What is multi-local life, and what does it imply for Helsinki and the Helsinki Region in future? Is the coronavirus pandemic causing a flight from cities, as some commentators have suggested? Helsinki Quarterly invited researchers working on multilocality to join a virtual discussion, and as befits the topic, the participants spanned across Finland from Helsinki to Oulu.
Interview & text: Katja Vilkama & Teemu Vass & Timo Cantell
We live in an era of intense urbanisation. In Finland, the population is projected to increasingly concentrate in a handful of urban regions in future decades, leaving behind small towns and rural areas facing depopulation. Even among the bigger cities, only the most attractive ones are expected to stand out in the fierce interregional competition.
At the same time, competing trends – a second-home boom, rural urbanism, or return migration to the countryside – are in evidence, and all of these tend to attract city-dwellers at least seasonally to relocate to sparsely populated rural areas. Urbanisation and the co-occurrent digitalisation are linked to increasing possibilities to live a multi-local everyday life.
When the coronavirus began to spread especially in urban areas last spring, one of the topics raised in the media was whether the pandemic might make people consider moving away from the city. As teleworking practices are becoming more advanced, it is likely that the time spent at the workplace will diminish. How then is this phenomenon interconnected with the dynamics of multi-local living? Will the changes also show in official population statistics in future, and what other information do we still lack in order to fully understand these developments?
Multilocality is a complex phenomenon
“Whilst multilocality as a trend and a term has ent¬ered the public debate relatively recently, it is in fact an ancient phenomenon”, says Principal Scientist Toivo Muilu. “Thousands of years ago, hunter-gathers and nomads lived a multi-local life, and it was only with agriculture and the birth of cities that humans became settled in one place.”
In this sense, we are witnessing the revival of an age-old custom: people inhabit and earn their livelihood in one place or several, whatever suits their needs. Digitalisation, in particular, has been the enabler of many new forms of multilocality.
“In some occupations, mobile life has been customary even before the digital revolution. For instance, a relative of mine worked as a plumber in the countryside in the 1990s, moving around depending on where work was needed,” says Research Scientist Ulla Ovaska.
“Nowadays a multi-local life is of course an option also for knowledge workers, since work can be performed almost anywhere with adequate ICT connections.”
Finns have a variety of reasons for dividing their life between two or more places. A typical case is a household with two homes: for instance, a ‛main home’ in the city, and a holiday home or a second home in a rural area. Often a large part of the year is spent at the second home.
In many cases, the second home is located outside of Finland, including Spain’s Costa del Sol or the Estonian island Saaremaa. It is not uncommon for retired couples, for example, to spend several weeks every year in such locations. There are, of course, also couples where each partner has a main home of their own, and they are not registered in the same address.
Another case of multi-local life is a child who lives in two homes after the parents’ divorce. Other forms, some less common than others, also exist. For instance, a number of adults, whether working or retired, split their time to act as family caregivers of elderly parents who live elsewhere.
Statistics fail to describe multilocality
A definition of multi-local living must exclude the issues – such as commuting – that do not fall within the category. Commuters who make daily two-way journeys between residence and workplace – even long-distance – are not ‛multi-local’. But if they acquire a second home at a location near the workplace, they can be said to lead a multi-local life.
According to Research Professor Hilkka Vihinen, identifying multilocality challenges the structures and practices of the current population statistics.
“A person can only be registered in one address. Multi-local living as a phenomenon is not noticed by conventional population statistics, which are based on housing data from population registers.”
Vihinen says this can be problematic for rural municipalities that are faced with depopulation – statistics may show them locked in a demographic downward spiral.
“The data used as the basis for service planning does not always reflect the real situation. When the official meters in an area turn red, a vicious circle is created: no-one wants to invest there, houses stop selling, infrastructure becomes outdated.”
No matter how inevitable the trend when viewed statistically, a shrinking municipality may in fact have many more users than seems on the surface. This is because the ways we use places are changing.
“Finland has more than half a million holiday homes, and the people visiting them also drive on the local roads – yet the traffic network has been designed for the regular population flows,” says Toivo Muilu.
“Seasonal residents often use municipal services as well, such as libraries, but these users are more or less invisible to the authorities.”
Hilkka Vihinen points out that researchers have contemplated the fairness of the current system in as much as the availability of basic services is determined by a person’s registered address.
“Would it be possible to make the service offering more flexible according to where people actually spend their time? It has been hypothesised that the forthcoming social and health sector reform might offer some solutions to the problem, but this is not only a question of social services and health care,” she underlines.
