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Most Playful Cities

America's Most Playful Cities

With all the stresses of modern living, it’s more important than ever to take a little break for ourselves, and recharge our batteries before facing the world again.

In this study, Dove Chocolate teamed up with Sperling’s BestPlaces to find the cities where people are being the most playful, and where there are the most opportunities to have a little fun.

Top Ten Most Playful Places –

1.         Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI

2..        San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA

3..        Denver-Aurora, CO

4..        San Francisco-San Jose, CA

5.         Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, WA

6.         Boston-Cambridge, MA

7.         Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, OR-WA

8.         Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC

9.         Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV

10.       Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ


See the full rankings


The results of this study show that the coasts aren’t the only fun places to play. In fact, this study finds that three of the ten for playful places are completely landlocked. 

In order to determine where all this playtime is happening, Bert Sperling and his research team analyzed data in four major categories, which include activities and resources associated with the concept of “playfulness.”

  • Recreation, which measures resources like hiking trails and museums
  • Playful Activities, which looks at the lifestyle profiles of residents for the prevalence of playful hobbies
  • Health and Happiness, which includes walkability and healthy lifestyle choices
  • Not So Relaxing, which includes bad weather and/or driving conditions

The list of top ten Playful Places was chosen from the fifty largest metropolitan areas in the United States, which are home to fully half of all its residents.


Here are highlights of Sperling’s findings for each of the top ten Playful Places:

Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI

Minneapolis outshone all other cities in health and happiness, as well as social and emotional support. The area is full of recreation resources like museums and playgrounds, and residents love to get outside, when weather permits, to cycle, camp or go for a run.

San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA

In San Diego, residents are likely to be found outside year round, riding horses, camping, or at the zoo. They also take time out to head to the theater, concerts, or to taste some great gourmet foods. The city ranked first for the “Not So Relaxing” category (that’s good), and third for the number and size of their parks.

Denver-Aurora, CO

People in Denver spend a lot on musical instruments, sporting events, and love their national forests. The city scored high for swimming pools, physical activity, and residents self-reported satisfaction with life. Outdoor lovers take note; however, Denver tends to have extreme temperatures, and has little access to lakes and rivers.

San Francisco-San Jose, CA

San Francisco ranks number one in walkability, hiking trails, spending on playful toys and events, and in residents’ physical activity. The city also offers access to museums and gourmet food. Despite these top scores, this California city loses some points for few swimming pools and sports fields, bad drivability and has the third lowest score of all 50 largest metropolitan areas for social and emotional support.

Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, WA

The Emerald City, named for its abundant greenery, predictably ranks first in national forests and parks. The city is also very walkable, full of dog parks and museums, and residents tend to be happy and healthy. Seattle loses a few points for its notorious weather, though, and could use a few more days of play in the sunshine.

Boston-Cambridge, MA

Boston, with its numerous museums, theatres and playgrounds, ranks number one in our recreation category. Residents there enjoy bicycles, soccer, walking, and food, and they tend to spend their money on going to the theater or recreational lessons. The weather in Boston is not always amenable to playing, however, and the commute to fun and games may be a bit of a hassle.

Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, OR-WA

Portland, Oregon residents love their pooches: the city ranks first for off-leash dog parks. Portland is also the third most walkable, and has plenty of hiking trails, national forests and bicycling to get exercise outside. Residents are fond of taking time to camp, read countless books, go bird watching, or catch a sporting event. Like Seattle, however, Portland gets lots of rain and cloudy skies, which can put a damper on at least the outdoor fun.

Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC

Residents in the Virginia Beach area are the most satisfied with their lives. Perhaps this satisfaction comes from the high number of playgrounds, tennis courts, and dog parks, or maybe because they spend the most on toys and board games. It’s good that Virginia Beach has a low commute time, however, because it could use improvement in walkability.

Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV

Washington, D.C. ranks second in overall recreation resources, and third for walkability. The city is full of amenities for playtime like theatres and parks, and residents are pretty satisfied with their lives. The city drops to number 9, however, as the third-longest commute, bad traffic conditions, and high humidity.

Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ

As number ten on our list, the Phoenix is still quite a playful city. In fact, residents in Phoenix are the most satisfied with their lives of all 50 metro areas in our study. Phoenix offers play with many sunny days, low humidity, national forests and parks, and sporting events. The city is lacking in walkability, playgrounds, and tennis courts, and is actually guilty of too much sun with its high temperatures.



Study Criteria

For this study of America’s Most Playful Cities, Sperling’s BestPlaces analyzed a number of categories to measure the activities and resources which are associated with the concept of “playfulness”.

