Rural vs Urban: how will COVID-19 change the way we live? – Keele University

Countryside with city in the distance

Professor Simon Pemberton, Professor of Human Geography, looks at how the Covid-19 pandemic might impact on our attitudes to city and country living in the future.

In the midst of COVID-19, estate agents and property investment specialists across the world have highlighted how individuals will seek to migrate from larger cities to less densely populated rural areas in order to escape confinement and to reduce the risk of being exposed to such viruses in the future. But how valid are such arguments and is the turn away from the city to the countryside inevitable?

Rural areas and urban areas are interdependent, not separate

Reflecting on discussions of COVID-19 on the future of rural and urban areas, it is evident that much of what has been written to date treats rural and urban as separate. One notable exception is work being conducted by researchers involved with the ‘Robust’ Rural-Urban Europe project, which has highlighted the importance of rural-urban interdependencies. As such, whilst higher population densities in urban areas matter in relation to the speed at which infectious diseases such as Coronavirus spread — and reflected (with some exceptions) in the higher rates of COVID-19 infection in urban areas of Europe — the flows of goods, people and services between rural and urban areas means that the countryside is not immune.

Rural areas are not necessarily safer

Given the importance of rural-urban interdependencies, rural areas are not necessarily safer than urban areas for a number of reasons. ‘Coronavirus holidays’ have been widely documented, with research highlighting how urban residents may be more ‘risk averse’ and with such individuals not realising the risks that they carry with them when visiting or working in rural areas. Equally, in many countries across the world rural populations are — on average — relatively older making them more at risk of falling ill, and which may be compounded by the more limited provision of — and access to — health care facilities. The latter can be quickly overwhelmed if there is a significant and sustained outbreak of an infectious disease.

Place matters: Rural places are differentiated

Notions of a ‘chocolate box’, idyllic countryside are often wide of the mark and highlight the need to treat both rural and urban areas as ‘differentiated’ rather than homogenous. It has been argued that home working has been relatively successful during the COVID lockdown and that this will encourage many employers to allow their workers to split their time between the home and office in the future, leading to individuals moving further into the countryside. But this fails to recognise the huge differences in access to ‘virtual’ mobility, and with many parts of rural Europe and the UK (for example, Northern Scotland and West Wales) having painfully slow broadband speeds, making home working much more challenging. Moreover, there are clear differences between rural areas in respect of local economic conditions, the availability and affordability of housing, access to local services and connectivity and proximity to other places. All of these issues will impact on the extent to which rural places may serve to offer a suitable alternative to urban living.

‘Urban living’ will still remain important but perhaps in new and different ways

There remains considerable optimism in the ability of cities to bounce back from the effects of COVID-19. History shows that from the bubonic plague through to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, cities afflicted by such pandemics recovered. But they did so in new and different ways. Consequently, there are a range of possibilities for the nature and form of the 21st Century post-COVID city. These include a re-energization of the creative form of cities that will serve to push young people back into urban centres; improved urban zoning and use of green space to promote smart density, a renewed emphasis on developing new forms of sustainable transport and mobility, and greater concerns with addressing social inequalities (including the availability of affordable housing which is not necessarily based on close communal living). However, a move towards a less dense urban landscape that reduces the potential for disease transmission will need to be squared against efforts to concentrate activities to improve environmental sustainability.

New geographies of settlement in rural and urban places?

In the post-COVID era both rural and urban areas will be affected in terms of where people wish to live and work. The challenge for rural and urban planners is to ensure that new patterns of settlement and new ways of working are appropriately managed. This will help to ensure that well connected, ‘high amenity’ urban areas which may become increasingly attractive (such as Exeter, Cambridge, Harrogate and Oxford in England) do not develop at the expense of other rural and urban areas.

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