Welcome to the Next Migration.
Humans have migrated from one area to another since the beginning of civilization, whether it was in search of an abundant food supply, more agreeable climate, economic opportunity, or freedom from oppression.
It’s no different in 2020. Today’s “back to the land” movement is part of the same technology-driven, opportunity-fueled cycle that has uprooted and transplanted Americans for centuries. For prehistoric people, stone arrowheads helped expand hunting areas. For European explorers, stronger ships reached more distant shores. For American settlers, steam engines opened access to neighboring economies. This time around, broadband internet access frees us to live, work, and play anywhere we choose.
So, how did technology get us back to small towns?
From the farms to the cities
Until the late 1800s, America was an agriculture-based economy. That meant that the majority of folks lived and worked in rural areas and small communities. Around the turn of the century, new manufacturing technology spurred the industrial revolution. Whether out of necessity or ambition, people left the small towns in droves to pursue opportunity and economic promise in newly thriving, industrial urban centers.
From the cities to the suburbs
By the 1930s, city life had become crowded, employment was competitive, living was expensive, and the urban environment was unsafe for many. New technology in the form of cars, electricity, and telephones created yet another opportunity to migrate. Families began to leave the stress and expense of city life for the newly expanding suburbs, seeking tranquility, space, affordability, and safety.
Back to the cities, again
By the 1980s, bland suburban life began to lose its appeal for many. Folks began ditching long commutes for a revitalized urban experience, leaving many suburban communities in decline. At the same time, the already-shrinking small rural towns took another big hit. The sprawling factories that had come to sustain their local economies closed down as production moved overseas. Urban areas became opportunity magnets once again, drawing folks back into city life by choice and by necessity. Rural America’s slow drain of talent and passion had officially become a huge leak.
Small is the next big thing
In the 1990s, many small rural towns wisely began to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start a decades-long self preservation effort. They aimed to entice folks not by competing with urban life, but by contrasting it; showing off quaint town squares, unique shops, artisan makers and close-knit communities. By retooling downtowns, promoting unique attractions, and establishing new festivals and events, small towns laid important groundwork for what we now know as the “experience economy.” Towns got their footing again. Empty storefronts became one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants. Historic homes became Bed and Breakfast attractions. The next generation chose to stay put. And what began two decades ago as a trickle of tourists and weekend getaways is now a flood of new residents putting down roots.
Small is the next big thing
Once again, technology leads the next migration. Broadband internet access levels the playing field for small towns, bringing the conveniences, culture, and economic opportunity of urban living right into the heart of rural America. Opportunity is no longer tied to location, as online shopping, streaming entertainment, access to education, and the ability to work remotely have untangled the two forever. Access to affordable land and a resourceful, caring community no longer requires sacrificing economic opportunity. And that’s a big deal for small towns.
A movement with momentum
There’s no question that today’s COVID-19 crisis is the next catalyst for human movement. Families are emerging from lockdown and re-imagining life outside of densely populated, expensive areas. And they have their ticket out: almost overnight, a global pandemic has made remote work a permanent reality for millions, just as broadband internet access is rapidly expanding into rural areas (including the 12 towns along the Natchez Trace parkway). The chance to leave the city or the suburbs without sacrificing a career breaks the final barrier to rural living, ushering in the next American migration.
The communities in Nashville’s Big Back Yard represent a new lifestyle opportunity that will reshape the way America lives, works, and socializes in the future. “Back to the Land” is here to stay.