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Money Magazine thinks you can't do much better than Columbia and Ellicott City if you're looking for a small urban area to live in.

The August issue ranks them together as No. 2 on its Best Places to Live 2010 list, right after Eden Prairie, Minn. The top 100 list, which focuses on small cities, also includes Gaithersburg (No. 25) and Rockville (No. 31).

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Columbia isn't an incorporated city, as it happens. Neither is Ellicott City, despite the name. But I'm guessing Money was going for the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

Of the towns, it says:

"Ellicott City boasts grand homes, a lovely 18th-century downtown, and lots of restaurants. Columbia offers a wide range of housing, tons of parkland, and a major music venue. But those varied amenities are far from the only reasons this duo has risen to No. 2 from No. 8 in 2008. It's also an economic powerhouse with a jobless rate just as enviable as Eden Prairie's."

The magazine refers to jobs coming nearby as part of BRAC (though Fort Meade is in Anne Arundel County rather than Howard) and the towns' commuting distance to both Baltimore and Washington. It gives the area props for "excellent schools and a diverse population." And it says "home are affordable -- by Northeast standards, anyway."

Some of you would-be buyers trying to purchase in Howard County might not agree with the last point, judging by the complaints in the comments here. "Affordable" is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

Money ranked Columbia/Ellicott City No. 4 in 2006, so the neighbors fell a bit in '08 before rising to No. 2.

I am, I admit, somewhat skeptical of "best place to ..." lists. The criteria might be perfectly reasonable, but you can't always capture what makes a community special via number crunching -- and this is coming from a devoted number cruncher.

On the other hand, I've lived in two of Money's top 10 places -- Columbia as a child and Ames, Iowa as a fresh-from-college reporter -- and I liked them both very much.

So what's your take on the list, folks?

And do you think this sort of ranking influences any moving decisions? (

that economist Anirban Basu -- a Baltimore resident -- sees it as "an enormous marketing win for the community.")

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