Remote workers create ‘Zoom towns’ as locals begin to suffer

As the coronavirus spread, gateway communities communities near scenic public lands, national parks and other outdoor recreational amenities felt acute economic pressure as the virus forced them to shut down tourist activities.

By   |  Published: 17th Oct 2020  8:56 pm

New York: As remote workers flee big cities to ride out the pandemic, perhaps permanently, the so-called amenity migration has led to the rise of ‘Zoom Towns’, starting a new crisis around housing affordability and transportation in smaller cities.

As the coronavirus spread, gateway communities communities near scenic public lands, national parks and other outdoor recreational amenities felt acute economic pressure as the virus forced them to shut down tourist activities.

Now with the ‘amenity migration’ comes a variety of challenges in the US and elsewhere.

“This trend was already happening, but amenity migration into these communities has been expedited and it can have destructive consequences if not planned for and managed. Many of these places are, as some people say, at risk of being loved to death,” said Danya Rumore, Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Programme at the University of Utah.

In a new paper in the ‘Journal of the American Planning Association’, the team published the results of a 2018 study involving a survey with public officials in more than 1,200 western gateway communities and in-depth interviews with officials from 25 communities.

In an eerie foreshadowing, a town manager from a developed gateway community said, “We don’t have the staff capacity to deal with major crises.”

Rumore said: “Our research shows that as small, rural gateway communities grow, they tend to experience a suite of big city problems, like housing affordability and transportation issues.

“In 2018, these public officials expressed a sense of already being behind the curve, and in need of additional capacity and resources to plan and adapt to rapid growth.”

Rumore and others have launched the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) initiative based at Utah State University in the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.

The influx of remote workers could present economic development opportunities for gateway communities, Rumore said, but could also drive up housing prices and cost of living.

Half of the survey respondents said that the average wage relative to the cost-of-living was moderately or extremely problematic for their community in 2018, prior to this new wave of amenity migration.

“The primary challenges residents reported included downtown congestion, housing affordability and availability, environmental degradation, and a general decline in the quality of life,” the authors noted.

“The main takeaway is that these towns and cities need to plan ahead to manage change and the things that come with it,” Rumore said.