MARC's take on the ratings

The staff at the Mid-America Regional Council, which helped The Star design its study and provided data analysis, offered this commentary on Rating the ’Burbs.

Everyone who reads this series will undoubtedly look at the rankings first and the text second. Rankings appeal to our competitive nature and clarify our place in the world. They make us think, evaluate, and discuss how we can do better. MARC played a part in helping The Star create its rankings for just this reason – to promote a broader conversation about what it means to create vibrant, healthy communities.

The Star is to be commended for taking seriously the task of creating rankings. Its staff involved both MARC and the suburban cities in helping to define the data to be examined and how it should be interpreted. The Star listened and made adjustments to the data collected based on this feedback. It adopted MARC’s suggestions for how to turn data on a wide variety of subjects into a single index.

However, boiling down what it means to live in a community to one number has obvious limitations. To begin with, we live in communities but the data are only available for cities, and their boundaries may not conform to what we consider to be the boundaries of “our community.” In the same vein, all of these communities are connected because they are part of a single social and economic region. What they share is more important than what distinguishes them.

With respect to the indicators themselves, some things are inherently hard to measure. For example, despite all of the effort expended on standardized testing, does it measure the quality of the schools or the socioeconomic status of the families?

Some things that are important don’t yet show up in the data, such as the real improvements occurring in the Kansas City, Kan., School District or the efforts of many first-tier suburbs — Merriam, Mission, Raytown and Gladstone are examples — to create town centers that bring housing, retail and offices together to create renewed vitality.

Because it is so difficult to measure a suburb’s quality of life, small differences in scores probably aren’t very meaningful, especially if they make a significant difference in rankings.

Most importantly, different people value different things. Although The Star took this into account by weighting the categories according to what people said they valued in a survey, these weights only represent regional averages. In reality, no individual household fits these averages precisely.

For that reason, it is important for a metropolitan area to have a diversity of suburban communities to choose from. It is, perhaps, one reason why residents here are more satisfied with their communities than they are nationally. There is sufficient variety for nearly everyone to find a place that suits them, a place they can put down roots and truly call home.