Coronavirus and multi-local living
When the coronavirus crisis hit Finland, there was public debate about whether the epidemic might contribute to a reversal of the long-standing urbanisation trend and attract people from Helsinki and other main cities to move to areas of lower population density. The experts interviewed in the media last spring did not consider a large-scale deconcentration and ‛escape to the country’ very likely, but increased migration to exurban areas was deemed a possibility.
“It makes sense when you think about it – with the epidemic running loose, a dense urban centre may not feel like the ideal environment to live in, even when it is a very desirable location in normal times,” says Ulla Ovaska.
Ovaska points out that the latest Rural Barometer did not indicate any rise in respondents’ intentions to move to country. The survey was conducted just before the coronavirus pandemic.
“No new patterns appeared in plans for permanent relocation. Around 15 per cent of the respondents were considering moving either from city to countryside or the other way around.”
Statistics show, however, that certain sparsely inhabited rural municipalities have received migration gain during the coronavirus epidemic, even ones that had previously been on the red.
“This could indicate that some people have recorded a pre-existing second home in a rural area as a permanent address,” says Senior Scientist Olli Lehtonen.
Lehtonen warns against generalising too much about such short-term observations – they do not signal that the attraction of major urban regions is fading away on a larger scale.
“Urbanisation as a megatrend is not going to disappear,” he says. “The big picture is that any significant migration gain in rural areas will concentrate in those municipalities that are already doing relatively well. Among cities, too, the most successful will be the ones already growing the fastest.”
The City of Helsinki has monitored the possible effects of the coronavirus epidemic on in- and out-migration. Do the statistics for 2020 show that COVID-19 is moving people out of the city at a greater rate than normally, and if so, which population groups are leaving?
“Our hypothesis was that a certain number of young people, students in particular, would cancel or postpone their move to Helsinki because of the pandemic. They are being taught online and at least part of them appear not to have moved here,” says Senior Statistician Pekka Vuori.
According to Vuori, it is still somewhat too soon to conclude anything about the population development of Helsinki for the latter part of 2020.
What about the rise of teleworking – can we expect it to have an effect on the registered population changes in Helsinki?
“As people get used to working from home, it is of course possible that many will prefer to live somewhere more affordable than Helsinki – now that they can simultaneously avoid tedious commutes. If such a trend intensifies, it can have some impact on our population growth in the long run.”
Nonetheless, Vuori remarks that population flows are also affected by many other factors.
“If a major economic depression in Finland develops after the corona crisis, it will perhaps be noticed in migration trends as well – depending on which industries are hit the hardest,” says Vuori.
“But here again it is too early for far-reaching conclusions.”
The pull of cities and urban areas is largely based on vibrant city centres, abundant service offer or interesting urban culture. The businesses that are responsible for a large part of these features – hotels, restaurants, cultural institutions, events or tourism – are currently in dire straits due to the pandemic. Since these industries are overrepresented in Helsinki, there was a sharp rise in unemployment at the start of the corona crisis, compared to the rest of Finland.
Pekka Vuori ja Hilkka Vihinen agree that the recovery of these industries is a crucial question for cities. The present situation where cities are unable to offer the things that are their main attraction is likely to leave long-standing marks on the urban fabric.
“It will take years for international travel, for instance, to return to anything resembling the pre-corona times, and this will undoubtedly affect the Helsinki Region,” argues Pekka Vuori.
What are the implications of multilocality for Helsinki and Uusimaa?
Many places that benefit from seasonal population influx are sparsely populated rural municipalities far from the major centres, including in eastern and northern Finland. For them, the importance of seasonal residents and even small increases in the registered population is immense. But how will the trend look like when viewed from the Helsinki Metropolitan Area and other densely populated Finnish regions?
“It is true that multi-local living has been analysed chiefly from the perspective of the areas with seasonal population increase,” says Hilkka Vihinen. “More recently, however, the lens has been turned on the areas with seasonal population deficit: how big a question is it for Helsinki, for instance, that a considerable part of its residents are out of the city for at least part of the year?”
Such analysis should identify who the ‛missing’ residents are and why they spend time temporarily elsewhere. From the perspective of service needs or infrastructure planning, it may be important to know what part of these people are at holiday homes, dual-household children or something else.
“We should also remember that multi-locality does not only concern city-dwellers – there are also a number of people with a rural permanent residence and an urban second home in Helsinki, for example,” says Toivo Muilu.
Some residents of the countryside parts of the Uusimaa region are ‛rural urbanites’ for whom multi-locality is a lifestyle choice. Many belong the so-called creative class, and they want to live and work mainly in the peace of the countryside but choose to keep a city home – perhaps just a flatshare – should they miss the vibrancy of a busy city.
