The digital age has introduced two critical layers to our modern life, distraction and societal pressure. Distraction is an easy one, we’ve experienced it relentlessly, often in the form of marketing.
It now manifests itself through virtually all industries and touchpoints. It’s the media outlet, the social media app, the online retailer, and the text notification. We’re at odds on how to best focus our efforts on the meaningful tasks at hand.
Following close behind is the impact of unrealistic societal pressures which are often exacerbated by the effects of social media. Seeing successful outcomes with regularity do very little for our own self-worth. It creates an unbearable expectation around what we should be achieving, at every age checkpoint of our life. What if there was a way to manage and reset modern expectations?
Karen Rosenkranz took an interest in the idea of “city quitting.” As a trend forecaster, ethnographer, and author, she’s consumed herself with making sense of how people create and work today. There’s a growing movement around people who have left the big city for a different life, where they’re not one of several million people but rather one of a few thousand.
In her book, City Quitters: Creative Pioneers Pursuing Post-Urban Life, she highlights the lives of 22 people from 12 countries and over five continents. Each of the subjects inhabits a town with fewer than 10,000 people.
These newfound lives offer an interesting contrast and friction filled with both rewarding experiences and daunting challenges. We speak with Karen on her perspective over the idea of simplifying life and the impacts of moving to smaller pastures.
*This is an affiliate link that helps support the development and continuation of MAEKAN.
Designers Eric Vivian and Yoshiko Shimono with their children in Miyanoura, Yakushima, Japan. (Photos by Yu-)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a trend forecaster, ethnographer and author based in London. My background is in product design, but I’ve always been more interested in the research and concept stages of the creative process, so it was a natural progression to move into the fields I’m working in now.
I grew up in Frankfurt, but my parents are from rural Austria. I’ve lived in cities all my life – mainly Amsterdam, New York and now London – but I always had a strong connection to my Austrian roots. This ambivalence towards rural life has also fuelled the origin of my book ‘City Quitters’.
What is it about the study of culture and people that interests you?
I’ve always been curious about other cultures, and people that challenge the status quo. Having lived in different places, I often adopt the view of the outsider, noticing cultural nuances more acutely maybe.
The kind of work I do allows me to be very nosy and get a deep insight into people’s lives. I always found this a very humbling and eye-opening experience. We are so quick in forming opinions about others, but humans are complex and contradictory. If you approach people with an open mind, you can learn something valuable from anyone.
Founders of Made in Natural: Caio Antunes and Marcella Zambardino in Serra da Bocaína, Paraty, Brazil. (Photos by Luiza Lacava)
“The kind of work I do allows me to be very nosy and get a deep insight into people’s lives. I always found this a very humbling and eye-opening experience. We are so quick in forming opinions about others, but humans are complex and contradictory. If you approach people with an open mind, you can learn something valuable from anyone.”
— Karen Rosenkranz
We’ve seen two things emerge with the development of digital culture. Increased opportunities to build subcultures but also an increase in data tracking. Has the role of trend forecaster become easier or harder today?
On the one hand there is much more information available today, from free trend reports to data, but especially big companies often struggle to make sense of all those inputs. My role as a trend forecaster involves a lot of filtering and interpreting.
I think trend forecasting as an industry has to change. Coming up with new directions every couple of months just doesn’t make sense anymore. We can’t keep promoting incessant newness and seasonal updates, using up the planet’s resources at an ever higher pace. Society and business as a whole has to move towards more long-term thinking. I feel a responsibility as a trend forecaster to help companies navigate those big shifts. The key is that people are already much more concerned with environmental issues. Business will have to change!
Your book highlights the relationship between creative work and our surroundings.
What was the catalyst for this book?
I’ve lived in cities my whole life and thrive in an urban environment, but a couple of years ago some friends of mine working in the creative industry started to move to rural areas.
Initially I was shocked – why would anyone voluntarily swap a city like London for a small town in the middle of nowhere? But I was also very curious how it might impact their creative output and how people would adapt to this new environment.
I’m not suggesting there is no creativity in rural areas or that it needs to be imported from the city – not at all! But the focus of the design and arts world is still so city-centric, that this seemed like a new development worth exploring.
I also saw an opportunity to portray life in the countryside in a way that isn’t tinged with nostalgia or an idealized concept of nature. We need new visions of ruralism that are future-focused, a sphere where the traditional and the innovative can coexist.
Founder of A Vida Fausto Lynn Mylou in Cerdeira, Arganil, Portugal. (Photos by Amie Galbraith)
“We urgently need to relearn how to be bored and do nothing. Not just to stay sane, but also in order to scale back our consumption and need of stuff in general.”
— Karen Rosenkranz
All of the subjects live in places with less than 10,000 inhabitants.
Is there any particular change once you surpass this number?
As people are increasingly priced out of major cities, many are moving to suburbs and smaller cities. However, this doesn’t affect people’s lifestyles that much.
I set myself this threshold to highlight the contrast between urban and rural. I was interested to see what happens to work and creativity once people make that slightly more radical shift.
Was there a particular concern shared by many peoplewhen moving to a smaller locale?
I assume these concerns were eventually seen as non-issues?
One of the biggest worries is how to make a living. Whether people continue their work remotely or start up a new initiative or income stream, there’s always a bit of risk or unpredictability.
