Urban Exodus? First Signs Of A Move Out Of The World's Cities

Urban Exodus? First Signs Of A Move Out Of The World's Cities
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

When the coronavirus hit, Valérie, a rising business executive used to a grueling daily commute into Paris, realized her life needed to change. Now, she and her husband have revived a long dormant dream: a house in Normandy with an ocean view.

"We have the impression of advancing —​ finally," she told Le Monde, adding "We're giving ourselves two years to make our transition, keeping a cool head and putting emphasis on finding work."

In the past months, millions of urban dwellers around the world, from New York to Nairobi to Paris escaped to the countryside to ride out the quarantine closer to nature and far from city crowds. Now, some might never return. Urbanization has been the leading demographic trend for decades, with around 55% of people globally living in cities in 2018. But exactly what made these areas appealing — work opportunities, access to art and culture and sporting events — have little value in a global pandemic as much of daily life as we know it is put on hold.

And what happens when travel bans are lifted? Some say the urban/rural divide is bound to start looking very different — with the first signs popping up in real estate markets. As Glenn Kelman, CEO of real estate brokerage firm Redfin told CNBC, "Rural demand is much stronger right now than urban demand, and that's a flip from where it's been for the longest time, where everybody wanted to live in the city. We'll see how it comes back, but there seems to be a profound, psychological change among consumers who are looking for houses."

When coronavirus first hit cities, rural regions were immediately appealing, given the decreased amount of contact between people when they aren't literally living on top of one another. The potential for self-sufficiency from gardening and raising animals (see the run on baby chickens) might also encourage rural preppers, given how coronavirus has exposed the fragility of global supply chains and high risk of infection for meat plant and agricultural workers. On a purely practical note, the cost of living in many rural areas is significantly cheaper, which could be an important pull factor as economies continue to tank.

Dacha is a traditional Russian country house with a yard for summer. — Photo: Evgeny Sinitsyn/ZUMA.

On a more existential level, the pandemic is making some question their life choices. Many who are now working from home might never have to return to that downtown office and can have increased freedom in where they choose to settle. The rise of online cottagecore among young people presents an idealized and aspirational image of this rural living. On a hopeful note, cities might experience new life after so much death, becoming more affordable to the artists and other creative types who have been pushed to the edges.

Despite having shaped the public image and desirability of cities, they are now unable to afford rent. In New Orleans, Amsterdam and Barcelona, the rich buying investment apartments and the rise of short-term vacation rentals have created ghost cities. In these revived urban areas, proposals to limit disease spread through increased bike and pedestrian accessibility and larger green spaces might just bring a bit of the country sensibility to concrete jungles. Here are some examples from around the world of people adapting to rural life.

  • In the UK, estate agents are experiencing a rise in potential homeowners looking for properties in market towns and fishing villages as either second homes or permanent residences. Inverness in the Scottish Highlands is the location that has seen the highest increase in searches from last year.

  • In Japan, 36% of young people say they aspire to change their career and move to sparsely populated rural areas, according to a survey in the Chinese news outlet Caixin. The main motivation for changing jobs is to avoid being infected with coronavirus in an overcrowded megacity like Tokyo. The Japanese daily Nishinippon Shimbun recently pointed out that the response to COVID-19 showed local mayors to be much more responsive and accountable than the central government, which may lead to further appreciation of social structures "being sparse instead dense," moving "from centralized to decentralized."

  • Interest in rural recreational properties in Canada are also increasing, with cities ranging from Vancouver to Toronto seeing the real estate industry slow significantly, CBC reported. While the number of properties for sale in Quebec dropped 20% in April, real estate agents outside of the greater Montreal region have seen a peaked interest especially among younger people for land, chalets and country houses.

  • In Russia, an estimated one-third of the urban population has fled for rural country homes and cottages known as dachas, according to Le Monde. The pandemic has hit cities hard, with approximately half the nation's cases in the Moscow region. Many of the dachas feature large vegetable gardens (a relic from the Soviet era), allowing for increased self-sufficiency. The issue now, the city transplants note, is how to get internet to the countryside.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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