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The COVID-19 pandemic and the flight to exurbia

The COVID-19 pandemic and the flight to exurbia

As many people work from home, and as many are suggesting a preference to work from home, perhaps permanently, are people leaving the city for the countryside to live in exurbia, where larger homes on larger lots give people access to natural greenspaces? Exurbia has long been an interest of Laura Taylor, with her first article on exurbia that culminated in an edited collection about the ways in which society’s ideas about nature shape the place in which we live. As a consulting planner, Taylor saw firsthand how people’s ideas about the environment motivate their own choices about where to live, society’s choices about what kinds of places that we value, and how those ideas play into the land-use planning process that shapes cities and greenspaces.

The pandemic brought into sharp focus one of the greatest environmental challenges that we face: as people seek out greenspaces to experience the beauty of nature in their everyday lives,  we place greater and greater stress on wildlife and their habitats and increase the possibility of negative impacts, like the coronavirus.

Exurban landscape northeast of Toronto

Exurbia at the beginning of the pandemic was sought literally as a place of survival. The escape from the city that exurbia offers provided the escape from virus hotspots, especially New York City. Under normal circumstances, anyone making a decision about a place to live balances affordability, space, access to schools and other services, and the journey from home to work. The pandemic made space a premium. And then people with second homes have left the city for the cabin and cottage country if they were lucky enough to have plumbing and a decent internet connection.

Ironically, some of the places hardest hit by the pandemic and hit earliest are the amenity landscapes such as ski resorts that have been the playgrounds of the globally mobile. The most globally integrated places are among those that are the most scenically attractive and remote.

But space costs money.

The impact of telecommuting has long been of interest to researchers interested in urban regions. If people are able to work from home and are not limited in their choices by access to work by car or transit, then where are they most likely to choose to live? The research says that access to amenities is one of the biggest drivers for people who have choice. Amenities can be related to city life, such as leafy and walkable neighbourhoods with lots to do, and amenities can be related to nature, where a home in a scenic natural area with privacy and peace and quiet, away from the pollution and chaos of the city, has long been seen as the choice that many would make.

Evidence is already showing that the demand for living spaces outside of the city are in great demand. Exurbia is the permanent, but cottage country and other areas of scenic amenity for second homes are also very much in demand. For those who can work from home, where would they like that home to be?

Living large in the exurbia

Exurbs pulls those working in the knowledge economy out into amenity areas but with widespread impacts. Taylor’s current research on exurbia and COVID-19 is focused on the following questions:

Equity: Who has access to greenspace? Who is left behind? Are parks in cities big enough to serve people living at high densities? Exurbia also pulls secondary migration of the army of people who take care of the homes, properties, and families of the wealthy exurbanites.

Nature conservation: The pandemic has highlighted the pressure on greenspaces and the need for people to get out and engage with nature, particularly in densely settled areas. With travel for international vacations restricted, the impact on natural areas closer to the city is greater. But with the demand for exurban spaces, is land conservation more difficult for land trusts and other conservation organizations? With co-researcher Patrick Hurley, Ursinus College, Taylor is studying the impacts of the pandemic on conservation.

Greenbelts and growth management: Toronto has the Greater Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt, where the green infrastructure that the urban region relies on is conserved. But the pressure for land for new housing relatively close to the city may be growing. What does this mean for conservation of natural areas, areas needed as green infrastructure to mitigate stormwater within watershed?

Environmental governance: Elite control over exurbia is also of concern where folks, in the absence of sufficient oversight by the province or municipalities, take it on themselves to organize to protect the scenic nature of the areas they inhabit, such as lakefronts and forests.  The fear of COVID-19 may be making exurban nature less accessible to the public, where exurbanites restrict access, for instance to shorelines through legal and less-legal means. Working with Nik Luka, co-researcher from McGill, Taylor is studying access combining political ecology and club goods theory.