When the grass is greener on the other side

With urbanisation nearing a crescendo, and a pandemic breathing down our neck, more and more people are looking at exploring rural opportunities that promise better resilience — entrepreneurial and emotional — in the future

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Fri 17 Dec 2021, 11:55 PM

Last updated: Sat 18 Dec 2021, 12:53 AM

After 30 years of a profoundly Parisian life, Arthur and Constance settled in Sologne in 2020, two hours south of the French capital, leaving behind the tumult which no longer suited them. In 2020, they acquired a magnificent but abandoned farm to embark on sheep farming and agri-tourism.

This was a total reconversion for Constance, a former logistics engineer at Louis Vuitton, and Arthur, a real estate entrepreneur at Domaine de Chasse. They are now proud owners of 300 of the famous Brebis Solognote sheep, a traditional local breed bearing the local name. They also sell delicious Agneau de Sologne meat as part of their current business, Ferme du Poirier.

For a change of this scale, Constance is remarkably candid. “Our goal is to reconnect with nature, get back to basics. And, we want to share this experience through agri-tourism,” she says. For her, renewed interest in nature is an opportunity to recreate the link between the rural and urban world.

“Agriculture is a good way to recreate this link because both the urban and rural worlds need to be reconnected to agriculture,” says Constance. Before Louis Vuitton, she worked as a quantitative analyst at Crédit Agricole, and then as a consultant at Accenture.

Here is another story from another part of the world, furthering the same trend. Hokuto City is located in Japan’s far northwest Yamanashi Prefecture. Mostly forested, comprising elevated highlands and a population density of just 78 persons per square kilometre, it is characterised by hot and humid summers and relatively mild winters. Hokuto is also famous for constant sunlight, over 2,500 hours per year, making it a popular destination for outdoor activities such as cycling and hiking.

The rural municipality of Hokuto stands out for one more unique phenomenon: even as it experiences a pervasive population decline, it’s turning out to be a popular destination for migrants from urban areas. Sologne and Hokuto collectively suggest that more and more people — especially among the affluent class — are beginning to see greater value in countryside living. Some have made a move, while others are weighing options. It is only a matter of time before more such moves become the norm.

A Journal of Rural Studies paper — that deals with diverse values of urban-to-rural migration — highlights a niche migration trend from urban to rural areas, particularly in post-industrial economies. Going by its hypothesis, widespread teleworking acceptance after Covid-19 might offer working-age people more comprehensive work and life options. The pandemic drove millions out of big cities in the developing world, and, if reports are to be believed, a large chunk of them are yet to return.

Future urban-rural population flows will undoubtedly be fuelled by unprecedented population concentration into urban areas, which raises global sustainability and human well-being concerns. Their move back to the countryside may present rural employment challenges, but it could benefit the agriculture sector if they acquire farming and entrepreneurial skills. Italy set an example where thousands of young workers fled urban lockdowns to the countryside and were lured by village leaders to stay back.

The process of counter-urbanisation

Counter-urbanisation, or deurbanisation, is a demographic and social process whereby people move from urban to rural areas. According to ScienceDirect, it is recognised as a central, geographically, historically, and socially uneven demographic feature of most countries in the Global North, “having been first identified as a mass phenomenon in the US by researchers in the mid-1970s”. The UN Population and Development Commission describes urban transition as “a change in a population that is dispersed in small rural settlements, in which agriculture is the dominant economic activity”.

There is little consensus on what primarily drives this phenomenon and where it could lead the demography to. Moreover, different scenarios are unfolding in different parts of the world. While the developing world’s urban populations are concentrated in megacities, urban sprawl is thrust around dominant business and industry-specific hubs in more industrialised countries. Perhaps for these reasons, prominent economist Walter Elkan propounded the idea of circular migration. He called urbanisation “an essentially impermanent phenomenon”.

According to Elkan, migrants to cities do not generally or immediately cut their links with rural homes. Elkan’s theory was based on the premise that “part of the urban populations in East Africa and elsewhere consists of people who have close connections with their villages of origin, to which they may ultimately return.” In a way, this theory suggests that no migration could be deemed permanent as human priorities change with circumstances.

An MDPI research — on migration, rural-urban connectivity, and food remittances in Kenya — surmises that most migrants expect to return home for better lives and develop communities at the end of a migratory life. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said recently that new technologies — egged on by the Covid-19 pandemic —have opened up new opportunities for rural development.

