Untethered by the pandemic, urban workers consider a pastoral life

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Christine Dimitris moved permanently to Prince Edward County in May amid the pandemic, and has found that she has become a "nature person." Here she's in front of an old barn on her property that she hopes to restore.

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The allure of the city has long been debated. But never has an event touched so many people – essentially the entire world – or untethered so many from workplaces like the 2020 pandemic has.

Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto, says the pandemic has given way to a recalibration of values around home life. “People all over the world are asking these questions: Where do I live? Do I move to the country? Do I buy a single-family home? Do I get a place with a balcony?”

Why We Wrote This

The internet has made working in the city unnecessary, and the pandemic has made it undesirable. Will people make a permanent shift away from urban life to pastoral telecommuting?

Treat Hull, a real estate broker in Prince Edward County, a pastoral community east of Toronto, says the pandemic has intensified migration; home sales have doubled in July, compared with the same month last year. “For our tiny little community, it’s a tidal wave of interest.”

Many buyers are escaping the city temporarily, he says.

But there are modern forces at play that could lead to more permanent migration patterns, including the largest transfer to remote work in history. “Coronavirus has led to probably the greatest experiment of using technology remotely to facilitate work that we've ever seen,” says Shauna Brail of the University of Toronto.

Now that Christine Dimitris has moved from Toronto to Prince Edward County, an island on the northern shore of Lake Ontario known as “the County,” she heads to fresh produce stands when she needs groceries, not cramped supermarkets.

When she needs fresh air, instead of contemplating the risks of entering an elevator, she walks to her screened-in back porch, which looks out onto an acre of land.

“It’s depressing in Toronto, to be honest with you, especially in an apartment. It’s confining with the COVID,” she says. “There’s something about getting up in the morning and just hearing the birds or seeing an opossum going by.”

Why We Wrote This

The internet has made working in the city unnecessary, and the pandemic has made it undesirable. Will people make a permanent shift away from urban life to pastoral telecommuting?

She says she wasn’t “a nature person” before the pandemic, but since the move in May her priorities have shifted. And she is not alone.

The allure of the city has long been debated, beginning centuries ago with plague outbreaks, through the invention of the car, the internet and the first notions of remote work, and 9/11. But never has an event touched so many people – essentially the entire world – or untethered so many from workplaces like the 2020 pandemic has.

“A tidal wave of interest”

Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto, says he sees no evidence of an urban exodus. But he says the pandemic has given way to a massive unmooring for those who can now work from home, and a recalibration of values around home life.

“I’ve never heard so many people asking, should they move? Where should they move? People all over the world are asking these questions: Where do I live? Do I move to the country? Do I buy a single-family home? Do I get a place with a balcony?” he says. “People are really thinking about how they want to live.”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Patrons order gourmet sausages from the Old Salt Cocktails food truck at lunch to eat at picnic tables set against the background of vineyards and roaming chickens.

Dr. Florida says downtown cores of high-rise offices and generic suburbs outside cities could suffer. Pastoral settings, particularly those like Prince Edward County with proximity to urban centers, he says, will do “wonderfully well.”

Dotted with farms and vineyards, the County and its rural chic vibe has for years been attracting urbanites who have come for more space, a more leisurely pace, and cheaper housing. But the pandemic has intensified migration, says Treat Hull, a real estate broker with Treat Hull and Associates. He says home sales have doubled in July, compared with the same month last year. “I think I can only call it an explosion,” he says. “From our standpoint, for our tiny little community, it’s a tidal wave of interest.”

Many buyers are escaping the city temporarily, he says. And that’s a reflex that dates back centuries. Euan Roger, principal records specialist at The National Archives in the United Kingdom, has written about social distancing measures during 16th-century plague outbreaks. He points to a letter from 1532 to Thomas Cromwell in their State Papers collection that noted: “I have not seen London so destitute of people as it was when I came there.”

But there are modern forces at play that could lead to more permanent migration patterns, including the largest transfer to remote work in history. E-commerce company Shopify was the first major Canadian company to announce it was moving to a work-at-home model, consolidating the trend and freeing employees to live essentially anywhere.

“Coronavirus has led to probably the greatest experiment of using technology remotely to facilitate work that we’ve ever seen,” says Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the Institute for Management and Innovation at the University of Toronto.

Will it last?

Steve Ferguson, the mayor of Prince Edward County, says the island will be the beneficiary of this, given its proximity to Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. He personally knows two friends from Toronto relocating here this fall. Having moved himself 30 years ago, his mantra is that “everyone is welcome,” he says, then adds, “but please respect the reasons that brought you here.”

Tensions have grown, particularly as tourism swelled this summer. Beaches were so overcrowded that the provincial park sometimes closed down by midmorning. More important for locals, housing prices have increased too: on average by about 15% per year over the past five years, says Mr. Hull. This year they are up 25% from last.

David Banks, founder of Old Salt Cocktails, a food truck, moved to Prince Edward County from Toronto in 2016 to set up his business. It has boomed as he’s set up in the back field of a winery, where lunchtime patrons munch on gourmet sausage creations as chickens roam. But as he’s watched a steady stream of city dwellers follow his earlier path, he wonders about the nature of the place, and worries about his employees, most of whom can’t afford the housing costs.

Yet Dr. Brail says what appears to be a permanent values shift might prove an illusion. “You might get to have your coffee by the lake every morning. But do you have access to … the same kinds of other specialized services that you might appreciate or the cultural amenities?” she says. “And I am not convinced that all of the companies, especially the tech companies that have indicated they’re going to go digital by default, are going to remain in that mode when this is over.”

“There’s going to be a huge pull back to the city,” she predicts.

Ms. Dimitris, a retired teacher, doesn’t expect to be drawn back – except to visit her children and parents. She worried initially about turning her get-away cottage into a permanent home. “Initially I thought, ‘I can’t live out here. Like, what am I going to do here?’” But even as winter nears, she has embraced a new lifestyle – it has a name over social media, #cottagecore – that feels slower and kinder. “It’s really just a mind-shift for me just to move over here.”

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