May COVID-weary urbanites flock to the countryside?

Do you want new neighbours? That might be a question rural Canadians should ask themselves this summer.

Do we want urbanites buying homes in our towns and rural municipalities, bringing their city ways, sensibilities and appetites? The things many of us have chosen to forgo or escape?

It appears, based on realty sales reports across North America, that the advantages of the rural lifestyle are being recognized by COVID-wary and COVID-weary urbanites.

New remote working opportunities have been created overnight and demands to tether workers to a physical location are eased. Many people choose not to attend centralized workplaces. They’ve realized that lower cost and potentially safer environments might be available in the countryside.

If folks go far enough, and avoid the more intense industrial areas of rural Canada, they can find housing bargains, especially in the busted parts of the boom and bust petroleum world in the West.

Rural communities in Western Canada began to die shortly after being born. In the first 30 years of Saskatchewan, its population jumped from 100,000 to 900,000 with most of them living on farms or in small communities. It took another 85 years to gain another 200,000.

Alberta, which grew rapidly from the late 1950s onward, reached a 750,000 population by 1935, most of it on farms and in small centres. Now it has more than four million, a quarter of them in Calgary and environs. Manitoba also plateaued in the 1930s at 700,000 before rising to just shy of 1.3 million. Today’s prairie people mostly live in cities or a few larger towns.

Saskatchewan now has 146 towns with a cumulative population of 138,000; Alberta has 108 and Manitoba 25. There are also many communities in the village and hamlet classes, as well as other unorganized municipal arrangements.

Could these small communities be poised for a renaissance? Most folks looking to escape the costs and vulgarities of city life will likely be younger couples with families.

While home schooling is all the rage, those folks will need schools, which tend to be more available in the town-class of communities.

The aging and declining populations of most towns have been under pressure to pay for these, along with hospitals, so new blood, kids and taxpayers will be welcome.

Coming from the cities, they will expect high-quality, potable water from their taps and reliable sewer systems that don’t require regular pumping out. Thus town infrastructure investments might be required in some — OK, many — cases.

The potential to have new residents with tastes for greengrocers and pre-made iced coffee, rather than leftovers at the rink, could offer additional volume and diversity of sales for the local co-op or mom-and-pop store.

Of course, signs might be needed along canola fields reminding newcomers that those greens may have recently been sprayed and should not be snagged for salads (see story on page 14).

Newcomers would need to learn rural transportation idioms, such as “cutting-the-road” in spring and the need to get “blown-out” in winter, and they shouldn’t assume anything when the whole community waves at them from their vehicles.

Of course, internet will be the most important factor to attract and retain future urban-expats. Maybe the pressure newcomers could put on governments to improve rural high-speed internet would be worth a bunch of newbies in our communities.

We could leave some canola unsprayed by the road for them, in exchange for faster connections.


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