Leaving big cities: A transitory fad or a consistent trend?
By Nguyen Minh Hoa
|Living closer to nature or in the countryside is now a way of life – PHOTO: THANH HOA|
Titles such as “Farewell to Moscow,” “Departing Seoul,” or “Goodbye Kuala Lumpur” have made the headlines in the international press these days, suggesting a phenomenon in which many people left metropolises for the countryside. In Vietnam, a similar fact has also happened when residents departed HCMC and Hanoi to live in rural areas. Most of them did so because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, will they return to their cities after the pandemic is over?
The industrial revolution which broke out in Europe and North America at the beginning of the 17th century also triggered the mass exodus from villages to cities which were huge industrial hubs. Ever since, such a move, be it fast or slow, has never halted. The world is now home to truly “megacities” that may house up to 40% of the national population with Seoul being a single example. In Europe, the urban population rate of over 70% is now the established norm.
Yet big cities have been facing with mounting pressures, such as high unemployment rates, unstable income, expensive living costs, environmental pollution, and traffic jams and accidents. According to sociologists, each urbanite has to shoulder from 20 to 30 extremely high risks every day—food poisoning, drug overdose, traffic and pit accidents, fires, building collapses, dog bites, and terrorism, to name but a few.
It was perhaps these piling pressures that started the big homecoming trend at the end of the 20th century. Last year, Covid-19 helped this trend swiftly gather momentum both in scale and pace.
Previously, homecoming or returning to the countryside involved mostly the elderly or the retired. Nowadays, returnees are also a considerable number of young people, which makes it more hectic. Rendered jobless by the global pandemic, hundreds of millions of people have to endure social distancing, constrain themselves in tiny apartments, confront permanent risks and be beset with problems on children’s safety. All these headaches have prompted many to find the countryside as an escape.
By returning to the countryside, urbanites are able to comply with social distancing regulations while enjoying fresh air and safe food, and maintaining better social relations. What’s more, they can do what they previously couldn’t in a city. That is, they can plant vegetables, raise animals or grow their favorite flowers. That is, all family members can sit together around a table for dinner, sip a cup of coffee and watch sunrise in the morning, read favorite books, and pay a visit to their rural neighbors, or a field, a brook or a hill. What a wonderful life!
Of the people who have returned to the countryside as a way to escape the pandemic, many will come back to cities when the pandemic is over. Yet some will remain in line with a new trend called “ecological lifestyle.” In developed countries, not only in the Western world but also in some Asian nations like Japan and South Korea, the concept of urban villages has resurfaced. Coming on stream are small towns whose population is a couple of ten thousands of or several thousands of residents. In these green towns, residents practice hi-tech agriculture, reinstate tradition values, reduce processed food, opt for folk songs and folk dances, and live in harmony with one another and with nature. This life is appealing to even young people in developed countries. It is the “leaving cities for villages” phenomenon in this time of epidemic that has contributed significantly to the restoration of the trio of farmers, agriculture and rural areas, an immense value of humankind which has been so far ignored in many places.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to come to realize the real value of agriculture and rural areas as a firm foundation for not only a nation but also humans as a whole. When attacked by the coronavirus, people have realized that countries relying on industries, commerce and services are the most vulnerable. Agriculture-based nations seem to have been less affected. Otherwise, their recovery pace is also quicker.
Currently, in the midst of Covid-19, several countries, such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, have proceeded with plans to develop “landless” agriculture. In Vietnam, despite the economic losses inflicted by the coronavirus, the economy still posted a positive growth rate, at 2.9% which was among the highest in the world. In the case of Vietnam, agriculture was one of the few sectors which contributed remarkably by earning US$45 billion worth of farm exports. Although this absolute figure might be lower than in some others industries, its socio-economic significance was enormous because agriculture is largely a “renewable” economic sector.
During the time spent in Denmark and Sweden, the author of this article was passionately briefed by local scientists, urbanists and architects on this category of economy. Their classic example was the concept of “one human life cycle – three plant life cycles.” The average lifespan of a human lasts 70 years. If this person grows the first tree at 10 years old, he or she will be able to grow three plant life cycles which can be used for constructions. Reversely, if a building is erected using cement, steel and sand, it will contribute to the destruction of hills, mountains and mines, which will never be seen again once they disappear. Meanwhile, if somebody fells a tree to be used as material and grows three more trees, he or she will get three similar trees in 10 or 15 years.
Likewise, land, orchards and fish ponds will be there if you know how to treasure them. Once exploited reasonably, they will generate properties and assets.
It is not by chance that the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity, albeit an irritating one, which offers humankind a chance to look back at themselves, and restructure mindset and rearrange economic foundation for the sake of sustainability and flexibility. In this process, the restoration of the “agricultural trio” plays the central role.
Hopes for “homecoming” is by no means a transitory fad when people are trying to seek a safe haven during a deadly pandemic. Yet it is a way to develop sustainably a diverse economy capable of withstanding any fluctuation caused by the weather, natural calamities or epidemics.