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The Urban Dweller’s Guide to Downsizing Cities
Going from a bustling environment to a sleepy one takes some adjusting
Three years ago, I up and moved to what could appropriately be called the middle of nowhere. I’d always lived in or near a major metropolitan area: I grew up in a busy Philadelphia suburb and went to college in New York. But when my partner’s company asked him to relocate somewhere significantly sleepier, I decided to tag along.
In my corner of central Pennsylvania, I’m separated from most of my neighbors by sprawling cornfields. The local Dollar General is pretty much the only place to pick up ice cream or eggs after 8 p.m. The pizza joints and Chinese restaurants don’t deliver. There’s no Uber, though I did once see a car with a pink Lyft mustache in the windshield. It was so out of place that I took a picture.
It took me a long time to get used to my rural surroundings, but there’s a lot I love about being here. I have backyard chickens and beehives and enough space to let my dogs wander. I never have to get out of bed to make sure the doors are locked, because even if they’re not, there’s nothing to worry about. At night, there are plenty of stars, and in the morning, a whole chorus of birds.
While my move was kind of extreme, it falls within a crowded category: Across the United States, people are leaving cities for smaller towns and suburbs, and they’re all experiencing different versions of the same adjustment process. According to U.S. Census data, between 2010 and 2017, several major cities nationwide had negative net domestic migration, meaning that people moving out of these urban centers outnumbered people moving in from other parts of the country. In the New York metro area alone, 900,000 more people left than came in during that time period.
“If you jump right in, a move like this could be traumatic. Do your research first to make sure it isn’t.”
Constantine Valhouli, co-founder and research director of real estate analytics firm NeighborhoodX, says the big-city shine that appeals to twentysomethings can start to wear off for those looking for more permanency.
“Unless you own property — something very few people can afford to do in a place like New York City or San Francisco — you’re at the mercy of a landlord,” Valhouli says. “I think feeling like you’re never going to have any kind of ownership or be able to play at that level detaches people from the city in some way.”
But leaving a city, especially if you’ve lived there for a long time, has its own unique challenges. “One of the first researchers of place attachment said part of who we are comes from where we are,” says Leila Scannell, a postdoctoral research fellow at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, who studies the way place affects our identities and behaviors. “If you ask people to write down five things about themselves, 90 percent of the time, one of those things has to do with place.”
Because attachment to place is so important, a significant move — like, say, from a vibrant metropolis to a sleepy suburb, or even a smaller city — can send you reeling. “When you lose a place you’re attached to, it can cause grief, disorientation, and longing for the past,” Scannell says. “Homesickness is real, and it can be difficult to navigate.” That’s even more true when your move comes with a major lifestyle adjustment.
Which is why Valhouli suggests taking things slow. If you have some flexibility around the timing of your move, “Don’t commit without staying there for a while first,” he says. “Use Airbnb. Stay for a week in the spring and a week in the winter. See what it’s like year-round. If you jump right in, a move like this could be traumatic. Do your research first to make sure it isn’t.”
Once you’ve made the leap, you can ease the transition by holding on to some specific aspects of your old life. “Bring as many traditions and elements of your former environment as you can along with you,” Scannell says, even if you have to tweak them to fit your new setting. If you had a windowsill garden at your previous place, for example, set up a new one with similar plants in your backyard. If you always stopped at the same coffee shop on your walk to work, find a similar go-to you can easily drive to. You can’t replicate the hustle and bustle of your old life, but smaller, more focused efforts may be enough.
It also helps to cultivate hobbies that are better suited to your new location than they were to your old one. I love to hike with my dog, Olive, for instance, and I started to really fall in love with my adopted hometown when I realized it’s only a few miles from the Appalachian Trail. On days when I don’t feel like walking, I can have my kayak in the Schuylkill River in less than 30 minutes.
“Connection to place based on activities is important to people,” Scannell says. “Get to know the unique parts of the place that make it special. Find out what you can do there that you can’t do anywhere else.”
Becoming a member of a tight-knit community could give you more of an opening to reshape the things you might not love about your new home.
One of the most important parts of place attachment are your ties to people in your community. This is also one of the most challenging parts of a move — especially if you’re entering a new, smaller dating pool.
Even making new friends can be tough. For the first few months after my move, I knew almost no one. When I started craving connection and friendship, I had to get creative. I signed up for group rock climbing lessons, auditioned for a community play, and asked cool-seeming girls at the gym on friend dates.
“As tough as it can be to live in a city, there’s a certain effortlessness,” Valhouli says. “You can go for a stroll and find an art gallery or go to a lecture and meet people with similar interests. When you get into these small towns, you have to be more proactive. When your default is ‘there’s nothing going on,’ you have to work for it a little more,” whether the connections you’re seeking are romantic or platonic.
One upside to a more limited social scene: Becoming a member of a tight-knit community, Valhouli says, could give you more of an opening to reshape the things you might not love about your new home. But, he cautions, don’t jump right in.
“Don’t try to change things, at least not right away,” he says. “At first, just listen and learn. Find out what people are complaining about and what issues they get active over. It’s amazing what you’ll pick up after a year in a place if you don’t come in trying to be the big-city person with a lot of ideas.”
In the meantime, if you’re having more trouble adjusting than you expected, Scannell has good news: One thing she’s learned from her research — some of which focuses on people who report being extremely dissatisfied with where they live — is that things get easier the more time goes by.
“If you stay in a place long enough, you’ll form connections and social bonds,” she says. “You’ll learn how to use that place to meet your goals, and you will get attached.” If you can wait it out, the odds go up that you’ll fall at least a little bit in love with your new surroundings, even if that love is complicated.
“People start off telling me all the things they hate about their place,” Scannell says. “And by the end of the interview, they’re starting to defend it. They say, ‘Well, but, it’s where I live. It’s still home.’”