It takes time to gain a foothold in a new place, so people usually take a while to ‘wean’ themselves from their urban connections or dependency. Judging from the stories in my book, things always work out in the end – but it might require some readjusting, or being comfortable with living with less.
Another concern is how one will fit into a new community that is potentially more conservative and much less diverse than in a big city. However, most people manage to connect with like-minded folks wherever they are based, and engaging with people that think differently can be a useful experience as well.
Does one need to fundamentally shift “what is success” by moving to a smaller place? Do individuals need to be hyper self-aware of happiness as their measure of success and not financial success?
I guess many people who want to move to a smaller place are already questioning our (Western, capitalist) metrics of success. Most people portrayed in my book have a shared desire for greater connection to nature, deceleration and living more intentionally. I think the shift in mindset happens first, and then people take action to align themselves with it.
Artist and photographer Luke Evans’ studio in Withington, Herefordshire, United Kingdom. (Photos by Claudia Rocha)
“Removing yourself from the pressures of urban life can be very freeing. There is less distraction and comparison. It allows people to be more experimental.”
Is the world in fact a smaller and more connected place through digital connections?
Yes, the internet and social media are definitely a big driver for this trend. Being able to connect with people from anywhere in the world, and find customers, really helps people to make the move to a small town. Also work patterns have become much more flexible.
Equally, I believe our digital consumption habits can have a negative impact on creativity. We’re inundated with so much visual stimuli that it’s impossible not to be influenced by it. So many things look familiar these days, an iteration of something we’ve seen before.
Of course you can access that stuff from anywhere, but removing yourself from the urban context usually helps people to ease off social media as well.
I think we’ll see a bit of a backlash with more people deleting their social media accounts, or at least taking regular breaks from it.
Beyond the obvious economic choices such as cost of living, what are the benefits psychologically of living in a smaller urban environment?
Removing yourself from the pressures of urban life can be very freeing. There is less distraction and comparison. It allows people to be more experimental.
Many people in my book also reported a huge mental health benefit. Life is a bit simpler and slower – less choices, less social obligations, less stimulation. Being closer to nature allows you to notice season and weather changes.
People also experience a greater sense of autonomy and self-reliance, relieving some of that urban anxiety. Especially under the pressures of climate breakdown cities can appear quite fragile.
Cartoonist Bai Guan, who lives with photographer Huang Lu in Bei Shi Cao Zhen, Shunyi, China. (Photos by Huang Lu)
“Whether people continue their work remotely or start up a new initiative or income stream, there’s always a bit of risk or unpredictability. It takes time to gain a foothold in a new place, so people usually take a while to ‘wean’ themselves from their urban connections or dependency.”
Over the course of the book, did you identify any key community traits to empower and galvanize creative work?
Great things can happen when there’s a symbiotic relationship between newcomers and locals. I think there can be prejudices on both sides, but if people approach each other open-minded, there is often a lot of enthusiasm and support for new initiatives.
There’s a story in my book about two artists/chefs who moved from New York City to Hudson to open a restaurant which also doubles as an event space. They describe the community in Hudson as ‘all doers, whereas the community in New York was full of planners or talkers’.
Do you see a relationship between work and boredom? Is boredom a necessary ingredient?
Totally. I’m a big advocate of boredom. We need phases of idleness to be creative and to do any work that requires deep, critical thinking. It’s just how our brains function.
However, we have completely forgotten how to be bored. We’re cramming so much into our lives, and if we have any downtime, we stare into our phones. Ask someone in London how they’re doing and the first thing they’ll say is ‘busy’. It’s like a badge of honour, it’s crazy.
We urgently need to relearn how to be bored and do nothing. Not just to stay sane, but also in order to scale back our consumption and need of stuff in general.
Artist and chef Hannah Black. (Photos by Heidi’s Bridge)
Together with Carla Perez-Gallardo, Black founded Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York, United States.
Big cities offer connectivity and on-demand networking, is this considered superfluous when you see the outcomes of those in smaller communities?
It can be harder to get work if you’re based outside the big cities. People just have to find other ways to connect.
Living in a smaller community also involves getting out of your bubble of like-mindedness, which people find usually quite refreshing. The longer people live away from the city, the less they seem to depend on it – both socially and professionally.
At its core, do you think that the improved life that comes with small-town living is one based around reduced economic pressures or around the improved human connections?
Both. And there’s a third one potentially, depending on your lifestyle: greater connection to nature or the non-human world.
What was your notion of creatives in small places before City Quitters? What’s been the reality after publishing the book?
I wouldn’t say it changed dramatically. I already knew there were great things happening in rural places, I just got really excited every time I came across a new story. I was surprised by the originality and boldness of some projects.
Whereas I don’t think this lifestyle is for everyone, it’s definitely becoming an attractive alternative to metropolitan life. With prevailing pressures on urban spaces increasing, I hope my book provides some inspiration for people thinking about leaving the constraints of the city behind.
“Whereas I don’t think this lifestyle is for everyone, it’s definitely becoming an attractive alternative to metropolitan life. With prevailing pressures on urban spaces increasing, I hope my book provides some inspiration for people thinking about leaving the constraints of the city behind.”
— Karen Rosenkranz, author of City Quitters