Pandemic Leads To Urban Exodus As Families Turn To Self-Reliance And Off-The-Grid Living

Chris Dorsey
June 10th, 2020

For Los Angeles-based television executive Stephanie Steele and her husband Peter, and millions of Americans like them, orders to shelter in place became a cue to flee. In their case, to Bigfork Montana, population 4,270. As densely populated cities across the country felt the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis and became ghost towns, many people decided that societal escape was a better option than mere social distancing. 

“We loaded up my parents (both cancer survivors), a college-aged nephew and the dog,” says Stephanie, “and drove two straight days to get to Bigfork. My husband and I planned on staying a few days before returning to Los Angeles. It’s now been 10 weeks. We asked ourselves, what are we rushing back for?”

What started as a temporary fix for many has grown into a movement that’s showing signs of becoming a tectonic shift in how and where Americans live. Businesses, too, are learning from the forced quarantine experiment of 2020 as they recalibrate the way forward in the wake of COVID-19.

According to a new Harris Poll, nearly one-third of Americans are considering moving to less densely populated areas in the wake of the pandemic. The survey sampled more than 2,000 American adults from April 25-27 and found that nearly half of urbanites had browsed on-line for homes, condos or apartments to rent or buy away from metropolitan areas. Historically low interest rates also have helped spur the desire to relocate. 

“I think what we’re seeing is a massive self-reliance movement,” says Josh Enyart, a veteran survival specialist and consultant. “The denser a population, the more people there are to potentially participate in social unrest. People instinctively know that the safest bet is to get away from those highly populated viral hot zones, which is why you’re seeing so many folks escape to small towns and rural America.”

For the Steele family, the sparsely populated countryside of Montana was the perfect place to weather the pandemic. “I love taking daily walks up here,” says Stephanie, “looking at Flathead Lake and the snowcapped Glacier Mountains. And sunset is around 9:30pm every night and twilight has a certain glow that’s more magical than I’ve ever experienced.” 

With better broadband connectivity and the ability to tele-commute from almost anywhere, businesses across the country are reconsidering the need for centralized and expensive downtown office buildings. Moreover, many workers and companies are realizing that employees are often more productive away from office settings so the idea of working from home—wherever that may be—has become a virtual national water cooler debate. 

For others like Tim and Amber Bradshaw who moved from the outskirts of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to a small farm in rural Tennessee, the choice to live off-the-grid was about peace of mind. “There’s a confidence that comes from knowing that you don’t have to rely on anyone else for basic necessities,” says Amber. “The Pandemic has been a wake-up call for our entire society. You don’t want to be dependent on others for your essential survival needs, and the feeling of panic that hit Americans as they walked into empty grocery stores has changed them.”

“The basics of survival are shelter (warmth), water, food and personal security,” says Enyart. “If you can provide that for your family you can endure most calamities. And many people fear that this isn’t the last pandemic we’ll see in our lifetimes, so they want to be ready for the next one—especially if it’s worse than COVID-19.”

The off-the-grid movement began well before the pandemic but the virus along with recent riots across American cities have accelerated what’s being called the impromptu migration of 2020.  Google “moving off grid” and 192 million entries pop up. For many, like Daniel & April Phelan, leaving Atlanta where they lived for a decade was about living a self-sufficient lifestyle. The couple and their newborn live on a 260-acre north Georgia farm with a well, solar power, numerous fruit trees and berry patches as well as chickens and cows, far away from what they see as chaos in urban centers. The area has abundant game as well and since Daniel grew up hunting in Georgia he has the skills to harvest the land’s natural bounty. “We have a freezer full of venison, the healthiest meat you can eat,” says April. 

“We lived less than a mile from where the recent riots took place,” she says, “so when we see what’s happening around the country and talk to our friends hunkered down in cities, it’s an affirmation of the choice we made to be self-sufficient on the farm. Fear is gripping the nation and is the big motivator encouraging people to get out.”

Family photo
Daniel and April Phelan left Atlanta to embrace living off-the-grid on their north Georgia farm. COURTESY OF DANIEL AND APRIL PHELAN

While moving to the country might mean giving up nice restaurants, better healthcare and entertainment options, it also comes with a reduced cost of living, less crime and a lower stress lifestyle. What started as a temporary quarantine for some now has people realizing the virtues of rural living, something many are considering as a long-term life change. 

“The fresh, expansive air and the lesser restrictions in Montana have been very appealing,” says Stephanie, “and while I miss my friends I don’t miss the traffic or the crowded parking lots.” For millions of others, the work-at-home trend is here to stay and has grown rapidly because of the pandemic.

In his work, The Coming Age of Dispersion, author Joel Kotkin suggests, “One possible consequence [of the pandemic] is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era….Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our cities.”

 “During a crisis, people’s actions are often unpredictable,” says Enyart. “If you want to see what a mob is capable of just take a look at what’s happened in Venezuela where the society has basically collapsed. Americans think we’re insulated from those kinds of problems but current events show us otherwise.”

For a growing number of American urbanites, they’re not sticking around to find out what’s coming next.

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