10 Best Towns for Families: 2008

We searched the country to find perfect places to live and raise kids. This year's winners offer more than affordable homes, great schools, and good neighbors — they're also making smart moves to save the planet.

1 of 10

South Burlington, Vermont


Population: 17,367

Median income: $64,047

Median home price: $237,500

Households with children: 29%

Student/teacher ratio: 14:1

Residents who recycle: 52%

In this charming town nestled between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, kids and grown-ups can't get enough of one another. Whole families sign up for the archery, kayaking, and gardening classes at the city rec center. They flock to Lake Champlain beaches in summer and hit the ski trails at the first big snowfall. When Susie and Ben Merrick, both 47, build an ice-skating rink in their yard every winter, it's not just for daughters Katie, 13, and Janie, 11 — last year they invited Janie's fifth-grade class over to practice their toe loops and lutzes. "We don't have six degrees of separation here — just one," says Susie, an English lecturer, who also appreciates the fact that South Burlington's middle and high schools rank among the top in the state on standardized test scores. Ben, a dentist, loves his 6-mile commute to work — by bike, that is, along paths connecting neighborhoods, parks, and the town center. "I've had to dodge deer and skunk, but I've also seen spectacular sunsets," he says. "This place is a slice of heaven."

Going for the Green: In addition to setting up the state's first utility to prevent storm water runoff into Lake Champlain, the town banned development on 663 acres of "wildlife corridors" that are home to deer, turkey, and other animals.

2 of 10

Oro Valley, Arizona


Population: 36,704

Median income: $74,704

Median home price: $330,000

Households with children: 31%

Student/teacher ratio: 21:1

Residents who recycle: 55%

Oro Valley is only six miles north of Tucson. But when Tom Peterson, 46, an air traffic controller, and his wife, Myrna, relocated here in 1998 with then 5-year-old Jason and newborn twins Samantha and Tyler, it felt like they had moved a world away. "Tucson is sprawled out and impersonal," says Myrna, 45, a business accountant. "Here, it feels cozy and safe. There are beautiful parks and walking trails with cool sculptures. Everything you need is five minutes away — and even then you always bump into somebody you know." The population has increased 25% since 2000, but the city has retained its small-town feel. Teens volunteer at community centers, while parents and retirees pitch in at schools, helping them earn consistently high ratings from the state. Myrna likes the lessons the kids are learning. The twins sometimes come home from school caked in mud after a field trip to clean up the plastic bags and other debris that get washed into the creek beds after a heavy rain. "Our kids know that preserving the land takes effort," she says. "The scenery here is postcard perfect, and we want to keep it that way."

Going for the Green: All new municipal buildings feature recycled carpets and low-voltage lighting; maintenance workers can use only nontoxic cleaning products.

3 of 10

Brunswick, Ohio


Population: 38,051

Median income: $68,505

Median home price: $159,500

Households with children: 43%

Student/teacher ratio: 18:1

Residents who recycle: 49%

Michelle and Jeff Petrenko have a long list of things they love about their hometown — a healthy economy, the state's top-rated schools, and ample green space for sons John, 17, and Zachary, 14. But what they cherish most about this leafy suburb 25 miles outside Cleveland is its community spirit. Parents meet with the mayor and the fire and police chiefs to help organize big events like the annual soccer tournament, which draws hundreds of teams from northeastern Ohio. "There's an open-door policy, and people want to help out because they feel the warmth," says Michelle, 44. Last year youth groups and local citizens raised $25,000 to clear a junkyard of 20,000 tires (they were recycled) and create an additional soccer field. Town leaders, who nixed a 12-acre housing development on the peninsula near Lake Brunswick to preserve the native flora and fauna, also make it easy for residents to keep things beautiful by lending out weed trimmers, mowers, and other gardening equipment for free. "You rarely see a house with a "for sale" sign out front, but people are always working on their yards," says Jeff, 44, an engineering supervisor. "This is the kind of place where families plan to stay for a long time."

Going for the Green: At the Eco Arts Chalk Festival in May, kids compete in a sidewalk drawing contest and make their own rain barrels out of recycled plastic drums to catch runoff from roofs for watering gardens and lawns.

