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Opinion: Will Coronavirus Inspire a Great Migration to Rural America?

Written by Simone Leon | Contributing Editor at Urban Exodus

I moved from Los Angeles to a small town in Maine a little less than a year ago. There were a thousand and one reasons why I wanted to leave the city to live in a small town on the east coast, but a consideration I didn’t really speak much about was safety.

In November of 2018, I was evacuated for a week because of the devastating California wildfires. This experience brought a realness to concerns that had only felt theoretical before in my mind. There were days waiting where I didn’t know if I would be coming back to a pile of embers, or if my home would make it through. Thankfully it was spared from the fires (just barely), but it got me thinking about the different risks I was imposing on myself by choosing to live in Southern California. Before the wildfires, I had read and heard various information on the safest places to live in the country and began contemplating relocating to an area with fewer natural disasters and a lower population density.

At 26 (like many others in their twenties), a lot of these concerns initially felt very unlikely but the wildfires that year put it into perspective for me. It feels like the effects that coronavirus is having on every single person might bring a major perspective and values shift. What does the city provide for you? Can a rural area provide the same things and more?

People are now fleeing hot zones like New York City, possibly endangering local residents of rural communities (who don’t have the resources to keep up with the influx or possible spread to their communities). Some experts are even predicting that this crisis will reverse the trend of the rural exodus that has been going on since the beginning of the industrial revolution. With more people working from home, and the cost of major cities becoming prohibitive for most, could we see a revival of rural America due to this crisis?

There are infinite ways which this pandemic has shifted our thinking, and in many ways for the better. It has opened us up to really reconsider what is most important to us. For many of us, it has allowed us to spend a lot more time with our families, or catching up over video calls with friends and other family members who we may not have had normally had time to speak to, and really evaluate what is most important in life.

So many people are proving that their jobs can be done just as effectively from home. This might provide a change in the narrative that so many young people might feel is necessary that they should leave their families and make the move to the city as a young adult in order to make use of their full potential, and be successful.

When I left the city, I felt like a lot of my peers looked at me with a kind of disappointment, as if this move meant I was “giving up.” While in many ways, I was giving up a life that didn’t make me happy, and one took an enormous toll on my mental and physical health, I was in no way giving up on my long-term ambitions. Rather, I was reevaluating them to fit within the context of the type of life and values I wanted to pursue. I faced a lot of fear of my own, and from my family, who was concerned with the idea of me giving up my dream job in film that I had worked so hard for. And at only a few years out of college, I was just beginning! In a lot of ways, I was afraid that by moving away from the center of the entertainment industry, and away from everyone I knew and worked with, away from a life and career path that was essentially all planned out, that I would have nothing left. However, I realized that up that life long before I actually did. The sacrifices I made to continue working, struggle financially, commute for hours each day, and ignore my health problems had reached a tipping point. Before I made the decision to leave, I now realize I spent months mourning the identity I had created for myself centered around my work.

There is this misconception that moving to the country means you are retiring, or giving up all of your former goals. While this may be true for some, it does not have to be. In fact, since moving to a small town, my work has been more sustainable, in line with my creative pursuits, and there is a sense of balance in the culture here that has allowed me to flourish. The moment I moved, I felt an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders, and a huge shift in my perspective on what I needed to live a happy life. It is beautiful here, and there are so many reasons to love it. However, what has truly made me feel at home is the people I've met here, and a sense of community and trust that I've never experienced before.

Of course in hindsight, I am so grateful that I made the move when I did. The reality of being in a city during a time like this is becoming less and less appealing, and many people who have the option to leave probably will. This might mean that rural gentrification could take the place of urban gentrification with wealthy urbanites either moving full or part time to less populated areas. However, these new realities might also mitigate some of the sparse rental markets in communities (such as ours in Maine), who largely make their income off of short term rentals in the summer. If we are looking to a brighter future, perhaps a great urban exodus will mean a revitalization of our rural communities and economies. Studies have also shown that people who live in urban settings, end up consuming far more resources than their rural counterparts. A bonus of the digital age, and perhaps of this crisis is that more and more people will be able to do the work they wish to do, with less of a focus on being centered around place.

People who live in the country either by desire or necessity tend to be more industrious when it comes to doing things themselves. There is a reason why building, making (or growing) something with your own hands produces a type of innate satisfaction it seems our minds are wired for. As everyone is trying to minimize their trips to public places, this has turned many unexpected folks into mini-homesteaders - engaging in more acts of self sufficiency. With the current crisis, this is becoming slightly more apparent, as people are using quarantine to sharpen up on their baking skills, and other tasks that inadvertently calm the mind. However, I think this trend will make people realize that they are more capable than they thought they were, and in fact realize the joy that comes from the direct fruits of their labor. Many people are even feeling like this whole crisis is a push to start growing your own food.

Looking towards the (hopefully brighter) future, I imagine that coming out of this crisis, will ultimately bring us all closer together in ways that we might have forgotten. When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about being stranded on an island with my friends (and crushes), or living an post-apocalyptic reality. What I really was trying to enjoy from these daydreams though, was the feeling of a shared-destiny. I believe this is an element missing from our modern individualistic culture, which I have felt a bit closer to achieving since moving to the country, and joining such a rich and engaged community.

In a modern-day context, I believe that we will see more people working remotely - and thereby reducing the amount of unnecessary travel and commuting. Video technology will improve to meet the demands, and things will never be the same. In turn, I believe that we will see a reversal of rural exodus, and find more and more people moving out of cities. In turn, I hope that this will allow people connect with their communities, and reprioritize their values to suit the needs and desires of a changing world.


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