Reverse Migration: Back to the Village

At the end of 80s, a process of reverse migration from highly urbanized locations to rural territories started in USA, which was unexpected and fed intensive discussions . Share of rural population increased at the expence of such movements, which later also became characteristic in some of European countries. What is reverse migration? Who are the reverse migrants? What do they want?

Reverse Migration: Back to the Village
Quality life seekers move to villages with the hope to improve their lives - Kristina Khabalashvili

20th century was marked with the impetuous raise of urban population, which is still progressing. United Nations report of just few decades ago forecasted 70% of the world’s population to live in cities by 2050 (comparing to 25% in 1950). However, last decade tendency is towards the so called reverse migration: people moving from cities back to rural locations for permanent residency. We are not talking about spending a couple of public holidays in suburbs and summer houses, where most people spend their leisure time, but about sensible decision to live and work in villages.

It is clear that such cases are still not vast and statistics does not widely record this process, therefore I would not try and estimate the quantity of such re-settlers. My aim is to make clear the qualitative characteristics of city dwellers migration into the rural. What circumstances and motives push them to make such decision? What are they guided by while choosing a territory for re-settlement? How the life of ex-city dwellers is shaped after the decision is made and fulfilled? And which conditions might trigger the massive migration of city population into rural locations? 

Classic sociology spreads the tradition of urban and rural contraposition as of different styles and living types. In globalization times, large cities competed for the right to become not only the center of the national significance, but also “the global city”, which would connect all actors of the world politics and economics and would become a type of bridge between global processes and populations’ routine.

At the end of 80s, a process of reverse migration from highly urbanized locations to rural territories started in USA, which was unexpected and fed intensive discussions . Share of rural population increased at the expence of such movements, which later also became characteristic in some of European countries, such as France, where about 60 thousand people moved from cities to villages only last year.

As K. Mitchel states in the article “Understanding reverse migration”, this phenomenon should be understood not only as physical movement, but also as changes within the self-perception and preferences of those migrating. He distinguishes three types of reverse migration: ex-urbanization – migration to the suburbs, when migrants retain strong connections with cities due to work locations, social circles and unwillingness to lose a comfort level city provides;  urbanization substitution – which is typical for those forced to leave cities due to the lack of workplaces or higher living costs; and anti-urbanization – which unifies those who in principle repudiate urban way of life and want to live and work in villages on permanent basis.

Reverse migration supporters emphasize its positive influence on social-economic structuring of rural regions. Vast majority of migrants consists of qualified employees, having managerial skills and business people, introducing various capitals and innovations aiming agricultural reconstructions and development.  Moreover, reverse migration supports not only agricultural sphere of rural territories, but also recreation, communication, infrastructure, transport, education and health care, thus improving overall social sphere of villages.

However, it is not true for the most of reverse migrants. If village born and bred dwellers consider visiting cities as transferring to different reality, feeling discomfort, irritation and tiredness, recent reverse migrants call on cities just like their ex home, which is customary and familiar. These circumstances have far-reaching consequences: reverse migrants do not limit their contact with cities by a necessary minimum; they prefer to spend money in cities, use city infrastructure instead of bend every effort to development of rural alternative.

It seems sometimes, that reverse migrants just “are situated” in village, do not live there and certainly do not try and develop the location to make it fit for their needs. They also do not strive after establishment of close relationship with original village dwellers, but rather play a game of “peaceful and ecologically friendly” consumers returning almost nothing in exchange for it; village dwelling thus has a temporary permanency nature for them. Ex-city dwellers continue to be strongly affected by city provided entertainment such as restaurants, cinemas, cafes and shops and therefore interpret rural locations as the place to spend the night at, rather than a space where their lives are concentrated.

Some of such “semi-permanent” reverse migrants tend to complicate the lives of villagers through building luxurious houses, thus dramatically increasing accommodation prices and surround them with impermeable fences which become physical and status barrier hampering inter-socializing with village dwellers.

Most peoplesintention to move into rural location considerably depends on living and working favorable conditions development, although it is important to mention that such conditions do not influence the decision of those who do not connect their village dwelling with working in the same location.

Reverse migration potential is quite high on the assumption that favorable conditions are present, however there is not much hope that such conditions will be fulfilled in countries other than highly developed.

The list of conditions of potential reverse migrants looks unbelievable and includes workplace availability with salary not less than city’slevel, movement expenses compensation, agricultural manufacture modernization, preferential duties and accommodation reduced prices, centralized utilities, shopping, education and healthcare institutions and all aspects of infrastructure.

