Moving to the country in the midst of the coronavirus crisis: Have cities reached their growth limit?

In the current state of emergency, many urban-dwelling families have sought shelter in the Estonian countryside. While precise statistics about the total number of such families is currently lacking, secondary data, such as changes in data traffic volume in different parts of Estonia, seem to confirm the trend.
Image credit: Inga Külmoja /

The state of emergency imposed to combat the spread of the new coronavirus is temporary, but it will have lasting effects. To be more precise, the question is how spatial relations between countries, companies, and people will be rearranged. Spatial arrangement and mobility are also bound to change. As cities are reaching their growth limit, these changes, in turn, have made us ponder whether the current urban-to-rural migration is temporary or marks the beginning of a major trend. There are arguments for and against this issue.

Rapid urbanisation started in Europe about two centuries ago, when the industrial revolution prompted a population shift and movement of jobs from rural areas to cities. Since then, the share of urban population has increased throughout the world, constituting about 80% of the population in developed countries and 70% in Estonia.

However, it is unlikely that the entire rural population would resettle in urban areas. Thus, in time, the likelihood of reaching a turning point will increase, often triggered by a specific event—the final straw that will break the camel’s back. The spread of the new coronavirus and the understanding that densely populated areas are a perfect breeding ground for such a crisis make the argument of the turning point all the more convincing.

Reaching the limits of urban growth has been predicted before—most recently during the 1970s global economic crisis, which triggered a population shift from cities to rural areas. The American human geographer Brian J.L. Berry proposed the term ‘counterurbanisation’, arguing that in the United States the concentration of population in cities, or urbanisation, was replaced by a state of population deconcentration and a move to smaller towns and the countryside. Ann Marksoo has observed a similar trend in Estonia, introducing the term ‘migration turn’ (Est. rändepööre).

In hindsight, we know that the turn was only a temporary fluctuation. Families resettle in areas around major cities, and while the official statistics indicate a migration to the countryside, it is, in fact, a case of cities expanding and sprawling across their administrative boundaries. These changes are generalised in the theory of urban development by Leo van den Berg and his colleagues, and a central process of this theory is suburbanisation.

The idea that urbanisation is reaching a turning point has been supported by several arguments, which could be termed as ‘urban pains’. Urbanisation is a major cause of environmental pollution, and urban dwellers are those who suffer from it the most. While there are certainly better job opportunities and higher salaries in larger cities, the housing prices tend to go up in pace with salaries or even faster.

Also, heavy traffic congestion in cities causes hours of delays in getting to work, school, or meetings. Life in major cities is anonymous and inequality looms large, creating a fertile ground for criminal activity. All of these factors combined are a source of stress and health risks.

The multitude of ‘urban pains’, however, is balanced by ‘urban attractions’, the most important of which are the abundant opportunities for studying, finding work, socialising, and consuming. Urbanisation starts when young people move to cities for their studies and settle there. When someone loses their job in the country, finding a new suitable position may prove challenging. However, in the ever-changing and transforming economy, constant job loss is inevitable, and finding a new suitable job in the city is a significant advantage.

The decreasing attractiveness of cities has been discussed since the birth of the internet and the concurrent development of remote work solutions. Paradoxically, every innovation and significant change has enhanced the role and importance of cities. Remote work has not been able to completely replace close contact, since people continue to need human interaction; also, a shared location is a source of synergy for business enterprises.

Larger cities can also offer better flight connections and other transport links. The current leap in the development of remote work and distance learning will reduce certain types of mobility, but cross-border travel will be restored sooner or later. Remote work and distance learning will not replace interpersonal contact in full, but they will introduce more flexible forms of working and studying in the future, and while the need for face-to-face meetings will diminish, it will not disappear entirely.

The current situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic—but also significant fundamental changes in values, characterised, for example, by the spread of the green revolution and sustainable approach—will not necessarily bring about mass urban-to-rural migration in Estonia. Jobs, schools, and other important places still tether people to cities. It is, however, likely that in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, purchases of holiday homes by urban dwellers will increase and the number of people who split their life between the countryside and the city will be grow.

As a result, the urban lifestyle is spreading to rural areas, and new forms of urban-rural lifestyle are being created. It is highly likely that with the advancement of age, owners of a holiday house in the country will spend more and more of their time in the countryside, because the location of the workplace becomes more insignificant as we grow older.

This is an example of life-cycle migration: young people move to cities, people of family age leave for the suburbs, and older people migrate to the country. Since higher education schools are invariably located in cities, the outward migration of young people from rural areas is inevitable.

In sum, it is too early to conclude that cities have reached their growth limit. The current crisis, however, has definitely strengthened the urban-rural bond and intensified the spread of new forms of urban-rural lifestyles.

Tiit Tammaru is Professor of Urban and Population Geography at the University of Tartu. Professor Tammaru is grateful to Andres Rõigas for his insightful comments on the original version of this essay, which was first published in the Estonian UT magazine.

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