History Tells Us About Urban-Rural Migration During Catastrophes

urban-rural migration

Photo by Maximillian Conacher on Unsplash

In the midst of the pandemic, headlines predicting a mass migration of urban dwellers to the suburbs were dominating discussions concerning the property market. Some property experts feared that this mass migration could lead to a huge drop in property value and spell the end for big cities.

But how accurate are the claims that urban residents are fleeing their homes? How likely is it that these demographic shifts will last? What can we learn from similar migration patterns throughout history?

Urban spaces: The talk of the town

It is safe to say that urban areas have been hit hard by Covid-19 and the restrictions which come with it. The cramped conditions of city living don’t just increase your chances of catching the virus, they also make lockdown measures more difficult to handle given the smaller size of city apartments and their lack of outdoor space.

It is not surprising then that recent events have prompted a demographic shift. Many people are leaving their city apartments in search of somewhere more spacious. This has been well documented by news outlets who claim that urban-rural migration is causing an urban exodus.

They claim that the declining population of cities could worsen the unemployment, business closure, and economic upheaval that will no doubt follow the pandemic. Of course, there are also questions concerning the effect that this change in demographics will have on property markets all over the world.

Will the trends continue?

The issue is that we have no real way of knowing whether this demographic shift is permanent or not. Are people reluctantly leaving their cities due to health concerns or is this a lasting change, a dream that urban dwellers have harbored for a long time but have only been able to fulfill in this new era of remote and hybrid working?

It seems that despite the panic and predictions concerning what our ‘new normal’ looks like, we won’t need to worry about an urban exodus any time soon.

The young and wealthy are leading the way

Research focusing on a large-scale urban flight in the US discovered that for the most part, it is only young, white, and wealthy residents who seem to be leaving their city for the suburbs. Research also shows that many of these suburban migrants have held onto their apartments in the city.

This suggests that their move is only a temporary escape, a reprieve from the current living conditions in a densely populated city. Perhaps we will see the population of these cities rise again once the pandemic is over.

Can vaccinations reverse the trend?

What’s more, as vaccinations develop and the number of cases goes down, the light at the end of the tunnel is growing. We are close to emerging from the worst of the pandemic and we can’t really know what lies ahead.

Whilst remote working is a feasible option at the moment, many offices plan on staying open and operating under a hybrid system. It is clear that some flexibility will be lost, and the location of our houses will become important once more. There are also sectors in which remote working simply isn’t possible. Jobs in retail, hospitality, and health care, for now, remain location-based, and this is unlikely to change any time soon.

The shifts in urban demographics

When looking at the history of urban demographics and the shifts which take place during dramatic events, there is a similar trend of urban flight. There was an increase in the number of people moving to the suburbs during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in earlier pandemics like the Spanish Influenza in 1918. Cities nonetheless continued to thrive years after these events, population declines seemed to be temporary and no exodus occurred.

Whilst it is important to acknowledge demographic shifts and make predictions concerning future challenges and how we may overcome them, it seems that we may have been too hasty to prophesize the collapse of our beloved cities.

In cities where there has been a decrease in population, those moving seem to have plans to return once the pandemic is over and living conditions improve. When national lockdowns and the spread of the coronavirus is no longer a worry, it is likely that we will see the population of cities rise once more just as it has done in the aftermath of other pandemics and catastrophes.

Written by Luke Fitzpatrick


About the Author

Luke Fitzpatrick has been published in a variety of publications such as Forbes, Tech In Asia and The Next Web. He is also a guest lecturer at the University of Sydney, lecturing in cross-cultural management and the pre-MBA program.


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TAGS:city living, rural-urban migration, sustainability

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