Reverse migration is believed to have push and pull factors. Most interviewed reverse migrants state that they have moved to rural locations after 2009, that was connected to “pushing” effect of economic crisis and this specific group by no means consists of lower classes; they are equipped with high education and consider themselves belonging to middle class. 

Economic crises, though quite influential in making reverse migration decision, is not the only reason contributing to the phenomenon. In general, there are four groups of reverse migrants: retired, “program”, “run-away”, and “quality life finder”.

Researchers’ special attention is directed to the migrator’s groups of pre-retired and retired ages. The fact on them developing 0.5 working places in rural locations per each is revealed[1] in USA. Besides, elderly people actively participate in social life of villages and volunteer in various rural organizations. Retirement is typically considered the start of the new stage of life, which is very often marked with the movement from city to village. This provides retired people the ability for self-actualization, using the skills gained for the life-time and strength still available at this age. Besides, the city’s pace becomes unbearable for many pensionable age people and they move to villages in order to restore a balance between private live and work.

“Program migrants” group consists of those who moved to villages using government subsidies or agricultural development credits. These migrants do not chose a place, a place choses them.

City run-away is the special group of reverse migrants. More often than not these are successful, but exhausted by city life people, which associate city with psychological discomfort, moral tiredness, senselessness, overconsumption and stressful activities lacking interest. City way of life totally contradicts their aims and spiritual values which motivates them to escape to villages. Such people are ready to sacrifice material well-being for the sake of self-harmony.

Quality life seekers move to villages with the hope to improve their lives, including ecological food, time saving based on distance shortening, changes in socializing and ability to spend more time with families.

Reverse migration is the turning point in life of migrant, dividing it between “before” and “after”, therefore constant comparison of old and new possibilities, advantages and disadvantages of urban and rural ways of living is inevitable and ex-city dwellers often try to convince themselves in correctness of their decision. One of the arguments helping them to do so is ecology. As the byproduct of reverse migration, a burden on environment might be lessened or strengthened depending on certain aspects, which I have tried to analyze a bit.

Just a couple of decades ago, urbanization in developing countries was treated as the positive development of cities. Modern urbanization cannot be disengaged from natural and ecological conditions. The most important factors determining the status of the cities and the quality of environment are chaotic character and density of built-up areas, where residential areas are quite often neighboring industrial plants. Environmental conditions of the cities challenge their sustainable development.

Indeed, large cities gave birth to the major sources of environmental pollution and deterioration for the sake of development of infrastructure, allowing cities' expansion and evolution. Large cities concentrate largest portion of industrial manufacturing, energy providers, transportation, which determines city’s structure and affects quality of environment.

It is estimated that a modern city with a population of about 1 million, utilizes daily about 31.5 thousand tons of Oxygen, 625 thousand tons of water, 9.5 thousand tons of fuel, and 2 thousand tons of groceries. At the same time, as the result of city’s vital activities, emissions of carbon monoxide to atmosphere is about 28.5 thousand tons daily, while discharges of waste water is about 500 thousand tons.

City’s development is accompanied by reduction in air quality, green territories and silence. Extent and concentration of air, land and water pollution is mutually conditioned. Urban activities cause processes and phenomenon, taking place not only in the air and on the land, but also underground, packed with communications, pipes, engineering installations along with the land pollution affect soil and plant covering, underground hydrosphere and geological structures.

Natural ecosystems are capable to withstand negative influences and restore their functional structures, however with certain limits. In conditions when influencing factors exceed self-restoring capabilities of ecosystem, it is destroyed and organisms composing it perish or migrate.

Urbanization can even change meteorological conditions and affect climate, for example cause clouds creation and increase air temperature over cities, creating phenomenon typical for large cities called “an isle of warmth”. It is offspring of all microclimate changes, caused by anthropogenic transformations on urban territories and is the most dangerous in hot, windless times.

Especially the transportation means, with the most influential to be automobile transport, serve as the source of air pollution from toxic and carcinogenic substances. Thus in fact, transport impact on environment starts with the roads’ building which not only changes topography, but also abolishes green covering, creates additional noise, vibration, dust, and pollution of air and water.

City dwellers are exposed to destructive impact of polluters, suffer from lack of water and oxygen, do not always have sufficient supply of sun light, therefore it is believed that de-urbanization might loosen load on cities, on city dwellers and on urban ecology, transferring part of it to rural locations.

It is important to remember though, that ex-city dwellers, more often than not, bring their urban habits with them when moving to villages. It is no secret that ecology has no borders in time and spaces, therefore moving from one place to another “is six of one and half a dozen of the other” unless people are willing and ready to change their general habits and practices completely.


[1]Serow 2003