4 of 10

Shoreview, Minnesota


Population: 24,921

Median income: $84,774

Median home price: $250,569

Households with children: 42%

Student/teacher ratio: 19:1

Residents who recycle: 51%

A funny thing happened this spring when Dana and Timothy Masek went cycling with their kids, Michael, 18; Joseph, 15; Stephanie, 13; Jacob, 8; and Samuel, 5. "We were hot and tired, so we parked our bikes and jumped in the lake," says Dana, 44. "You can do that here and no one bats an eye. Where else could you say that?" Situated 10 miles north of Minneapolis, Shoreview is a family-friendly town where housing is affordable, crime is low, and student test scores are way above average. But what residents rave about is the water — 1,400 acres of wetlands, 11 lakes, and a community center with an indoor water park (hottest attraction: the Shark Attack waterslide). Families who live on the shorefront, like the Maseks, landscape with eco-friendly coconut fiber logs, switch grass, and flowers to prevent erosion. "It's the kids' job to compost, mulch, and replant," says Tim, 48, a fixed-income researcher. "They're learning that it's everyone's responsibility to keep our waters pristine."

Going for the Green: The town awards prizes for home eco-projects like building porous driveways that prevent oil and salt runoff. Winners receive bragging rights (a plaque to post outside) and a gift certificate for native plants.

5 of 10

Wheeling, Illinois


Population: 33,786

Median income: $68,419

Median home price: $216,000

Households with children: 35%

Student/teacher ratio: 16:1

Residents who recycle: 47%

Stephanie and Brian Smith live on tree-lined street alongside families from China, India, Korea, and Russia. That's typical of Wheeling, where 30 percent of the residents are immigrants or minorities. Diversity is the reason Stephanie, 41, a banker, and Brian, 35, an acquisition associate, chose to raise their young family — Chloe is 5 and Brian Jr. is 1 — here. "Our kids are constantly around people of different backgrounds living in tolerance and harmony," says Brian, who grew up in Chicago's inner city. "I think of them as flowers blooming in a garden — it's a beautiful thing." The town's schools are flourishing too. Buffalo Grove High was recently awarded a Blue Ribbon, the Department of Education's highest honor. Stephanie also appreciates the little things, like fishing for bluegill in a pond near their home. "The neighborhoods have an easy-living feeling," she says. "And I love having the whole world in our little cul-de-sac."

Going for the Green: Since 2002 the town has spent $2 million to convert five vacant lots into half-acre "pocket parks," with fountains, benches, and flowers.

6 of 10

Rocklin, California


Population: 53,064

Median income: $81,790

Median home price: $400,000

Households with children: 46%

Student/teacher ratio: 22:1

Residents who recycle: 45%

Most Saturday mornings Brian James, 42, a V.P. for a surveillance equipment distributor, takes daughter Emily, 15, and son Tyler, 11, not to soccer practice but to the trash dump, where they dispose of bottles, newspapers, and lawn clippings. "Of course the town picks up garbage, but we started making the kids go so they'd be more eco-conscious," says mom Kim, 42. "Now they love it. Tyler, in fact, tells us we should recycle more!" The entire town is a green pioneer: The first city in California to participate in "ClimateSmart," a state program to reduce greenhouse gases, Rocklin helps offset its carbon emissions by donating some $8,000 annually to buy up land and prevent logging in nearby forests. The schools are outstanding — 9 of 13 have been named California Distinguished Schools — and the streets are safe. Brian boasts about Rocklin's three B's: barbecue, ball games and, referring to the panoramic view of the Sierra Nevada mountains, beauty. "The weather's great, the people friendly," he says. "All the good things you think about in a town you'll find right here."

Going for the Green: After installing solar panels in 2006, police headquarters cut energy bills by 40 percent and CO2 emissions by 5,000 pounds yearly.

7 of 10

Webster Groves, Missouri


Population: 22,583

Median income: $73,446

Median home price: $205,000

Households with children: 35%

Student/teacher ratio: 15:1

Residents who recycle: 57%

When Richard and Cathryn Gowan bought their 1889 Victorian 10 years ago, they knew there'd be leaks, squeaks, and lots of fixer-upper projects. "I consider that a good thing compared with tearing down something grand and beautiful," says Richard, 39, a financial investment officer. "And a new place wouldn't have the character our house has." History infuses this tranquil St. Louis suburb's century-old homes and landmark buildings as well as its 60-foot oaks planted 200 years ago. School classes are small so kids get plenty of one-on-one attention. And the pleasures are simple. Richard recently built a tree house for sons George, 9, and Eaton, 7, and daughter Edrie, 4. "We have so many trees in our yard we can barely see the neighbors," says Cathryn, 38, a digital imaging specialist. "But we know they're looking out for us — and our kids."

