Sociology and economics  Opinion 

Spanish Cities after the Virus

The irreversible exodus

Sergio del Molino 

The coronavirus is said to be emptying cities. Myriad news items and articles took this exodus for granted. There is no province that has no record of a town to which two or three families have relocated, fleeing the city, and some places have seen a spike in the real estate market, boosted by a supposed surge in demand. Alas, it is hard to separate the grain from the chaff in these bits of information based on projections and speculations. An increase in searches for rural residences in property platforms seems like proof that the countryside is repopulating, yet there is no significant rise in sales. Reports from the sector point to falling demand in urban and rural zones alike, barring upturns in specific areas.

As in all having to do with empty Spain, journalistic pieces are hugely biased. On one hand, they focus on isolated anecdotes (a family settling in a village in Lugo, for example), exaggerating it (ignoring the hundreds of Lugo villages nobody has moved to). On the other, they disdain the global view and mix reliable statistics with vague intuitions and reckless extrapolations. Civic movements and exceptional cases abound, but numbers are low.

A study conducted by Remax, among the world’s largest real estate agency networks, speaks of an across-the-board drop of the sector in all areas. Buyers have shrunk in number drastically, and sellers a bit. In both urban and rural contexts, this has cheapened urban rentals by 10% and sales prices have dipped by 10-20%. The only increase is in rural rentals, a 10% uptick which is the only tangible effect of the pandemic. This is notable, but based on a scant supply: few dwellings are available for rent in small municipalities. In truth there is not one figure to justify the optimism about a return to the countryside. On the contrary, the rural market is as affected by the economic recession as is the urban. Property investment funds have not pounced on the rural market, and instead are “disinvesting,” getting rid of unsellable housing developments before these lose market value.

Maybe over time and in a transformed world, in Žižek’s communist arcady or Solnit’s collaborative communities, the flipping of the rural exodus will be a reality. For now, it is simply another (perhaps mercantilist and banal) expression of that new dawn where “we will come out stronger.” We have no reason to believe that such a thing will be happening. The big cities are victims of their success. They are hostile, expensive, given over to tourists, and increasingly devoid of character, yet their populations just keep growing.

Although the rural flight – the sight of beret-clad peasants arriving at Atocha with a basket of hens – is a mark of the past, the internal movements that vacate Spain’s inland have accelerated in the 21st century. Madrid statistics alone are impressive. Over the past two decades, the capital grew by 15% (almost half a million new inhabitants, as if the entire city of Málaga had migrated to Madrid). But this is nothing compared with the municipalities of Madrid’s metropolitan area, where the population expanded by 61% (nearly a million new suburbanites, as if all of Valencia had fled to Getafe, Leganés, or Alcobendas). Altogether, Madrid and its outlying territory has grown by 31.5%, more than twice what Spain’s full population grew in the same time.

The same can be said of most other European capitals, to speak only of our own corner of the world and not lose ourselves in Asia or Latin America. Nothing seems likely to endanger the model of the metropolis in the near future, with or without pandemics.

This excerpt is taken from Contra la España vacía (Alfaguara, June 2021).

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