“Opportunities exist to build a greener, more inclusive, and resilient future. The experience of the pandemic has shown that where high-quality Internet connectivity is coupled with flexible working arrangements, many jobs that were traditionally considered to be urban can be performed in rural areas too,” Guterres is quoted to have said. Hence, technology and infrastructure influence and expedite this process.

The disparity debates

There is also an in-between phenomenon catching people’s imagination. It is called in situ urbanisation, that results from efforts to ensure that the rural population enjoys the urban-style standard of living devoid of unsustainable urbanisation’s adverse effects. It has had its benefits in some parts of the world. According to a UN report, improved access to education and healthcare in Sri Lanka, Japan, and China enhanced investment in rural infrastructure. It also reduced rural-urban income disparity and improved rural populations’ living conditions.

Gauri Khandekar, a researcher at the Environment and Sustainability Cluster at the Brussels School of Governance, looks at the transformation from a haves and have-nots perspective, depending on which region one is looking at. According to her, in places like Asia, “where youth from farming backgrounds left the villages to the cities,” reverse migration is a good sign because the pressure on the cities increased significantly while agriculture suffered.

“In more developed countries, it is seen as a quality-of-life issue. Given the high-tech jobs here with good broadband access, it is easier to live in rural areas and maybe commute to work in cities,” Khandekar says. However, she adds another layer to the debate, saying it seems “a rather global phenomenon as the climate crisis worsens.” Besides serving as the Deputy Director and Director Europe at Brussels-based think tank Global Relations Forum, Khandekar also initiated a large-scale development programme in Uganda.

Further afield, in the United States, being confined in small apartments for months due to Covid-19 has pushed many people to move from big cities to rural areas. A Gallup survey at the end of 2020 said nearly half of all US adults preferred to live in a town or a rural area instead of big cities or the suburbs. The figure went up from 39 per cent in 2018. This shift has been facilitated by good Internet connectivity in rural areas in the US and increased flexibility for remote working.

According to another data, more than 200,000 people moved out of the New York City alone to smaller towns and rural areas in upstate New York, looking for more space, closeness to nature, and greenery. However, this move has driven property prices up. In the small town of Kingston in the Hudson Valley, the median home price was up 17 per cent year-on-year in October 2021. These small towns are also at risk of losing their characters as more city dwellers continue this reverse urbanisation trend.

Far from the madding crowds

Mohammed Hamdaoui, a research director who recently moved back to the US after a few years of expatriation, was surprised to see the changes that the small town of Crofton, Maryland, has witnessed. “As I was looking for a property to rent, my agent told me that the demand for larger houses in the rural-like suburbs of Washington DC and Baltimore was very high, driving prices up as supply is quite scarce,” says Hamdaoui.

According to him, the driver of the move away from the two large cities is the desire for more space, quiet neighbourhoods, and access to more green spaces. “There are more people who are chasing the option to go further south looking for warmer weather and large houses,” he says. Hamdaoui sums up his take with another example. “A good friend of mine is working remotely out of Florida. His company allows 100 percent working remotely, and he likes warm weather.”

Isha Sharma lived, worked, and discovered herself in a monastery in a village in India for two years. Sharma has lived in six countries — including Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, the US, and the UK — and now works at the World Bank in Washington DC. According to Sharma, given the Covid-19 pandemic and increasing trend of remote working and everything online, being with nature is becoming increasingly important.

“On entering my 20s and after graduating from NYU, I moved to an ashram (monastery), away from the buzzing city life of New York. I craved not only outer but also inner peace to discover myself, my purpose, and contribute to society,” says Sharma. Spending almost two years in the monastery gave her perspective and enabled her with techniques to stay internally resilient amid the myriad of situations that life throws at us. “After the monastery, I went back to the city life.”

Going by Sharma’s experience, there is little doubt about which landscape is more welcoming. “Although I live in the city and call myself a ‘city girl’, my soul feels most at peace in the countryside. The nature, silence, and fresh air of the countryside calm, grounds, and refreshes me. It recharges my batteries and makes me ready to come back to the city to hustle and create more meaningful action and impact,” she says.

For many millions, a lack of infrastructure and inadequate opportunities and amenities stands between them and a move down the rural road. What drives them is a yearning for peace and tranquility that ceases to exist in urban dwellings. Whether they choose to enjoy the proximity to nature or return to the maddening crowds will depend more on material needs and less on spiritual solace.

Ehtesham Shahid is editor at the Emirates Policy Center


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