Measuring Beauty

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Books such as Places Rated Almanac and America's Most Charming Towns and Villages have long been publishing staples, but in recent years the U.S. government has joined the trend by rating each county in the contiguous 48 states in terms of its natural amenities. The ratings, made by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are based on six measures: January temperature, January sunshine, temperature gain between January and July (less is better), July humidity, water area, and topographic variation.

The map, which summarizes the ratings, reveals a distinct pattern, with the western states and southern Florida at the top of the scale and scoring well on most measures. In contrast, the upper Midwest, from Ohio through the Dakotas, shows a relative lack of amenities. This region, of course, tends to have cold winters. But even when January temperatures are removed from the equation, the ratings in the region do not improve significantly (the region generally lacks topographic variation). Among the few northern areas to rank high is Glacier County, Montana, which includes the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains, extensive plains area, buttes, lakes and rivers, together with diverse recreational opportunities such as fishing, skiing and big game hunting. The eastern third of the country, aside from Florida, has no top-rated counties except for several in southern Appalachia, which has a hospitable climate, many lakes and rivers, and considerable topographic diversity.

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