I started writing this blog post back in October, long before anybody had even heard of the coronavirus. I didn’t post it at the time, mainly because I thought it was going to be slow change that would take years to manifest itself, so time was going to be on my side, and I might as well spend a bit longer adding more details. I was wrong – the pandemic has accelerated a change that had probably already started but was moving at a glacial pace, and I suspect things will now start happening really fast: People will move out of the large cities, leading to a repopulation of the countryside and to huge social problems in the shrinking metropolises.
Let’s start with a bit of history: For the past decades, large cities have grown and grown in most countries (and the larger they were to start with, they more they’ve grown), and the small towns, villages and the countryside have increasingly been deserted (or turned into holiday destinations). Several factors have been involved in this process, including:
- It has becoming rarer to stay in a job till retirement. This means that it has to be possible to find an equivalent or better job if you’re made redundant, and that is of course much easier if you’re staying in a large city.
- The fact that most families now consist of two main earners means that it has to be possible for both to find a good job – again, that’s much easier in a metropolis.
- The long-term migration towards the cities has had self-reinforcing effects. For instance, most villages have lost many of their shops, schools and public transport links – in some cases, nothing is left. As a result, living in the countryside means driving a lot – and not just yourself, but also your children. And in return, the cities have got more and more facilities and jobs.
- The cheap and abundant food made available by globalisation has made it rather pointless to have the ability to grow your own food (unless it’s a hobby). In the same way, producing your own energy has not in general been done for financial reasons.
- Because of falling property values in the countryside, in many countries banks have become rather reluctant to finance the purchase of rural properties. On the other hand, borrowing money for an overpriced flat in a large city has been relatively easy.
This might be about to change, however. Property prices in the cities have risen to crazy levels – young families have to live in tiny flats and/or in remote suburbs.
Currently a two-acre property with a house in good condition less than half an hour’s drive from Odense (Denmark’s third city) costs less than a typical two-bedroom flat in Copenhagen.
Fast and cheap broadband even in remote locations has made it easy to work from home, and if employers allow their employees to work from home most of the time, it makes perfect sense to buy a bigger and nicer house in the countryside instead of living in a cramped flat close to the job.
For a long time, employers seemed to be resisting the change, fearing their workers wouldn’t get anything done from home, but the coronavirus changed that. Forcing so many people to work from home for several months has been an amazing social experiment, and the conclusion in many workplaces has been that most of the work actually is easier to do from home, but that it’s useful to meet up for a couple of days a week to have meetings and have a cup of coffee with your colleagues.
If that’s the pattern that will eventually prevail, it becomes very feasible to live two to three hours away from the workplace. In small countries like Denmark, such as change will suddenly make it possible to live almost anywhere (apart from a few islands); in larger countries, some areas might of course still be too remote. It all depends on how often you have to turn up at the workplace in person – if you only have to go there once or twice a year, there’s hardly anywhere on the whole planet that’d be too remote.
So what will people be looking for, apart from fibre broadband? Good home offices are of course now a necessity, preferably with sound proofing so that you can work no matter what your kids are doing. And the corona lock-down demonstrated the value of having a garden, so that you can get fresh air and exercise even if you’re confined to your own property – although that might be a one-off issue that will quickly be forgotten.
We bought a rural property on a 2 1/2-acre plot of land (heated by geothermal energy) back in September, and it made the corona lock-down much easier to cope with. It’s not even that rural – we’re less than half an hour from the centre of Odense (Denmark’s third city), and 15-20 minutes from my job in Bogense, and it’s much cheaper than a smallish flat in Copenhagen.
Even before the corona crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested we weren’t alone. But now things are accelerating – see for instance this article in The Guardian:
The destinations where London househunters have registered to search in increasing numbers since lockdown include the Sussex beach town of Worthing, Ipswich in Suffolk and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, where populations are at least twice as spread out as in the capital. The biggest increase was seen by estate agencies in Aylesbury Vale, in rural Buckinghamshire, where in April 2019, only 28% of people signing up for viewings were from London. Since Covid-19, that number has risen to 44%. Its rolling fields are around 30 times less populated than the London average.
And of course, if enough people start doing this, house prices will start falling in the metropolises and start rising in the areas people are moving to. Once these trends become noticeable, the effect will start reinforcing itself, as people in the large cities rush to sell before the value of their property drops too far while trying to snap up a nice house in the new hotspots before there’s nothing left.
Some people will of course be left in the cities – the ones who can’t leave because they have a job there that requires attendance (shop workers, museum guides, bus drivers and many more), the ones can’t afford to leave, and the ones who won’t leave for personal reasons. But if the cities suddenly are filled with empty, decaying houses, boarded-up shops and transport links that get worse every year, it will potentially become a huge problem to prevent them from turning into dystopias.
Of course I might be exaggerating, but my gut feeling tells me the counterurbanisation movement will get stronger over time, not weaker.
For instance, I expect several other independent developments to strengthen the development, such as:
- Self-driving (autonomous) cars and drones will make it much less cumbersome to live in remote locations, because they can deliver your shopping, take your kids to football practice, or drive you home from the pub when you’re over the limit.
- Global warming will probably lead to a reduction in air traffic, so living near an airport will be much less useful, and living in a place you actually like will become more important. (So people might not only move towards less densely populated places, but also towards places with a nice climate – for instance from north to south within the EU.)
- Farming robots will make it possible for everybody to grow their own food, with very little effort. Most people like the idea of having fresh vegetables and fruit in their garden but can’t be bothered with the practicalities. Once robots take over the chores, most people will want to do this – if they have enough space. It’s just so much easier to be self-sufficient if you have a few acres of land than if you live in a tiny flat.
This means that the ideal property should tick the following boxes:
- Not too far from workplaces (perhaps two to three hours from major employers, but time will tell)
- Good connectivity (5G, or 4G mobile network and fibre broadband, for instance)
- Decent road connexions (that self-driving cars will be able to navigate).
- Not threatened by an increase in sea levels
- Plenty of land to be self-sufficient.
- If it also is beautiful and has a pleasant climate, even better.
In the long term, I tend to believe Paul Mason was right in his book Post-Capitalism, and that automation (AI + robots) will eventually erode the value of labour, leaving only land (and other physical resources) as valuable.
See for instance my review of the use of the Labour Theory of Value in Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism:
We might thus be heading for a situation where value derives from land (for living on, growing food on and extracting materials from) and energy (which ultimately derives from land, too). So an app or a book will be practically free, whereas a house, a gold ring or a trip to Barbados will still cost real money.
[…] [W]e’re therefore not heading for a future without money. Even if you tried, you’d get USSR-style black markets and corruption in order to get the most attractive house or the newest smartphone before everybody else.
I guess the real question is where people will get money from in the first instance if their labour isn’t needed. Landowners will be rich, but apart from them only people doing important work (such as building and maintaining robots) will be necessary. The rest can then to some extent make money by providing personal services to the landowners and robot builders and to each other, but it doesn’t sound like a very prosperous future to me.
If I’m right, people will never move back into the cities, and the people left there will struggle more and more, because they’ll have to buy food, energy, clothes and other things that people in the countryside will be able to produce themselves. This is pure speculation, of course, but if I’m right, the sooner you swap your inner-city flat for a large rural property, the better – the early movers always make a better deal that the ones catching up.