As remote working has boomed during COVID-19, the rise in the number of people working from home has prompted many to reconsider where they wish to live. It’s causing what new research from the University of Utah refers to as “Zoom Towns”, which are places that have experienced a flood of remote workers fleeing cities to seek a quieter, often greener existence, and “commuting” to work electronically.
“This trend was already happening, but amenity migration into these communities has been expedited and it can have destructive consequences if not planned for and managed. Many of these places are, as some people say, at risk of being loved to death,” the researchers explain.
The researchers looked at around 1,200 rural gateway communities across the American West and found that many are experiencing a number of the same problems experienced by major cities, including transportation and housing affordability. These problems were already arising in 2018, and there is a sense that the pandemic has made them even further behind the curve as rapidly rising demand has outstripped their ability to respond.
Loved to death
The researchers quizzed local officials about the various planning challenges and opportunities they faced. Housing was a common concern for most gateway communities, with some 80% of respondents saying that the availability of affordable housing was problematic for their community.
The rise in popularity also brought with it transportation challenges, with traffic congestion widely cited as a major problem. These kinds of issues are clearly linked to more long-term population changes than the kind of peaks and troughs associated with tourism, and there was a common concern that COVID would cause these trends to deepen.
Of course, an influx of remote workers also brings with it considerable potential for economic development, but with the cost of living and house prices rising, the transformation will indelibly change these communities, as the average wage relative to the cost-of-living was tipping into unaffordable status for many locals.
“If you’ve been living there and growing up in this community and you don’t have a job that’s paying the salary of someone who’s in, for example, downtown Seattle, you’re going to be excluded from this community and your ability to invest in land and property if you haven’t already,” the researchers explain.
The challenges for rural communities have been significant for some time. For instance, research from Sweden’s Linkoping University highlights the growing divide in prosperity between urban and rural communities. Their analysis of the Swedish population shows a distinct surge in regional inequality, as more and more resources flood into cities that hoover up an ever-greater share of the national wealth.
The authors suggest that a dominant perspective of urban development is that cities tend to go through a similar lifecycle of socioeconomic growth, with the only difference being the scale of that growth for cities of varying sizes. It’s a view that proposes a parallel growth trajectory, with the divide between cities largely remaining the same.
“This idea has always puzzled me. It does not correspond to the increasing regional inequalities we observe in many countries around the world. The notion that cities grow completely in parallel appears empirically ill-founded as it is derived from datasets that only cover larger metropolitan areas. It misses out on small towns, many of which face a struggling economy and sustained out-migration of young and educated individuals,” the authors explain.
While the return of city dwellers may on the surface seem like a reversal of these fortunes, it will undoubtedly cause a period of upheaval, with residents in the Utah study highlighting difficulties in terms of housing, congestion, environmental degradation, and a general decline in quality of life. These towns often have an infrastructure that was simply not designed for such an influx of people, with local governments often failing to cope.
“Many places have experienced this common trajectory. How does a gateway community navigate tourism, and growth writ-large, more gracefully?” the researchers explain. “COVID-19 really blew the lid off that challenge.”
Help to adapt
To try and help these communities adapt to the changing demand and circumstances caused by COVID, the researchers have helped to create the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative, which is an affiliation of university faculty, government and state agencies, non-profit organizations, and community leaders that supports research, educational efforts, and capacity building to help public lands managers and others.
The project provides communities with an online toolkit alongside a platform for peer-to-peer learning between communities and a series of educational events. If the transition to remote working is one that is likely to stick, then the lessons from these communities may be applicable in towns around the world that receive an influx of remote workers leaving cities. A lot of thought has been given to the impact on cities of workers leaving, but not as much on the towns that will receive these workers.
“The main takeaway from our study and work with gateway communities is that these towns and cities need to plan ahead to manage change and the things that come with it,” the researchers conclude. “The goal of the GNAR Initiative is to help these places thrive and preserve the things that make them so special.”