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New Normal driving exodus from cities, rebalancing rural towns

Ronda, Malaga

Society

New Normal driving exodus from cities, rebalancing rural towns

Ronda, Malaga by Pablo Valerio

New Normal driving exodus from cities, rebalancing rural towns

COVID-19 is leading the exodus to rural areas. It could hurt cities’ economies, but also presents opportunities for younger residents.

Until this year, the departure from the big cities was an American phenomenon. Only large American cities seemed to suffer the consequences of the public’s preferences for sprawling suburbs around them, while big European cities endured various crises speeding up their growth and attracting more and more visitors, residents and businesses … until now. The pandemic has fully led Europe to leave the big city and settle in the countryside. 

In Spain, Internet searches to buy a single-family home (a house with a garden and balcony) increased by 40% in March and April. And those who already had a second residence for the weekends increasingly make it their first residence, registering in countryside municipalities and teleworking. 

Could this be the beginning of a new cycle, that the so-long emptied villages are finally being revitalised? In most European countries, rural exodus is a big, long-lasting problem. Several strategies aimed to stop it have been implemented with mixed results: facilities for businesses and families, immigrants, and refugees wishing to settle in emptied rural areas… And even so, on a global territorial level, the urban concentration trend stayed strong. 

What will happen in the “new normal” years to come? No one can say at this point if the behavioral changes are only temporary, or if this crisis will forever mark a paradigm shift in our way of life, and if Europe will become more dispersed soon. This could be the case, as we observed another trend before the pandemic hit: scores of young couples opt to settle in a village and rescue a farm, trying their hand growing organic products, and seeking a healthier lifestyle. 

Some specialists now speak of the Death of the City. According to an analysis published in the Politico newspaper, many cities are about to lose attraction power in the years to come. It argues that demographics are about to change. The success model of the European cultural city has come to a turning point. We see high density as a weakness and danger. As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is preying on large cities worldwide, people are becoming more and more aware of the risks of living in a compact, dense city. 

Everything adds up, in the meantime, in favor of the countryside and sprawl: you live healthier, you have better access to organic products; you breathe better; you get fewer chances to get sick… and technologies make it easier to work remotely in more and more occupations, including primary education. 

The trend is already happening in big American cities: “The pandemic has led many New York City residents to uproot their lives in search of more spacious living quarters or cheaper rent. Among them are parents with young children. Many already were dreaming of tree-filled backyards and highly rated public-school systems in the suburbs when the pandemic expedited their decision to move.” writes Wall Street Journal’s Stephanie Yang.

Traditionally, Europeans have been reluctant to follow the American model of sprawl for three reasons: 

  • Land scarcity in many areas of Europe 
  • Pollution because of mobility in a private car 
  • Lack of community facilities and services in remote areas. 

If the paradigm shift occurs, solutions need to be found for these (and other) challenges. For mobility, this means perhaps betting on electric vehicles or expanding public transit to those areas? Will the road network be sufficient for the new inhabitants of sprawls? These are questions that await your answers, but urban planners and those in charge of designing smart city strategies are already working on them. 

The World Economic Forum has an initiative called “The Great Reset.” It tries to offer insights to help all those determining the way we interact with our environment, on a global and regional level, to manage the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis and seize the opportunity to reshape cities, and to set the framework for more advanced urban systems, viewed as urban hubs.    

For the urban strategy decision makers, this crisis is both an unprecedented challenge and an opportunity for change. 

Carmen Popescu

Architect, urban planner, tourism development advisor. Based in Barcelona, focuses on sustainable cities and new urban life styles and trends.

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