“This is also linked to the multi-locality of ownership,” Hilkka Vihinen adds. “Private real-estate investors, for example, may own property in several municipalities, but so far we lack analysis on the precise linkages of this phenomenon to multi-local living.”
For different parts of the Uusimaa region, the dynamics of multi-local living produce rather different outcomes. The region already has a large number of second homes and holiday properties. In Western Uusimaa, for example, the registered population and job numbers have declined in recent years, whereas they have grown strongly in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. On the other hand, the seasonal population increases in the summer months in many parts of Western Uusimaa while it drops in Helsinki, Espoo or Vantaa.
“This could be an increasing trend in the Uusimaa region in future,” says Vihinen.
There has been some debate this year about the rise of vacant dwellings in Finland. Could this phenomenon have a connection to the effects of multilocality – for instance, people with permanent residence in Helsinki spending long periods of time out of their city homes?
“It’s hard to say because our register-based data does not really allow us to examine whether dwellings are actually vacant or in temporary use,” says Pekka Vuori. “If we look at residential buildings with at least one permanent occupant, we cannot see any significant increase in the number of vacant dwellings in Helsinki. Some degree of register error has also been identified – the system is not always up to date, for example, about conversions of residential units to office space.”
Olli Lehtonen regards it as highly unlikely that multi-local living should pose a threat to the dynamism of Helsinki or other attractive urban areas – at most, the phenomenon challenges our conventional perception of the city–country divide to a certain extent.
“The rural municipalities with good ICT connections and the readiness to offer other services to newcomers may benefit from people’s desire to escape from the city. For some municipalities, this can be an opportunity to find significant new dynamism,” says Lehtonen.
Future of multi-local living?
It has long been predicted that improved data connections could diminish people’s dependency on place. Now the latest steps in online working practices have finally enabled efficient telework, and the coronavirus pandemic has given the trend a further push. What are possible future scenarios for multi-local living in Finland?
“Our biggest baby-boomer cohorts retired almost ten years ago. A possible incentive for increased multilocality in coming decades is if they bequeath their children the second homes and other dwellings they own in various parts of Finland,” says Ulla Ovaska.
Pekka Vuori agrees. “In any case, a huge number of people will rather soon turn from active pensioners to old people, and a big question is how these people wish to spend their final years – what kind of environments they want to live in, and what services they will require.”
Another unknown factor in the future of multi-local living is the growing population with immigrant origin. Those with a foreign background will form a major part of the population especially in the largest cities such as Helsinki.
“We do not know for sure how much of the current multilocality in Finland is based on urban Finns being connected by roots or even land ownership with other parts of Finland,” says Hilkka Vihinen.
Many native Finns own a lakeside sauna or, say, a former farmhouse somewhere in rural Finland. According to Vihinen, the question is how likely the immigrants or new Finns are to engage in multi-local living in Finland.
“Today the immigrants are strongly divided into groups that are relatively different from one another,” says Pekka Vuori.
“Of the major groups, those with Estonian or Russian origins may find it rather natural to relocate to rural parts of Finland, because they are culturally more or less accustomed to the local summerhouse habits and the Finnish countryside environment.”
Hilkka Vihinen points out that new forms of multilocality may also emerge if persons with a foreign background lead a multi-local life between Finland and another country.
What about problems related to increased multilocality? What types of new information are necessary for Finnish society to better take it into account in planning and service design?
“To give an example, we still lack systematic impact analyses about the implications of multilocality in the destination areas as well as the departure areas,” says Toivo Muilu.
Muilu says new research is looking to identify the connections between multi-local living and sustainable development.
“Seasonal living, for example, typically involves a lot of car traffic back and forth. Assuming that cars are unlikely to go fully electric very soon, any increase in multilocality will probably contribute to our carbon footprint as well. Sustainability issues are therefore inevitable.”
Hilkka Vihinen says more research is needed in order to map the extent and significance of multi-local living and give us a better picture of the phenomenon in general. Further studies would also give us an answer to the question of whether the corona crisis will have a real bearing on the issue or not.
“It is possible that corona has served to trigger some latent desires to live in two places at once, and as a result, people may end up spending more time at their second homes, for instance. It is too soon to tell whether we should expect long-term impacts on the distribution of the permanent population.”
Multi-local living has been studied in the EU Horizon 2020 funded project ROBUST (Rural–Urban Outlooks – Unlocking Synergies), aiming to advance our understanding of rural-urban interaction. The City of Helsinki and the National Resources Institute Finland (Luke) are partners in the project consortium. Results on multi-locality are also presented in a video (in Finnish) produced within the ROBUST project.