Will The Capital City Exodus Continue? - December 2020
December 3, 2020 / Written by Rich Harvey
Aside from self-isolation, contact tracing and social distancing, there’s another term that we’ve heard about non-stop almost from the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Decentralisation.
Just as our cities began entering lockdown, with our work and social lives changing virtually overnight, stories started cropping up about people fleeing urban settings in search of a better and quieter life.
COVID-19 was the final straw for some inner-city dwellers, joining affordability issues, traffic, congestion, cost of living and the sudden removal of the need to be physically present in an office.
With remote working and Zoom, the justifications for living in an expensive and unpleasant city disappeared. And so, we were told, Aussies began leaving in droves, seeking out the lifestyle of their dreams in regional towns and country settings.
This could spell disaster for the future of our major cities, experts warned. If there’s no one left in them, will they crumble and collapse?
Alongside the talk of this mass exodus is another conversation about what’s really happening.
There’s no doubt that some people in cities have packed up and moved, either to the outer suburbs on the fringe or to major towns not too far away.
But how prevalent this is remains to be seen. Apart from some case studies and anecdotal testimony from small town real estate agents, there’s no data to demonstrate how significant this so-called exodus is.
Declaring the death of the modern Aussie city might be a little premature.
Flexible working arrangements, including work from home, is something corporate Australia has discussed for decades but always put in the ‘too hard’ basket. It couldn’t be done. It would be disruptive. No one would stick with it.
Within a matter of days, they had it figured out and for the most part, the experiment has worked. Some big-name companies are sticking with it – Atlassian, the homegrown tech success story, will encourage its staff to stay remote.
But I’m not convinced the trend will last. Working from home has served its purpose during the pandemic and for some it may remain a convenient alternative. For the vast majority though? Back to the office they will go, I’m tipping.
There’s so much benefit to having people in the one spot. For one, it’s good for morale and mental health. Social isolation isn’t good in big doses and seeing your work mates on an occasional video call isn’t quite the same. It also reduces accountability and oversight.
And there are some industries that just can’t make it work, especially those with a lot of client-facing time.
Perhaps the exodus is less a direct result of COVID, or more a case of something that was sped up by it.
I wonder if there’s a demographic aspect to the trend in the Australian context. Perhaps it’s retirees who were already dreaming of an escape from the hustle and bustle of a city, who simply jumped while the going was good.
What better time to make a tree change than during a global pandemic that has shut down cities and made them difficult and scary places to live?
Perhaps it’s young couples who’ve started a family in the past few years and realise the trendy inner-city life they once enjoyed isn’t suited to school-age children. Suburbs packed with bars, tattoo parlours, social service facilities… all of those things that bring colour to a suburb… they’re fun until you’ve got to walk your little one to school past that.
Maybe those families are looking for an area that has access to the city to see old mates, as well as some wide-open space for their kids to run around, good schools, a sense of community, safety and security, and cheaper housing.
For now, all of this sounds like a good idea for many of us – having our cake and eating it too. But in the long-term, it’s not a realistic prospect to flee the big smoke for a small town.
The city exodus in search of a better lifestyle that’s been sparked by COVID is a phenomenon witnessed around the world. Social scientists have been observing it in the US, UK and parts of Europe.
In Canada, researcher S. Ashleigh Weeden said the decision to head for the hills was “complicated and not entirely rational”. As she wrote in an article for The Conversation: “Leaving the city requires people to replace urban resources with individual reserves: a guaranteed salary, the ability to work from home and the social and economic capital to support relocation.”
While some may pack up and leave the city, some may soon return. As she noted, history and research showed that people “still choose to move to communities with the infrastructure and amenities that support their lifestyle aspirations, and that allow them relatively easy proximity to their current urban networks.”
For many Aussies, that will remain a capital city setting – the newfound ease of working from home or not.
Our capitals, like Sydney, are economic powerhouses. Companies and major services will continue to be concentrated in these locations. And more to that point, you won’t get the same quality in small regional settings, and those considering a move will discover that. No late-night dining. No world class hospital. No quick and convenient public transport.
Professionals and younger, motivated go-getters will want to be in the city long after COVID has gone and we forget what Zoom is.
Yes, they might be busy and noisy. And yes, real estate might be more expensive than in a peaceful country village. But cities like Sydney and Melbourne are cultural lifestyle destinations that also offer everything those in search of career and social benefits want.
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