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Did the COVID-19 pandemic cause an urban exodus?

Examining patterns of internal migration in Spain

Family moving

Source: cottonbro

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in major changes in the patterns of human mobility within and between countries. In the early stages of the pandemic, non-pharmaceutical interventions to contain the spread of COVID-19 led to a reduction in overall mobility levels and major constraints on international travel. Reports of an ‘urban exodus’ emerged with rampant speculation that this trend would persist post-COVID-19. However, a lack of data has prevented research from empirically assessing this hypothesis. Miguel González-Leonardo (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis), Antonio López-Gay and Joaquín Recaño (Centre d'Estudis Demogràfic and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), and Niall Newsham and Francisco Rowe (University of Liverpool) used administrative population register data from January 2016 to December 2020 to analyse changes in internal migration patterns across the urban hierarchy in Spain. Their findings were recently published in Population, Space and Place.

They found a decline of 2.5% in the number of internal migrations in 2020. This decline occurred particularly during the early months of the pandemic after COVID-19 lockdowns were imposed. They also showed unusually large net migration losses in core cities and net migration gains in rural areas. Net migration losses in cities and gains in rural areas particularly accumulated following the elimination of the strict lockdown measures in June. Yet, these net losses and gains were similar to pre‐pandemic levels in late 2020, and movements between cities – and between cities and suburbs – continued to dominate the internal migration system.

Overall, the team of researchers presented evidence of marked changes in the patterns of internal migrations during 2020. Yet, the COVID‐19 pandemic does not appear to have significantly altered existing structures in the internal migration system. They argued that cities are likely to remain key centres that attract migration. Agglomeration economies are expected to continue to facilitate economic prosperity and hence promote spatial concentration. They also argued that rural areas may lack the necessary infrastructure and services to support hybrid work arrangements. As telework is likely to become a more predominant form of interaction, poor broadband connectivity, transport accessibility and the remoteness of rural locations may represent major challenges to enabling hybrid working. Thus, policy initiatives aiming to promote population dispersal away from large urban centres should tackle these digital and transport connectivity problems.


González-Leonardo, M., López-Gay, A., Newsham, N., Recaño, J. and Rowe, F., (2022). Understanding Patterns of Internal Migration During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Spain. Population, Space and Place. pp.1-13: e78.

Author(s) of the original publication
Francisco Rowe, Miguel González-Leonardo and Antonio López-Gay