Livability: Ranking Iowa’s Small Cities by Quality of Life

In a report issued last month, Wallethub detailed results of analysis of life in America’s small cities.  More than 1300 towns with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 were compared in areas such as affordability, safety, economic health and overall quality of life.

When the numbers were all crunched from this deep dive into small city life, Sammamish, Washington was determined to be the very best small American city in which to live.  The very worst city was listed as Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

Factors included in the quality-of-life calculation included a city’s number of attractions, restaurants & coffee shops, bars & clubs, parks & museums.  For a look at the methodology used and the complete report, see:

Here in Iowa, sixteen cities fall within the study’s population range.  Here’s how life quality in each compares.

#16 Urbandale 

Image: Google

Population: 43,441

Notable Attractions: Living History Farms, Buccaneer Arena.

Urbandale was given the lowest life quality score of the Iowa cities included in this report.  As Urbandale serves primarily as a bedroom community to Des Moines, it seems reasonable that residents there would depend on the larger city’s offerings, so a low rating isn’t a big surprise.

Fun Fact: Urbandale appropriated its name. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a Des Moines neighborhood called Urbandale.  Somehow, though, owners of the local streetcar line subdivided an area around a rail station and named that spot Urbandale.  In response, the neighborhood called Urbandale adopted the name Beaverdale.


#15 Marion

Image: Google

Population: 39,328

Notable attractions: Granger House Museum, Giving Tree Theater, Grant Wood Bike Trail.

Similar to Urbandale, Marion’s proximity to Cedar Rapids allows citizens access to the attractions there, reducing the need for as many in the town proper.

Fun Fact: Vaudeville act The Cherry Sisters, known for being so remarkably terrible that audiences would regularly pelt them with produce during performances, lived on a farm near Marion.


#14 Bettendorf

Image: Google

Population: 35,519

Notable Attractions: Isle Casino & Hotel, Family Museum of Arts & Sciences.

Yet another city known for its quiet neighborhoods, people in this Quad City have lots of attractions in the cities nearby.

Fun Fact: Bettendorf is named for brothers William and Joseph Bettendorf who located the Bettendorf Axle Company there.  The Bettendorf’s father, Michael, changed the family name from Betteldorf upon arriving in the United States.


#13 Marshalltown

Image: Google

Population: 27,053

Notable Attractions: Marshalltown Aquatic Center, Iowa River Brewing Company.

Fun Fact: The first child of European descent born at Marshalltown became one of professional baseball’s first superstars. Adrian “Cap” Anson played for 27 consecutive seasons, winning six National League pennants.   Ol’ Cap set the bar pretty high.  


#12 Waterloo

Image: US Library of Congress

Population: 67,912 

Notable Attractions: John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum, Lost Island Water Park, Isle of Capri Casino.

Fun Fact: Many people know the that the greatest name in the sport of wrestling, Dan Gable hails from Waterloo.  A big name from the world of professional was also raised there.  Thunderbolt Patterson, who took the U.S. professional wrestling championship from The Sheik in 1977, resides in Waterloo at age 80.


#11 Ankeny

Image: Google

Population: 61,938

Notable Attractions: Firetrucker Brewery, B-roll Bowling.

Another suburban Des Moines city makes the list at number 11.  

Fun Fact: There are 369 cul-de-sacs in Ankeny, likely more by the time you read this, as population growth there has been extremely rapid.


#10 Clinton

Image: US Library of Congress

Population: 25,416

Notable Attractions: The Sawmill Museum, Wide River Winery.

The easternmost city in Iowa, Clinton ranks 10th among small Iowa cities in terms of life quality.

Fun Fact: Clinton was originally platted with the name “New York,” and was named Clinton in honor of New York Governor Dewitt Clinton.


#9 Mason City

Image: Google

Population: 27,200

Notable Attractions: Music Man Square, Stockman House Museum. 

River City Fun Fact: College Football Hall of Fame coach Barry Alverez coached Mason City High School to the Class 4A state football championship in 1978 with a 15–13 victory over Dubuque Hempstead.


#8 West Des Moines

Image: Google

Population: 65,606

Notable Attractions: Raccoon River Park, Foundry Distilling Company.

The town of Valley Junction changed its name to West Des Moines in 1937.  

Fun Fact: A world-record auto racing speed of 103 mph was set on a wooden, banked racetrack at Valley Junction in 1915.


#7 Burlington

Image: US Library of Congress

Population: 24,974

Notable Attractions: Snake Alley, Catfish Bend Casino.

Fun Fact: Burlington was the first capital of the U.S. Territory of Iowa, and the second capital of the Wisconsin Territory.  


#6 Council Bluffs

Image: US Library of Congress

Population: 62,355

Notable Attractions: Union Pacific Railroad Museum, Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino, Lewis & Clark Monument & Scenic Overlook.

Fun Fact: Actress Joan Freeman, who co-starred with Elvis Presley in the film Roustabout, was born in Council Bluffs.  


#5 Ames

image: Google

Population: 66,023

Notable Attractions: Brunnier Art Museum, Prairie Moon Winery & Vineyards, Octagon Center for the Arts.

With the various life quality enhancements offered by colleges, it’s not surprising to see college towns dominate the top five.   

Fun Fact: Renown rock drummer, the late Richie Hayward of Little Feat, graduated from Ames High School.


#4 Cedar Falls

Image: US Library of Congress

Population: 40,983

Notable Attractions: Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, Ice House Museum, Hartman Reserve Nature Center.

Fun Fact: The University of Northern Iowa has a long history of name changes.  What started as Civil War Soldier’s Orphan Home, was renamed Old Central, that name was later changed to the Iowa State Normal School, the Iowa State Teacher’s College, then to the State College of Iowa.  In 1967, the State College of Iowa became known as the University of Northern Iowa.


#3  Sioux City

Image: US Library of Congress

Population: 82,531

Notable Attractions: Lewis & Clarke Interpretive Center, Sergeant Floyd Monument, Stone State Park.

Fun Fact: “The Beaver” Actor Jerry Mathers was born in Sioux City.


#2 Dubuque

Image: Unsplash

Population:  58,196

Notable Attractions: The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Diamond Jo Casino, Q Casino, Sundown Mountain Resort.

Scenic beauty, historical charm, and loads of entertainment options push Iowa’s oldest city to second on the list.  On a somewhat regular basis, some local goofballs in this Mississippi River town will water ski and snow ski on the same day there in the spring.  

Fun Fact: Dubuque was a designated city five years before Iowa became a U.S. territory.


#1 Iowa City

Image: US Library of Congress

Population: 74,950

Notable Attractions: Old Capitol Museum, Denovian Fossil Gorge, Hancher Auditorium.

Another city in Iowa which routinely finds itself included on various “best places” lists, quality of life is ranked highest in Iowa City among all of Iowa’s small cities.

Fun Fact: The first woman to race in The Indianapolis 500, Janet Guthrie was born in Iowa City.


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