Portland’s ‘O-Score,’ and what all these national rankings say about Maine’s other cities

The Portland Farmers Market at Monument Square on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

The Portland Farmers Market at Monument Square on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

It’s not uncommon for Portland to be listed among the best cities in America by nationwide publications. In fact, it’s sort of uncommon for two whole weeks to go by in which Portland isn’t listed among the best cities in America by one such publication or another.

This, to some degree, is a result of our current listicle culture, in which these magazines find they can get as wide a dispersal rate as possible across social media by releasing easy-to-digest top-10 lists and the like, combined with the Internet’s encouragement of niche publications and blogs, which have spurred very specific such top-10 lists.

Barrista James Frydrych slings java behind the county at Coffee By Design on Diamond Street in Portland in this June 2014 file photo. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Barrista James Frydrych slings java behind the county at Coffee By Design on Diamond Street in Portland in this June 2014 file photo. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

To another degree, it’s a result of Portland’s resurgence on the national scene. The city has cultivated its share of superlative-earning industries, establishments and cultures, driving up Portland’s representation on lists ranking the country’s best beer, coffee, brunch, farmers markets, and on and on.

Earlier this month, in one of the more recent rankings, Outside magazine readers voted Portland into that publication’s list of “Best Towns Ever.”

Now, Outside is taking it a step further and — on top of its reader votes, which ranked Portland in 13th place on the list — releasing its so-called “O-Scores” for the towns in question. Outside hired an actual rocket scientist to, as the magazine explains, “combine factors like number of outfitters, miles of trails, and number of bike shops — plus considerations like unemployment rates, median incomes, and, yes, an editors’-choice variable — into a single mathematical formula.”

Afternoon sunshine projects a bicycle tire away from itself on the brick sidewalk in Portland's downtown. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Afternoon sunshine projects a bicycle tire away from itself on the brick sidewalk in Portland’s downtown. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Using Portland’s O-Score, the city leapfrogs from No. 13 to a third-place tie with Duluth, Minnesota. Only Boulder, Colorado, and Ithaca, New York, fared better, and Portland’s O-Score of 88 was within three of Boulder’s list-topping 91.

So by those metrics — and plenty of others that have been released over the years — Portland is considered one of the few best places in America to live. Heck, Business Insider ranked Portland one of the top 14 places to visit this year, putting a small Maine city in the same bundle of must-see attractions as the Great Barrier Reef and Brazil’s World Cup.

Yet, when lists come out looking just at the best places to live in Maine, Portland often finds itself looking up at its neighbors.

In both 2012 and 2013, the Rhode Island-based regional news and lifestyle website GoLocalProv.com put South Portland ahead of Portland in its annual lists of top New England cities.

Then just last week, the real estate blog and regular listicle producer Motovo put out its list of the 10 best places to live in Maine. Once again, Portland’s neighbor to the south gets the better of it — South Portland claims the top spot, and Maine’s largest city doesn’t appear until No. 7 on the list.

A runner goes through Thomas Knight Park, beneath the Casco Bay Bridge, in South Portland. (The Forecaster photo by Shelby Carignan)

A runner goes through Thomas Knight Park, beneath the Casco Bay Bridge, in South Portland. (The Forecaster photo by Shelby Carignan)

After South Portland, you see that Scarborough, Brunswick, Cumberland, Topsham and Freeport — in that order — all best Portland in Motovo’s ranking.

Not unlike Outside, Motovo reached its conclusions about the best places to live in a defensibly scientific way (it wasn’t just based on a travel writer’s whims, for instance). The website took the 51 Maine municipalities with at least 5,000 residents, ranked them 1-through-51 across several different criteria — total crime, tax rates, unemployment, household incomes, student-to-teacher ratios, cost of living, commute times, home prices, etc. — and came up with combined scores for each city and town.

So what to make of this.

Here are a couple of thoughts on why Portland seems like it’s a hotter commodity among out-of-state cities than in-state ones.

First, in the same way that Motovo wouldn’t even consider a town for its list of best places in Maine unless it reached that 5,000-population threshold, a lot of national publications aren’t paying attention to cities below a certain size, and the 68,000-person Portland is about as small as they’ll often consider.

Keep in mind that there are at least 50 football stadiums in America that can hold more people than the entire population of Portland (it’s true — look it up). So by national standards, Portland’s a very small city and it’s perhaps to its credit that it manages to attract the attention it does.

But cities of 20,000 or 30,000 — like South Portland, Brunswick, Scarborough, Lewiston and Bangor — aren’t showing up on those publications’ radar screens.

Another factor is that, to many out-of-state writers making far-reaching listicles, anything south of Augusta is Portland.

L.L. Bean's flagship retail store in Freeport. (BDN file photo by Brian Swartz)

L.L. Bean’s flagship retail store in Freeport. (BDN file photo by Brian Swartz)

Nine out of the top 10 on Motovo’s list of best places in Maine to live are in the southern part of the state (Hampden squeaked in at No. 8, otherwise Topsham is as far north as it goes). For some publications, that entire list of Maine places would be combined under the header of “Portland.”

I’ve seen some magazines rationalize Portland’s place on their lists by highlighting the L.L. Bean flagship retail store (which is in Freeport, of course) and by quoting the owner of an excursion company based across the bridge in, you guessed it, South Portland.

This is not to dismiss all the publicity Maine’s biggest berg has been receiving, nor to downplay its O-Score (stop snickering), but rather to say that, taken across the body of them, these accolades that seem to come so frequently should probably be considered shared victories by all the communities that make up Greater Portland.

Once a publication looks deeper into Maine than just Portland, it usually finds that a lot of our other communities are pretty great, too.

A man, carrying a surfboard, trudges through the waves at Higgins Beach in Scarborough in July. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

A man, carrying a surfboard, trudges through the waves at Higgins Beach in Scarborough in July. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Recommend this article
Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.