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Why There Might be a Movement out of Cities Post-COVID

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

I live in Cape Town. I moved here because of the promise of the city, the vibrancy, the young-working culture, the art scene and creativity of the environment. I wanted to spend time with like-minded people in a city that promised more financial opportunities. I wanted to live a Cape Town lifestyle; going outside during the week, remote work, cool events and cool people.

I found that I couldn’t afford the lifestyle that the city promised. Every event costed almost 1 week worth of groceries, almost no company offered remote work and flats to rent were terrible quality. I have lived in 4 different setups while being in the city, and not a single one of them has had proper built-in cupboards.

I could put up with all of that, because I was still new to my career and I had an amazing community. It did take me a year and a half to find true community but once I did, I loved it. I had no desire to leave it.

I got to a place of being aware of Cape Town’s flaws but still enjoying the city because of my community. I negotiated some remote work and started earning enough that I could enjoy Cape Town a bit more.

The city was buzzing and there was non-stop event after event. I was planning a wedding at the same time. Life was chaotic and social. To be honest there was too much going on. True rest wasn’t much of a choice living in the city.

Then a pandemic hit. I went with my Fiancée (now wife) to stay with my parents in a small town for hard lockdown. Everyone was now working remotely, no socialising was happening, stopping was the only option.

After hard lockdown and an interesting journey to get married, my wife and I moved back to Cape Town. We were incredibly glad to be back.

After a week or two, we realised the city was not the same place. Everything that made the city nice was gone. What remained, were the negative parts. Yet, the rent prices remained the same.

Living in a city is typically more expensive but they offer work opportunities and vibrancy. Now, Cape Town has little vibrancy and very few work opportunities. At the same time, much of South Africa has been working remotely for the last 4 months. A third of a year!

Many jobs absolutely can be done remotely. So does one need to be in a city to find a job anymore? Almost definitely not.

During a pandemic, all a city offers is crappy properties at inflated prices with almost no work opportunities. Why then would I live in a city? I mean Cape Town does at least have a flat mountain. Neat for tourists (none of them anymore), but other mountains still have an immense beauty. Why pay inflated rates for a flat mountain and an ocean I can’t swim in?

Look, I used to be one of Cape Town’s bigger supporters, I loved this city and it’s alternative culture. However, experiencing a city during a pandemic is completely different. My community were the ones that made me truly love the city, but I don’t get to see them.

The job opportunities, the professional and academic vibrancy that the city had were unbelievably attractive. Those are gone. And there are only so many flats with no built-in cupboards a man can take before he breaks.

Okay so now that I’ve told you how I feel. Here is my theory. I think there is going to be a movement out of cities, and I think that is going to be a good thing.

A mass movement out of cities

Many of us have lost our jobs, and we needed those to pay to live in the city. If we don’t get another job in the next few months, where does that leave us? Rent is probably your biggest monthly cost. Naturally that will be the first cost you look to cut.

If you are a single young adult, you may have to move home. If you are a bit older or married it will probably require you to move into a place with lower rent or bond payments.

While cities might offer that once the property market catches up with the job market, right now it does not offer that. In Cape Town you can still easily pay R 10 000 for a decent 1-bedroom. Where as if you move to a smaller town you can get a 2-bedroom with better finishing for R 7000.

Financially it makes sense to move to a smaller town. That presumes you have a job though right? And small towns don’t have as many employment opportunities. That is true, but again most of the world has been working remotely for the last 4 months. A number of international tech companies have already committed to working remotely until 2021.

On top of this some companies in other countries are specifically looking to outsource jobs to other countries because they can pay you less than a local in their country while still getting a high quality of work. The benefit is that you will still earn more than a local company might pay you.

Also if your company is wanting you to work in the office right now, Are they really committed to you as an employee? Or do they just care about their bottom line? In some industries having people in your office is of the utmost importance, while in others there is no reason for an employee to be in the office.

Apparently remote work improves productivity, performance, engagement, retention and profitability. Everything you want from an employee. At least that’s according some of the world’s leading research institutions. Again, if your company refuses remote work, should they have a place in a post-COVID world? Or will they survive it?

My point is that remote work options are increasing and will probably keep doing so. Now you can get a higher-paying job just through the internet. While paying less rent in a smaller town.

Of course those work opportunities are only accessible by the middle class. What about the poor-majority of South Africa? Here is where a mass movement out of cities might be a good thing.

Improved living conditions for those forced to live in cities

In Cape Town the demand for property was so high that landlords were able to charge exorbitant rates for badly managed flats. As the demand decreases, the prices should decrease.

One would hope that prices should decrease to a point where those who work in the city can afford to live in the city.

The property prices in Cape Town have had exclusionary consequences. The only people who could afford rent were Europeans, people with generational wealth and those with high-paying jobs in the city. Who are those people? For the most part, white people.

Now if prices drop drastically someone that has a more remedial job can aspire to live closer to work as living costs drop.

I think that if we disperse the middle class out of cities into the rest of the country we could see more areas becoming more diverse. Hopefully having a positive impact on reversing Apartheid spatial planning. Why would that be the case?

Let me put forward an example; imagine someone moves from rural Eastern Cape to the city to find more economic opportunities. Right now as a young South African it seems like the only options are Cape Town or Johannesburg. Let’s say they move to Cape Town, but with current rental prices they can only afford something in Gugulethu (I have seen a room in a house share in Gugs for R 2000 before – so that used to be a real possibility).

From where they live the only options for transport are a taxi or the train, which are affordable but it takes 2 hours to get to work and 2 hours t get home. If they start work at 8, they have to leave home at 6. Then if work finishes at 5, they get home at about 7. Then they have to cook dinner, catch a breather before going to bed. Only to get up at 5ish to get ready for work the next day.

The stress of taking public transport is more tiring than you can imagine. So they are running on minimal rest and every day stress of public transport.

How well do you think that person will perform as an employee? I’ll tell you, poorly. That means, they are more likely to lose their job, less likely to get a promotion and overall less likely to get out of poverty.

What if we changed that situation slightly. Give that person a place to live a 15 minute walk from work. They can leave home at 7:45, be on time every day, and they can get home at 5:15pm.

I lived a similar situation. In 2018, I lived walking distance to work but because it rained a lot I relied on public transport. I kept my work to a high standard but doing any work over and above that felt impossible. During that year I got home between 6 and 7 every day. Most days, I got home and collapsed in my bed. I did some freelancing to earn extra income, but it was challenging.

Then in 2019, I lived 15 minutes from work. I was able to get up 05:30 and get an hour of work done before I went to work, and then when I got home I could get an hour or two of work done in the evenings. While maintaining a social life.

Thanks to that I was able to freelance, I launched a podcast and started my own web platform (this very site). That is three potential streams of income. Just by cutting out travel time, I was able to increase my potential for wealth.

Give that access to people who actually need to live in cities for work, and the country might just change. Time spent on transport has economic value for the individual.

The truth is poor South Africans are people of colour. As soon as you provide access to better economic opportunities by decreasing the cost of living and time of travel, you can do something to uplift the poor. In turn making South Africa a less racially and economically divided place.

What about the small towns where the middle class might move to? Well, they may just get more financial injection and by doing so create more economic opportunities outside of Johannesburg and Cape Town. The person that had to move from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town can move to PE and find similar economic opportunities.

If you do that, all of a sudden us white people don’t all move to Cape Town and push people of colour out. Instead we start to racially integrate across the country.

Is this overly optimistic? Possibly. However, watching the current economic climate and having lived some of the realities I am arguing for. I think it is reasonable to think that a mass movement out of cities will take place and that it will be a good thing.