Going for the Green: To encourage recycling, the town uses a "single stream" curbside program so there's no need to separate glass, plastics, and paper.

8 of 10

Broken Arrow, Oklahoma


Population: 78,854

Median income: $65,219

Median home price: $142,000

Households with children: 51%

Student/teacher ratio: 20:1

Residents who recycle: 44%

Its population has nearly doubled since 1990, but this Tulsa suburb hasn't gone through many growing pains. Homes are still a bargain, and the streets are safe, thanks to a team effort by local police and neighborhood watch groups. "You never hear sirens," says Leslie Purcell, 34, a stay-at-home mom to Colin, 14, Connor, 5, and 8-month-old Cooper. "This is the kind of place where farmers can set up their stands and leave because they know people will pay." Kids hang out at swimming pools, tennis courts, and soccer and softball fields (the town's 38 parks span 750 acres) by day, and at the new youth complex under the Friday night lights. Rush hour is gridlock free, which means Leslie's husband, Shon, 34, an energy-company businessman, can commute to his Tulsa office in just 20 minutes. For Leslie, nothing's nicer than tooling around and running errands in her neighborhood. "When you drive down the block people wave at you, and you wave back," she says. "You feel like you belong."

Going for the Green: Residents can use the Green Traveler web site to start a carpool or hook up with one. On Ozone Alert Days they can ride the bus for 50 cents.

9 of 10

Royal Palm Beach, Florida


Population: 29,631

Median income: $68,175

Median home price: $269,900

Households with children: 42%

Student/teacher ratio: 17:1

Residents who recycle: 47%

Anne and Jay Boodheshwar like the fact that their daughters, Haley, 11, and Miranda, 8, don't have to step outside to witness nature up close and personal. "They can look out the window to our backyard and see an egret or blue heron strolling around the palmetto trees," says Jay, 35, director of recreation in nearby Palm Beach. Just 15 miles from the Atlantic, this diverse community is home to highly rated schools, which get a boost from involved parents such as Anne, 35, who takes students on trips to museums as a volunteer with the local ArtStart program. Like most parents here, she and Jay love being outdoors with the kids, whether it's going on an "Owl Prowl" field trip in the Everglades or snorkeling at nearby Phipps Park beach. (Family-friendly perk: Walt Disney World is just two hours away.) "Because it's almost always sunny and 70 degrees, the girls practically laugh at the weather report," Anne says. "Then they head right out the door in their flip-flops."

Going for the Green: The town vetoed a townhouse development on an old public golf course and instead is building a park with a lake for fishing and kayaking.

10 of 10

Ankeny, Iowa


Population: 31,598

Median income: $69,703

Median home price: $164,500

Households with children: 42%

Student/teacher ratio: 21:1

Residents who recycle: 44%

Steve and Jill Arneson says it's the little things that add up to the good life in Ankeny. Turn a corner, and you'll see flower beds with geraniums and prairie grasses, courtesy of the Master Gardeners volunteer program. On Friday nights people bring lawn chairs and picnic baskets to Wagner Park to catch a classic, kid-friendly movie. At the June regatta on Saylorville Lake, teens race to the finish line in homemade cardboard boats. "A lot of them sink, but nobody minds getting wet," says Steve, 48, a middle-school counselor and father of Laura, 18, Emily, 15, and Kelsey, 12.

In this Des Moines suburb, the streets are safe and the mood is laid-back and relaxed. "Parents don't freak out when their teenagers walk around after midnight," says Laura. "None of my friends have curfews." Moms and dads also place a premium on education. Voters recently approved an $83 million bond issue — the largest in the state — to build a new high school and upgrade existing facilities. Area schools rank among the best in Iowa for academics, sports, and music. And the town has lots of recreational centers, including the popular 120-acre Prairie Ridge complex. "Steve says it's like a huge restaurant menu — there are so many options for your kids that it's hard to choose," says Jill, 45, an elementary-school teacher. "We've got an embarrassment of riches."

Going for the Green: To conserve energy, the new police headquarters will use geothermal power, saving an estimated $136,000 in heating and cooling costs each year.

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Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.