Major categories include:

  • Recreation
  • Playful Activities
  • Health and Happiness
  • Not So Relaxing

Specific criteria within each major category include:

·   Zoos and Aquariums
·   Professional Sports (football, baseball, hockey, basketball)
·   Museums (Art, Science, Children’s)
·   Theaters
·   Off-lease Dog Parks
·   Hiking, Walking and Running Trails
·   Miles of Ocean Coastline and Inland Water areas
·   National Parks and Forests, including Scenic and Historic areas
·   Local and County Parks
·   Playgrounds
·   Sports Parks
·   Swimming Pools
·   Tennis Courts


Playful Activities
(based on Lifestyle Profiles, measuring the prevalence of the following activities)
·     Cooking/baking
·     Camping and Backpacking
·     Crafts
·     Cycling
·     Gardening
·     Horseback Riding
·     Needlework/Quilting
·     Racquetball
·     Tennis
·     Soccer
·     Running and Jogging
·     Walking for Health
·     Self-improvement
·     Travel (Domestic or Foreign)
·     Gourmet Food and Cooking
·     Dieting and Weight Control
·     Avid Book Reading

Consumer Expenditures on Playful Activities
Measure consumer expenditures in comparison to each household’s total expenditures, to assess which cities place a higher priority on playful activities; including:
·     Admission to Movies, Theaters and Concerts
·     Attend Sporting Events
·     Bicycles
·     Board Games
·     Boating and Camping
·     Lessons for Recreational Activities
·     Membership in Social, Recreation and Civic Clubs
·     Musical Instruments
·     Participant Sports
·     Toys and Games


Health and Happiness 
Walkable downtowns and neighborhoods
Walkable schools (schools within 1/2 mile of households with children - don’t have to drive the kids!)

Analysis of results from an annual Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, from which the following questions are selected:
·     How often do you get the social and emotional support you need?
·     In general, how satisfied are you with your life?
·     Participate in regular exercise (or not)
·     Number of days and hours spent on exercise
·     During the past month, other than your regular job, did you participate in any physical activities or exercises such as running, calisthenics, golf, gardening, or walking for exercise?


Not So Playful or Relaxing

Daily Driving
·    Amount of daily driving 

·    Lengthy commute
·   Amount of traffic congestion

Poor weather
·    Cloudy days
·    High humidity
·    Extreme temperatures
·    Lots of rain, snow
·    Thunderstorms (to ruin a day out)



Metros Areas

For this study, we focused on 50 of the most populous metropolitan statistical areas in the United States.  These metro areas are defined by the United State Census Bureau, and include a central city and the surrounding county (or counties.)   The concept of a metro area encompasses the surrounding suburbs where much of an area’s population has their residence. 

List of metro areas for this study:

Metro name Metro states Population
Los Angeles-Santa Ana CA 13,103,981
New York-White Plains-Wayne NY-NJ 11,466,538
Chicago-Naperville-Joliet IL 7,883,317
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown TX 5,239,517  
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta GA 4,765,845
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria DC-VA-MD-WV 4,080,798
Philadelphia PA 3,888,163
Dallas-Plano-Irving TX 3,873,350
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario CA 3,753,368
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale AZ 3,730,550
San Francisco-San Jose CA 3,478,499
Boston-Cambridge MA 3,293,049
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington MN-WI 3,138,324
San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos CA 2,998,625
St. Louis MO-IL 2,754,233
Baltimore-Towson MD 2,644,882
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater FL 2,592,782
Oakland-Fremont-Hayward CA 2,500,934
Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills MI 2,481,882
Seattle-Bellevue-Everett WA 2,444,743
Pittsburgh PA 2,402,483
Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall FL 2,378,142
Denver-Aurora CO 2,350,559
Newark-Union NJ-PA 2,159,686
Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor OH 2,136,729
Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton OR-WA 2,082,023
Cincinnati-Middletown OH-KY-IN 2,063,586
Sacramento--Arden-Arcade--Roseville CA 2,023,535
Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn MI 2,014,262
Kansas City MO-KS 1,934,400
Fort Worth-Arlington TX 1,913,563
Orlando-Kissimmee FL 1,894,018
San Antonio TX 1,863,789
Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach-Deerfield FL 1,750,486
Columbus OH 1,701,266
Las Vegas-Paradise NV 1,667,216
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News VA-NC 1,645,236
Providence-New Bedford-Fall River RI-MA 1,641,304
Indianapolis-Carmel IN 1,626,173
Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis WI 1,518,832
Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord NC-SC 1,484,570
Austin-Round Rock TX 1,415,324
Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro TN 1,398,214
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner LA 1,321,402
Memphis TN-MS-AR 1,256,461
West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Boynton Beach FL 1,250,845
Jacksonville FL 1,243,108
Louisville-Jefferson County KY-IN 1,203,842
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford CT 1,192,119
Richmond VA 1,160,347

About Sperling’s BestPlaces

Bert Sperling has been helping people find their own "Best Place" to live, work and retire for more than 25 years. His firm, Sperling's BestPlaces, puts facts in the hands of the public so they can make better decisions about best places to live, work, retire, play, or relocate. More information about Bert and his work is available at www.bestplaces.net.