HOW THE PANDEMIC IS RELAUNCHING SMALL TOWN LIVING

Plenty has been written in the past few months about how Covid19, a virus originated in China in a city of 11 million people, will change our urban living.

Past pandemics have pushed urban dwellers out of cities in search of cleaner and less densely populated environments, but once the emergency was over, people tended to come back to the cities in search of work, better healthcare and connectivity. Thanks to the advances of technology, this time around things might evolve differently. From Paris to London, from Milan to New York, countryside locations are becoming suddenly “more attractive”.

In the UK, rural estate agents have reported a surge in interest from people looking to relocate. Property agent Savills said the pandemic has led over 70 per cent of buyers under the age of 40 to seek a garden or outdoor space and four out of ten of those want a village location.

“The number of jobseekers wanting to get out of the capital has more than doubled in the last fortnight compared with the same period in 2019, according to careers advisory service, Escape the City”, wrote The Independent.

In Italy, a country known for its small towns and rich in art, history and traditions, Milan based architect Stefano Boeri came up with plans and proposals to use the current crisis to imagine a new way to live in urban spaces. Commenting in an interview for the Daily Telegraph, Mr Boeri, who designed in Milan the “bosco verticale”, a residential tower covered in plants, says government and local authorities should work on the “adoption of abandoned villages along the Apennine ridge by metropolitan areas all along the peninsula. The continuous search for solutions for the enhancement of the territory and of the smaller communities ignites the attention on the 5800 centres with less than 5000 inhabitants, of which 2300 in a state of neglect: a heritage of history and memory, in relation to the priority of making the territories at seismic and hydrogeological risk in the national territory”.

The organisations representing the small towns in Italy replied enthusiastically to the proposal. Rosanna Mazzia, president of the association of the Italian “borghi” (hamlets), said: “Italian small towns are the backbone of our country, places where you can live better and on a human scale. These are places devoted to thinking, places for a slower pace, that slow pace that is at heart of Italian craftsmanship, of quality agricultural produces, of our protection of biodiversity, of a landscape suspended between city and countryside, between land and sea.”

But while the pandemic has contributed to their revival, small towns in Italy have still a long way to go when it comes to digital connectivity and infrastructure. As Mr Boeri writes, this requires “new perspectives and collaborations with sociologists, anthropologists and local policies in order to use the contemporary crisis to redesign the way people live in urban spaces and to prevent cities from becoming sources of new and continuous contamination”.

In the US, the trend was already strong pre-pandemic among the millennials, priced out of buying in big cities. Millions of people who lost their jobs have been forced to leave cities once the crisis erupted. Others might now choose to do so for different reasons. “As work becomes less tied to the office or disappears completely, the pandemic is fundamentally changing the appeal, necessity and feasibility of living in a big city” writes the Washington Post.

“Some real estate data suggests many are already considering or making a move to a smaller town or suburb. Real estate company Redfin said page views of homes in small towns more than doubled during the last week of April compared with last year. Zillow, another real-estate listing company, says it has not seen any indications that people are looking to move from cities to suburbs, though people are searching for homes with more space and yards.”

It is too early to see whether this exodus will develop beyond initial explorations, but it is certainly a trend to keep watching and one that could bring a big shift in the way we live and work.