For centuries, humanity has tended to migrate from the countryside to the cities, creating increasingly dense urban centers.
Now, shifting attitudes among younger workers, as well as high costs of urban living, technological advancements, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to a rise in de-urbanization, where city dwellers move to suburban and rural areas.
Will this trend spell the end of urbanization as we know it? Or will things go back to the way they were? And what could the impact be on the environment?
Origins and Growth
Mass urbanization began with the industrial revolution in the 18th century, with adults migrating from rural hamlets to towns and cities to work in factories and other large employment centers. This population shift has steadily increased—between 1950 and 2014, the number of workers in cities rocketed from 0.8 billion to 3.85 billion globally. By 2018, a UN report estimated that 54% of the world's population lived in urban areas.
COVID-19’s Impact on Cities
Urban living was once viewed as a necessary career and lifestyle choice for many adults. However, emerging online or remote work technologies greatly altered this landscape—as workers realized they could use their home offices or nearby work centers to do their jobs, they moved away from cities.
The COVID-19 pandemic intensified this de-urbanization trend. Firstly, densely populated urban areas are potential breeding grounds for disease, and many people chose to relocate to escape crowded areas. Even in the early days of the pandemic, some studies showed that nearly a third of Americans living in urban areas were considering moving out of those areas due to concerns about COVID-19.
Secondly, lockdowns showed that economies could continue to function effectively even if large parts of the workforce worked remotely from home or in offices outside the world’s major cities and financial centers. A survey by PwC found 68% of United Kingdom chief executive officers believed there would be a shift towards low-density office usage while 35% expected an increase in de-urbanization.
Economist Emiliano Mandrone, senior researcher at the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) in Rome, has written extensively on the subject. The interaction between the COVID-19 health emergency and available digital technology produced “an extraordinary metamorphosis” of social and economic customs, Mandrone told The Earth & I.
To be, not to have
According to Mandrone, the changes brought about by COVID-19 restrictions and the resulting switch in work patterns tell only part of the story.
Younger workers are expressing the desire to get more from their lives rather than just accumulating wealth and status. With this in mind, he said, employers will need to rethink how people live and work.
“Cities have played a formidable role in history as a catalyst for human, economic, and technological resources that have produced much social and cultural progress,” he said. “That said, the fruit of our times is an organization of work that can do without physical presence for many work phases.”
“We need to imagine new words for a new world,” Mandrone said. “Migration, vacation, and place of work are terms of the 20th century.”
When young workers increasingly prefer “to be, than to have” and work is no longer associated with a place like an office, then migrating to a city is no longer a requirement for employment.
“Remote work will allow you to stay in the countryside in spring or at the sea in summer, in a small town where you can breathe good air or in a large city full of opportunities depending on our needs of the moment,” Mandrone said. “A young person who wants to establish himself, or a couple with three children, or an adult who would like to discover new ways of living will be able to combine their needs with work according to specific sets of values and priorities.”
He further claimed the era of summer exoduses, long queues on the highway, or rush hour on the subway was “over.”
“This system, the result of the great centrifugal force produced by cities, has shaped our behaviors in the name of congestion,” Mandrone said. “Here, an intelligent way of life is to overcome the congestion and downtime that it implies, freeing up resources and time without penalizing work.”
Finally, the move towards de-urbanization and remote working is likely to impact older workers.
“Many countries are reforming their welfare to keep demography and finance together. The most practiced solution is to delay the retirement age,” said Mandrone. “This is much criticized by those who think they cannot work well in old age. If working meant leaving home one day out of two, it would be more tolerable, and that transfer of knowledge between generations could take place without the risks of an elderly, more fragile individual in the workplace.”
Impact on the Environment
A move toward de-urbanization could have a profound impact on the environment.
The movement of people during the daily commute, coupled with the infrastructure needed to support large populations, contribute to the fact cities produce 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, just 25 megacities—cities with populations over ten million people—produce 52% of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing the commute is one way of tackling the problem.
“Moving implies polluting, more if you use a private vehicle, less if you use a collective vehicle,” Mandrone said. “Therefore, reducing the spatial dimension in which we live reduces the aggregate demand for travel and therefore the pollution created.
“Congestion is one of the keys to reducing pollution, and remote work offers a possible solution,” he said. There are also environmental factors related to the heating and cooling of buildings, and construction.
Will the Trend Continue?
Remote working is far from being embraced as the new normal everywhere, Mandrone said.
“In Italy, over half of the people do not intend to work remotely and only 23% would like to work remotely over three days a week. This implies that even on the side of workers, there is a long way to go to understand the potential of remote work and read them to your advantage.”
But different areas are already competing to be the destination of choice for workers looking to leave large cities.
“In California, there is already an escape from expensive cities [like] San Francisco or are too large [like] Los Angeles to neighboring places, more on a human scale and with easier costs, easily accessible,” Mandrone said. “This will create competition between territories and cities to offer the best conditions.”
Can Cities Bounce Back?
While the COVID-19 pandemic kept many workers in their homes for months, there was already a growing desire among some young workers for a better work-life balance, which had fueled a rise in flexible working. This was compounded by rising costs of living in major centers, where housing was at a premium.
But it would be premature to suggest that the day of the city and megacity are over. Instead, some argue that cities should be reimagined rather than abandoned as an ideal place to live and work, with sustainability at the core of any new model.