Urbanisation has long been a sign of progress, it has been something developing countries have strived towards. Historically, it has been a signifier of a transitioning economy from an agricultural based economy to an industrial economy and finally onto a service-based economy.
As a result, you could easily be forgiven for thinking it will always be a mainstay of human civilisation, particularly in the context of a burgeoning global population. In fact, in many ways we’ve been conditioned to view the future that way. For example, if you look at any futuristic film, our image of the future has been to find any means necessary to build cities out, and if out doesn’t work, build up or down. But is the reality actually different?
Up until the year 2020, there hadn’t been a huge shift in the percentage of people who worked mainly from home. In the UK there had been a steady increase starting out at 11% in 1998 and reaching 14% by 2019, but that wasn’t particularly groundbreaking. It wasn’t profound enough to raise our eyebrows let alone consider completely reimagining our future. And until that point there was little evidence to suggest the playing field would change much. However, with the shock created by the COVID-19 pandemic, this suddenly increased dramatically to 17% seeing the same growth rate in 12 months as we’d seen in the preceding 20 years. And commentators believe 2021 will see a further increase again. But again, 17% isn’t exactly a sea change, and who’s to say we’ll bounce right back if and when the pandemic subsides?
However, one thing is for sure. Attitudes have changed. As someone who started out their career in January 2020, pre-pandemic, I had never imagined a working life that wasn’t office-based. I’d heard of it being an option some companies offered and it was evident in my own company to a certain degree, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that it truly became an option in my own mind. The conversations I have had with other people confirm they were very much on the same wavelength. However, with the large cost savings, time savings, and increased flexibility in working hours, it’s not hard to understand why the majority of those given the taste of the working from home life want to at least keep it to a certain extent. Especially, given research indicates that employee productivity has stayed stable, if not increased during this highly peculiar last 18 months.
But this isn’t actually as new as it seems, urban decline has been on many researcher’s radars since the early 2000’s. The different causes that have been explored are very intertwined and quite complex as you can probably imagine, ranging from ageing population to resource depletion to deindustrialisation. In my mind, a big reason for deurbanisation is simply ‘because we can’. Digital transformation has given us the tools to work from anywhere across vast geographies facilitated by virtual collaboration and cloud technologies. In most developed countries, even the most rural areas now have stable internet connections, and with the continued roll out of fibre optic broadband, speeds are only going to increase and this is only going to get easier.
But what does this mean for our cities?
Anyone who lives in London will have played witness to the ghost town the city was demoted to during the pandemic. It was eerie. Mass exodus to suburban homes, parents, and in many cases, home countries, left rental prices and house prices in freefall.
With that comes the question, was that simply an abnormality or is that the trigger of a slowly unwinding trend?
As I have already mentioned, the vast majority of organisations have seen no downturn in productivity and many have actually seen an upturn since their employees started working from home. As things have opened up here in the UK over the last few months, many companies have encouraged people to come back to the office at least for a few days but if offices continue to be underutilised will companies want to continue paying astronomical rent?
And so, the COVID-19 pandemic may well have been our deurbanisation trigger, changing geographical labour mobility forever. To me it seems simple, if individuals only have to travel to an office once or twice a week, it completely changes the commute dynamic. Many people I have spoken to are more than happy to give up an extra hour on the days they do have to travel because they save so much time the rest of the week. This means they can live further away from the major city they work in, allowing them to buy a larger house, with a larger garden and quieter surroundings.
But what will be the impact on society?
Society, and our general sense of community and culture, are often massively underrated. It affects our general sense of belonging, our confidence, and with it our happiness. Any country, regardless of its physical size or population, is built on a national identity, but within that wider community there are many sub-communities of different shapes and sizes. The identities of these sub-communities are built on generation after generation of perspectives, views and lifestyles. We like to class ourselves as highly evolved, but in many ways it’s still very tribal in its nature.
At the moment, there are fairly clear lines between these tribal factions, we may not be able to see them but we all know they’re there. However, with this increase in geographical mobility, these intangible lines get dimmed more and more. And this will carry with it an array of changes. Smaller local economies will suddenly see an influx in higher income workers who want to move to these outlying locations. There are many positives. With it will come new ideas and an injection in the local tax base which can be used to update and upgrade local infrastructure. They’ll bring new political views, potentially reducing the geographical political segregation we often see across developed countries. But it will also come with its fair share of negatives. Local communities built on generations of tradition that have lived harmoniously for centuries, will suddenly be uprooted. The environmental impact will be huge as real estate developers look to take advantage of national hotspots, significantly changing land that has remained largely untouched. People will be forced to drive more in their everyday life as local amenities like supermarkets aren’t quite as local as before. Larger houses will take up more land, cost more energy to heat, and use up more resources to build.
As you can clearly see, there are a huge amount of pros and cons and debate will rage regardless of which side you sit on. Simple questions on the surface are much harder to answer when you start digging into it, like are we exposing ourselves to more diversity or are we homogenising society? The only conclusion we can make is this, in more ways than we probably expected, COVID has resulted in changes on a scale we’re still probably not even aware of today. Only time will tell the true extent of it, but one thing is clear, I’m a lot less confident in my image of future working life than I was 18 months ago.