If you could create the ideal community to raise a child in, what ingredients would you include? First off, you'd probably want a low crime rate. A strong school system would also be key. From there, you'd need lots of other children, expansive green spaces to play in, and plenty of nearby family events. Toss in an abundance of artistic and recreational activities, and all of a sudden you've got one heck of a place to grow up. At U.S. News, we wanted to find out if any communities like that already existed—and if so, where they were located. So we dug into our database of 2,000 different places all across the country and pinpointed the locales that met these criteria. We then examined these communities more closely to determine which places offered the best combination of safe neighborhoods, fun activities, and top-notch educators. Our selections appear below, in our list of America's 10 Best Places to Grow Up:
Virginia Beach, Va.: Junior adventurers will love Virginia Beach, Va. This community of 434,000 residents in the southeastern part of the state has a low crime rate, a solid school system, and 35 miles of majestic beaches on the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. "It's kind of neat to be able to come home from work, make a call to my wife or son, grab a bucket of chicken or some sandwiches, and then go out on the bay and have dinner," says Greg Ward, who works for a marketing firm that represents the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Children can explore an impressive ecosystem of threatened and endangered species—including bald eagles and loggerhead sea turtles—in the 9,000-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The warm summers and mild winters provide plenty of opportunities to hike, bike, and picnic your way through the 19 miles of scenic trails over at First Landing State Park. And after checking out the sand tiger sharks and the cow-nose rays at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, children can catch an educational picture in its 3-D IMAX theater.
And in early September, the community is launching an online resource—VBparents.com—designed to keep parents plugged in to local health and school news, while ensuring that they are up-to-date on all of the community activities available to their kids. "There are lots of great parenting resources out there. This one is going to be specific to raising your child and your family within the city of Virginia Beach," says Jenefer Snyder, city of Virginia Beach GrowSmart coordinator. "We are constantly going to be connecting it back to community services, activities, events, programs, and classes."
Madison, Ala.: Of the roughly 43,000 residents in the friendly, churchgoing town of Madison, Ala., about 12,000 are under 18 years old. And this bedroom community of Huntsville, Ala., offers no shortage of outlets to keep these young folks active. "There is an event almost every weekend—whether it is in Madison, Huntsville, or Madison County—that families can attend," says Paul Finley, the mayor of Madison. Children can take advantage of the area's expansive outdoor amenities: watching beavers plunge into Bradford Creek or rabbits dart through the 130-acre Rainbow Mountain Trails park. And if they behave well enough, perhaps some lucky children can even persuade their mom and dad to send them to Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in nearby Huntsville.
San Jose, Calif.: With 9 square miles of green spaces, 300 days of sunshine a year, and four different professional sports franchises to follow, San Jose, Calif., has everything you need for a happy childhood. At just over 1 million residents, San Jose considers itself the capital of Silicon Valley, but it doesn't take a computer scientist to understand the city's appeal to kids. San Jose is the country's safest big city, and although it's certainly expensive—the median home price is $449,000—the city offers all sorts of great activities for children. Rather than chasing its skateboarders away, San Jose has embraced them by opening six public skateboarding parks, including Lake Cunningham Regional Skate Park, the largest one in the state. And at the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose, children can experience everything from theater to gardening.
Overland Park, Kan.: Just 12 miles outside of Kansas City, Mo., is the lovely community of Overland Park, Kan. This family-friendly suburb in America's heartland has a four-season climate and is opening a 12-field, artificially turfed, fully lit soccer complex in the late summer. "Soccer is a big sport in this community," says Mayor Carl Gerlach. Meanwhile, at the Deanna Rose Children's Farmstead, kids can visit nearly 200 farm animals, toss a bobber into a fishing pond, or take a ride in a horse-drawn wagon. The 17-mile-long Indian Creek Trail makes for a great bike ride. At the same time, sports fans are only a short car ride away from a Kansas City Chiefs football game or a Kansas City Royals baseball game. In addition, "we have three different school districts in Overland Park," Gerlach says. "All three have been nationally ranked and won awards."
Boston: With an exciting history and a boatload of activities, Boston is a great option for parents looking to raise children in a big city. Kids will marvel at the African penguins in the New England Aquarium, gawk at the humpback whales on a whale-watching tour, and erupt as the Red Sox take the field at beautiful Fenway Park. At the same time, Boston is one of the safest large cities in the country.
Denver: Whether they prefer snowboarding in the Rocky Mountains, biking through America's largest city park system, or heading over to Invesco Field at Mile High for a Broncos football game, Denver is a wonderful place to be a kid. Also among the country's safest big cities, Denver has 300 days of annual sunshine, eight different professional sports franchises, and countless opportunities for fishing, white-water rafting, and horseback riding.
Rochester, Minn.: With about 100,000 residents, the safe, friendly city of Rochester, Minn., has enough activities to tire out even the most energetic youngsters: 85 miles of trails for in-line skating, 3,200 acres of public parks for touch football, and 56 different playgrounds. "It's a huge sports town," says Brad Jones, executive director of the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau. Fortunately, the area's big sport—hockey—is well-suited for Rochester's chilly winters. "We [also] have two hockey complexes, one with four rinks under one roof and the other with two," Jones says. "We have the National Volleyball Center located here, and it's always hopping with volleyball tournaments and trainings."
Cedar Rapids, Iowa: It would be tough to find a safer community than Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the crime index is about a fifth of the national average. And with a solid school system, plenty of fun activities, and affordable housing costs, this eastern Iowa city can keep your kids happy without emptying your wallet. Tim Boyle, the executive director of the Cedar Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the city's manageable size—it has just 123,000 residents—allows its young people to get involved in a variety of different activities. "The thing that I like about Cedar Rapids is you could end up with a junior or senior in high school who is an offensive tackle on the football team and has the lead in the spring musical," Boyle says. In addition to a strong music program in its public schools, the area has more than 50 public tennis courts, more than 75 parks, 23 sand volleyball courts, and even a BMX dirt track. During the winters, which can get extremely cold, children can remain active on three indoor soccer fields and five ice-skating rinks.
Plano, Texas: With 7,000 faculty and staff members serving 55,000 students in this Texas community, the Plano Independent School District has achieved national recognition for its strength. The Department of Education has handed 24 of its schools National Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence awards, and 99 of its seniors were named semifinalists in the 2008 National Merit Scholarship Program. "We have a wonderful park system here in our community that has always been very much focused on youth sports, whether it is soccer or baseball or basketball," says Mayor Phil Dyer. Meanwhile, the community's less costly lifestyle—median home prices are just $213,900—means there should be enough cash left in the budget for the 50-minute trip to Arlington, Texas, for a Dallas Cowboys game.
Edison, N.J.: Working parents in Edison, N.J., can take advantage of the township's expansive after-school programs, which expose youngsters to a host of activities, including magic, piano, cooking, and arts and crafts. More than 30 area parks have facilities for tennis, basketball, soccer, and other sports. At the same time, this community of about 100,000 also offers organized youth leagues for everything from softball to lacrosse.
Here's our list of America's 10 Best Places to Grow Up: