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We’ll have to alter course if pandemic shifts remain

The coronavirus pandemic has clearly upended our lives in the short-term. How many of the changes – working from home, shopping online, altered social patterns – will remain when life returns to normal remains to be seen. Speculating on that outcome is rampant just now.

High on the list of potential shifts is de-urbanization. In the past year, there have been higher-than-average outflows of people from Canada’s largest cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – to the suburbs, small towns and rural areas, according to Statistics Canada. About a third of those additional migrants were young people between the ages of 15 and 29, with 82 per cent being under 45.

Aside from altering the generally older demographics of areas outside the cities, there are numerous issues that arise for cities that have generally planned for increased development and infrastructure such as transit. What happens if you build it and people not only avoid coming, but start leaving in higher numbers?

That impact extends beyond short- and medium-term real estate prices to include the entire cost of urban living. It would be ironic if planning based on infinite growth had the same kind of impact, only long-term, that belief in ever-increasing housing prices did prior to the 2008 meltdown.

The pandemic showed us that working remotely, for instance, was viable, as we were forced to move quickly on something that had been talked about for years. Will that paradigm shift, along with the likes of the rapid extension of high-speed internet services to rural areas, lead to permanent changes in where we choose to live?

If so, we’ll have to rethink what has been a growing rural-urban divide.

While most of any change is unlikely to be of the Green Acres variety – giving up Park Avenue for farming – even a minor shift away from the decades-long urbanization trend would be notable. And likely largely beneficial in the long run, despite efforts to cram more of us into ever-smaller spaces.

More than 80 per cent of us live in urban areas. Some 35.5 per cent of all Canadians live in just three cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – up from 29.9 per cent three decades earlier, according to information from the 2016 census. That’s a trend that has continued, at least until now.

The demographic differences – cities are generally populated by younger, more racially diverse people compared to rural areas – have created both a cultural and political divide. That’s been a problem here – the debates over carbon taxes, pipelines and gun controls, for instance – and even more so in other countries, think of the blue state/red state issue in the U.S., for example, that shows how extreme the divisiveness can become.

An outflow from the cities could blur such divisions, though it risks bringing changes to areas that may not be keen on change.

Such issues are longer-term considerations, however. For now, we’ll be watching to see if the current relocation trends are simply a blip that will reverse course when the pandemic is brought to heel.

Along with the internal migration, polls show the pandemic has prompted many Canadians to reassess their living arrangements. According to a survey conducted by Leger, 32 per cent of Canadians no longer want to live in large urban centres, and instead would opt for rural or suburban communities. Moreover, the trend is stronger among Canadians under the age of 55 than those in the 55-plus age group.

Not only are Canadians more motivated to leave cities, but changes in work and life dynamics have also shifted their needs and wants for their homes. According to the survey, 44 per cent of Canadians would like a home with more space for personal amenities, such as a pool, balcony or a large yard. Builders of tiny condos – a condition from which Waterloo Region is not immune – will be taking note. If the shift holds, everyone will have to pay attention.

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