Will rural living become more desirable post-corona?

Urban regions have been more severely affected by COVID19 than rural areas. The rapid spread of the virus in urban areas can primarily be explained by population density, while the population composition and international travel patterns also play a role. On the other hand, rural areas can be more vulnerable to an outbreak, especially if some of the scarce group of healthcare workers contract the virus or are quarantined. Nordregio has started looking into the impacts of COVID19 on demography and urban-rural flows in the Nordic Region, including the use of second homes.

Demographic change in all Nordic countries

“The COVID19 pandemic raises interesting issues regarding all three principal determinants of population growth: fertility, mortality and migration,” says Timothy Heleniak, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio. He is one of the authors of the demography section of State of the Nordic Region 2020, an annual publication providing an overview of demographic development, economy and the labour market in the Nordic countries.

“We’re already seeing large differences in the number of deaths among the countries, and also dissimilar effects of mortality by age, gender, health and immigrant status.” One of the more striking developments, he says, is the COVID19 mortality rate in Sweden, which by far tops the other Nordic countries. “Regions and municipalities with large shares of economically disadvantaged people, high unemployment rates and many low-educated people tend to have higher mortality rates. In this case, the immigrant population also seems to be more affected.”

As in most industrialised countries, there has been a long-term trend of rural to urban migration in the Nordic countries. Due to the restrictions on mobility, both within countries and across borders, Heleniak expects a significant impact on migration patterns.

“Nordic countries have high rates of international migration and a large share of foreign-born populations. With the closing of the EU borders and the restricted internal movement, migration will most certainly decline. By how much, we don’t know yet.”

Disruptive changes to the labour market

As part of the European research initiative SHERPA, Nordregio has created multi-actor platforms to address various rural development issues. The Nordic stakeholders in this network are now involved in assessing the local impacts of the pandemic across rural regions in the Nordics.

“We were quite happy to learn that many of these rural areas have proven to be quite resilient to the situation,” says Michael Kull, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio. “In Finland, for example, switching to remote working and distance learning happened very quickly.”

Kull is convinced that the tremendous increase in the use of digital technology for distance working will fundamentally change the dynamics of the Nordic labour markets. A recent Finnish study shows that around one million Finns are now teleworking, and that more than half of them would like to continue that, at least part time.

“We’ve seen enormous changes to our working lives, with many more home offices and less commuting and travelling,” says Karen Refsgaard, Research and Deputy Director at Nordregio. “It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this does not necessarily apply to all segments of the population. It has for instance not been possible for people in low-paid jobs, such as bus drivers, taxi drivers and cleaners, to work from home throughout this pandemic.”

What makes an attractive rural area?

Nordregio recently finalised the project Rural attractiveness in Norden. Based on 14 case studies, the researchers analysed the reasons why people choose to live in and move to sparsely populated and remote rural areas, the main motivations for migration between rural and urban areas and vice versa, and lastly the future perspectives for young people.

“There are different rural attractiveness models out there, but the traditional economic assumption is that people follow jobs,” says Michael Kull, adding that Nordregio’s research applies a much broader perspective. Job availability and housing are of course an important consideration, he says, while things like access to outdoors and recreation and more leisure time are often also mentioned as a reason. “Rural attractiveness is a combination of jobs, business development, entrepreneurial culture and the general quality of life in the place in which you live.”

“There’s no generic recipe for rural attractiveness,” Refsgaard adds. “The interactions between the municipality and businesses are very important, and we also see that education, especially if it’s linked to local opportunities and industries, can be decisive to attract young people.”

Many rural areas in the Nordic region have been dealing with outmigration, population decline and an ageing population for decades. Karen Refsgaard argues that the ability to offer suitable housing options is vital for these communities if they want to remain attractive to young people and people with higher education and high income.

“In fact, developing the housing market and new housing typologies, such as zero-energy and shared housing, could potentially create important revenue for small and innovative businesses and local craftsmen.”

More domestic tourism and use of second homes

As a result of the ongoing urbanisation and increasingly compact Nordic cities, many choose to compensate for the lack of space by acquiring a second home. These second homes often come with private gardens and access to nature, thus providing a pleasant break from the busy urban life.

“There’s a strong tradition for second homes in the Nordic Region,” says Research Fellow Louise Ormstrup Vestergård, one of the researchers behind Urban-rural flows from seasonal tourism and second homes. “What we’ve seen during the pandemic is that these increasingly important movements between urban homes and rural second homes have been greatly restricted or even forbidden, which has been a source of some frustration.”

The global tourism industry is among the sectors that have been affected the most by the COVID19 crisis. Many rural areas in the Nordic Region are highly dependent on income from tourism, which is why they are now exploring various ways of stimulating travel and local tourism.

“Right now, tourism is heavily affected, but in the years to come, I believe that we might see changes in travel habits, with increased domestic and regional tourism,” she says. “This could very well create new opportunities for rural municipalities in the Nordic Region.”

She adds that these questions are also being addressed on a national level. Borders that have been closed are reopening, either fully or partly, as the countries attempt to find the delicate balance of rebooting tourism without running into a second wave of the virus. As an example, Denmark and Norway have opened their borders to selected countries, while Iceland has opted to test all travellers upon arrival.

“The question remains, however, if and when international tourism will reach its previous heights,” Vestergård says. ”Will flight tickets for instance become as cheap as before, and if not, what will be the effect? These are crucial questions for the entire Nordic tourism industry.”

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