]. There are just a lot of places for recreation.” Seattle can also claim a preponderance of parks. “Seattle has lots of them, even in the downtown,” reports 17-year-old Chris, a resident and fan. “There’s a big park in the middle of downtown where you can hang out, play Frisbee. People go there and juggle.” If skateboarding is your passion, then go west: The Anaheim/Orange County area of California has more than 20 skate parks.
Finally, CH looked at behavior and lifestyles. Many people equate big cities with high crime rates. But six of our 10 top choices were on the list of the safest U.S. cities, as issued by the research firm Morgan Quitno Press.
Two spots–namely, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Boston–are located in states with admirably low numbers of teen births and “disconnected youths” (young people who are neither attending school nor working). Both of those statistics are used to measure overall teen welfare.
You have a good chance of living to your 20th birthday in eight of our 10 cities; their states have the lowest rates of teenage deaths nationwide. Maybe that’s because most of those places require that student drivers have up to six months of road experience before they are eligible to earn the coveted full driver’s license.
On the “don’t worry, be happy” scale, Anaheim and Minneapolis/St. Paul rank high as two of the nation’s least stressful cities. And you’ll have no trouble with insomnia in Austin, Boston, or Chicago; they are among the best cities for sleep.