Good cities for independent researchers

The USPTO is allowing me to move nearly anywhere in the 48 continuous US states. It would be useful and interesting to have a discussion of what makes a location attractive for independent researchers specifically, and also a discussion of candidate cities. I’m limited to the US but obviously other locations would be of interest to others.

Some factors that I’m particularly interested in:

  • Low cost of living
  • Good local libraries with public access
  • Local makerspace
  • Availability of local collaborators

What may be relevant to others but is not relevant to me:

  • Availability of local funders

I’m not aware of much previous discussion of what makes a location attractive to an independent researcher or independent research organization. I recently skimmed an article about relocating the research organization MIRI but found that I don’t share many of their concerns. For example, as a research organization they seem to have different goals than I do as an individual (one is recruiting). To give another example, what they refer to as “local vibe” is not something that I care much about at all. I tend to be a contrarian, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever find a location where people are in particular agreement with me.

I could write more, but first I am interested in seeing what others might have to say on the subject. I’m particularly interested in the experiences of other independent researchers in optimizing their location and whether I’m missing important factor to consider.

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Hey Ben,

This is something I’ve thought a bit about, though I haven’t yet gotten the opportunity to actually move anywhere. I kicked around a few ideas at last summer’s Ronin un-conference, suggesting something like working to create an ingeniurb (a creative/inventive/scientific city).

Basically, my thinking was to look at a few candidate areas (to be concrete a couple I was looking at were the Mohawk Valley region in upstate NY, and Toledo Ohio). These are of course ‘rust’ belt cities, and the cost of living is significantly lower than where I am currently, LA.

I was considering whether or not it might be possible to create something like a Community Venture Redevelopment Fund, which would be something like an REIT or holding company, and use it to secure and finance the acquisition of co-op housing and warehouse/work space, targeting essentially knowledge workers.

My thinking was that rather than the new paradigm of remote work having a dispersive effect (people more or less choosing different locations to move to based on mild preferences), try to engineer something that has a focus on a particular area. So, maybe 200 people would ‘contract’ to own property in one of these areas, moving there relatively simultaneously. The purpose of doing it this way is of course so there would be some sort of shared nexus/community to build from. Part of the effort would be securing community workspace/lab space, and consequently really working to foster a sense of common purpose.

All of this is an effort to buy time, which one would then hopefully use to pursue creative interests. While initially the idea was to focus on a singular place, one can imagine a broader network of places like this, with perhaps interchangeable housing, allowing one to move around the country/world (and of course this aspect isn’t really new, as there are ‘nomadic’ networks of places like this).

Happy to discuss further with anyone.

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@btrettel @grant Hello. This is an interesting thread - it’s something I’ve mulled from time-to-time, but especially now as I am contemplating a move. I am in the UK, so I appreciate that my perspective may be very different. I realise that ‘vibe’ is a rather imprecise term, though it does mean something to me. For a long time, I had lived some distance from my nearest ‘quality’ institution. This made it hard to bump into people, at public lectures or in libraries, who would engage in the kinds of philosophical, intellectual, mind-enhancing, conversations that I had as an undergrad or postgrad and craved again. Then, a mature PhD student and his wife moved in next door to rent while he wrote up. They were exceptionally gregarious and we got on very well. Their friends would visit and the discussions flowed until dawn. This really brought home to me how important such an atmosphere really was. This is, in part, about engagement with such a community, but also about personality - I need to take the lead to make this happen for myself, but there’s also the practicality… We live beyond the commute for students - by bike or foot - this needs to dictate where I move to. To earn a living, I teach in adult and vocational education - through the nearest university and our equivalent of ‘community colleges’, so proximity to those offering my disciplines in the hope that I can network in to those is important. Access to a makerspace, or similar, is also relevant to me though we have relatively few here. Thanks for stimulating my thinking. I look forward to anyone else’s ideas.

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@grant

I’ve been considering a fair number of “rust belt” cities myself. For the moment I’ve tentatively decided on Pittsburgh, PA, as the cost of living there is quite low, the local libraries are excellent, and there are multiple local universities. I might still change my mind.

Creating a local community would be wonderful, particularly with a larger community associated with the local community. My own goals are more modest, but let me know if you ever do anything towards that larger goal.

@Graham_Wilson

I agree that having a good local group to discuss things with is very valuable. I quite enjoyed talking to many of the people I met at the University of Texas at Austin when I was there. To me, “local vibe” would refer to the attitudes of most people, and “local collaborators” would refer to people I’d collaborate with, a far smaller group. A third group, perhaps “local intellectuals” or whatnot is also worth looking for. They don’t need to be collaborators.


The process I used to arrive at Pittsburgh is worth detailing. (This was an interesting weekend project.) Basically, I started with a CSV spreadsheet of all Federal Depository Libraries. (You can download the spreadsheet by clicking on “advanced search” at the following link, scrolling down to the bottom, checking the “All FDLs” checkbox, pressing the “submit” button, and then clicking on the floppy disk icon at the top right of the results table.) I supplemented this list with a list of Patent and Trademark Resource Centers. These libraries are mandated by law to allow public access to their collections, an important factor if one has no affiliation with the associated university or organization. This gave me a starting point of about 1000 cities.

Then I used the League of American Bicyclists’ website to return all their “bike friendly communities” as a JSON file by using my browser’s developer console on this page. As a dedicated cyclist, this factor is important to me, though I admit it’s not something most care too much about. And I don’t want to say the League of American Bicyclists’ list guarantees that a city is good for cyclists. All it means is that the local government is trying, which is probably the bare minimum.

I merged these files into a single Sqlite database. By taking the intersection of cities with FDLs/PTRCs and “bike-friendly” cities, I reduced the number of cities to about 200.

I wrote a bot to get cost of living data from BestPlaces for the cities in the database. I also used a bot to get Zillow’s home value estimate for each city. Then I narrowed the selection to cities with a cost of living score less than 95 (100 is average) and home cost estimates less than $250000. I also got some census data to keep the gender ratio of the city near balanced as some cities skew heavily male. That returned 33 cities, which I examined in more detail.

I eliminated cities for a variety of reasons, some quite subjective and/or arbitrary. I’ll describe some of the more objective factors leading to elimination of cities. I eliminated cities if their population growth rate was 8% per decade or higher. The reason I looked at population growth is that housing prices are likely to increase more if there is large demand for a particular location. (There is no particular significance to 8%.) I eliminated cities if their crime rates were above a certain threshold. I eliminated cities if the local library didn’t seem particularly good.

After all of this, I was left with Kansas City, MO, Cincinnati, OH, and Pittsburgh, PA. Kansas City was a city I considered before this analysis because of Linda Hall Library, though ultimately I decided against the city because it doesn’t seem to be particularly good for cyclists. Cincinnati was not a city I had considered before, and I eliminated it because it seemed comparable to Pittsburgh in most ways, but had worse local libraries. Pittsburgh was a city I had considered earlier. The city seems better for cyclists than Austin, where I did my PhD.

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