“We need new visions for rural life that are future-focused”  

 
Photo by Huang Lu

Photo by Huang Lu

In City Quitters: Creative Pioneers Pursuing Post-Urban Life, ethnographer and trend forecaster Karen Rosenkranz offers readers a colourful glimpse of what many of us only daydream about: leaving the city behind for a simpler life in the country. This collection of twenty-two interviews with artists, chefs, architects, designers, and other creative entrepreneurs explores the reasons that prompt a desire to move to remote areas (unfamiliar at times), the challenges that often follow, and the opportunities for creative growth that can become possible. 

Words by Stephanie Gill

In this conversation, Karen discusses what post-urban life really means beyond the bucolic fantasy, the importance of “reframing what it means to lead a successful life”, and how rural areas and small towns can develop without risking the same levels of gentrification as their big-city counterparts.

What were a few key events that turned you on to the idea of “city quitting”? How did you find your interviewees? 

As I describe in the book’s introduction there was a moment when a friend of mine, Stephen Gill, a photographer whose work was heavily inspired by urban life, decided to relocate to rural Sweden. It really surprised me, and I asked myself how people working creatively would adapt to such a radical lifestyle change. Soon, I came across more people who were moving away from metropolitan constraints. Rather than merely looking for a quiet life closer to nature, they were exploring alternative ways of living and working, searching for places that would allow them freedom and space for greater experimentation. It struck me as a new phenomenon worth delving into.

Initially, I found people via friends, and friends of friends, and then started to cast a wider net. I was particularly interested in people working creatively or with an entrepreneurial mindset. They had to be living in places with less than 10.000 inhabitants. I ended up with 22 stories across twelve countries and five continents.

 
 
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Photos by Huang Lu of Bai Guan and Huang Lu in the foothills of Yanshan mountain outside Beijing

Photos by Huang Lu of Bai Guan and Huang Lu in the foothills of Yanshan mountain outside Beijing

How did you organise your stories? Being an ethnographer, how did you analyse your findings?

It was all pretty organic. It had some hypotheses to begin with, but I wanted the individuals to really drive the story. Not every topic has the same relevance for everyone. I deliberately chose to approach it differently to my usual consulting work where I tend to group findings into clusters. It was important to me to show both the ups and downs, the struggles people might encounter, and things that were unexpected.

You refer to the creatives in this book as “pioneers”. In your view, is it a more novel concept for individuals to decide to move to rural areas and small towns, or is it that more young people have the privilege of movement that comes from remote/digital jobs, financial well-being, and inheritance of land? Put another way, what makes the move from cities more revolutionary than rural life in general?

Our current discourse is still very city-centric. In that sense I think there’s a certain pioneering spirit in moving the focus of your life from urban to rural. But rather than viewing the countryside as a place to retire or relax, these people see it as an opportunity to build something new, contribute to the social fabric, giving new impulses to areas that have often been deserted by young people.

More flexible working patterns and reliable internet connections have made this shift possible. I don’t think it is linked to privilege. People are increasingly priced out of big cities, and it is becoming a lot harder for creatives to thrive in an urban environment. Of course, there are also a lot of great initiatives born out of rural areas. It’s just interesting to see the aspirations change. Rural life has suddenly become cool.

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Lynn Mylou by Amie Galbraith

Lynn Mylou by Amie Galbraith

In your opinion, were there any particular creatives that you felt “got it right” in their approach to city quitting? What do the most sustainable models seem to look like?

It’s difficult to say as this is so dependent on individual preferences. What I would say though is that moving somewhere rural doesn’t mean cutting your ties with the city entirely. Having a lively exchange between both realms, and integrating both, seems the most sustainable approach to me.

Were there any stories that surprised you or stood out to you?

Lynn’s story stands out as the most radical shift from a busy, urban agency life to a nearly autonomous rural existence. She’s very brave and inspiring, living by her principles of sustainability and circular economy. She completely ditched city life and the consumerist mindset that comes with it.

On the other end of the spectrum is the more symbiotic story of Kyre Chenven and Ivano Atzori, who found a way to blend country life with their metropolitan souls. Their project Pretziada is a great example of merging rural craftsmanship with urban sensitivities for a global, contemporary audience.

I was also very touched by Huang Lu and Bai Guan, a young couple who established a rural life in the foothills of Yanshan mountain outside Beijing. Their decision to leave their well-paid jobs behind for a simple life in the countryside, where they grow most of their own food and follow their creative passions, was a rebellion against the definition of success in present-day China and the beliefs of their parents.

 
Photos by Ivano Atzori of Pretziada

Photos by Ivano Atzori of Pretziada

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In her interview, Mariana de Delás said, “You need to have a plan for what you want to create and make yourself do it. Otherwise, you’re not giving anything back to the countryside and just become a parasite – a city person who comes to the countryside to be calm.” What are some of the most effective ways for people to “give back” in ways that take the needs of their new communities into account?

The most important thing is to respect what is already there. You can’t just transplant an idea from the city to the countryside without taking the local circumstances into account.

A good example from my book is Michael Wickert, a fish smoker based in the German town of Gerswalde. He has been very successful in establishing a business that attracts both weekend visitors from Berlin and the locals. He took great care to make his products approachable and found a way to connect to a broad audience. He’s even become a bit of a culinary ambassador for the area, taking visitors on tours to local producers who might not have the network or social media following to attract a lot of customers.

You’ve also written that the trend of creatives to move outside of the city can inspire regeneration in rural areas. What are your thoughts on ways in which rural areas can change or expand without losing the very essence that brought people there in the first place (romanticised or not)?

Most rural areas still struggle with population decline as people move to cities for education and work, yet there is so much potential in terms of space, experimentation and creative freedom. I think it’s a very positive development if we start to view the countryside as an attractive living and working environment again, a place where people and scenes can thrive away from urban centres.

With prevailing pressures on cities increasing, we will be forced to find alternative ways of living and manage gentrification in both urban and rural areas. We need new visions for rural life that are future-focussed, and aren’t tinged by nostalgia or an idealised concept of nature.

An exhibition I’m very excited about that will hopefully illustrate some of those visions is the show Countryside, curated by Rem Koolhaas and AMO at the Guggenheim early next year.

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Photos by Claudia Bühler of Michael Wickert in Gerswalde

Photos by Claudia Bühler of Michael Wickert in Gerswalde

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In his interview, Brian Gaberman remarked, “I make the joke that first I always used to get stuck behind a tractor, now I get stuck behind a Tesla.” Are you concerned that the trend of city quitting will simply become a new status symbol that creates distinctions based on levels of privilege?

I don’t think so. Many people are already pushed out of big cities by the cost of living. And there are other factors, too, that make people question the value of urban life. For example our obsession with work and busy-ness, the rise of mental health disorders, pollution and so on. With all these pressures it’s getting harder and harder to establish a sustainable creative practice in a big city. I had a lot of feedback on my book from people in their twenties who say the stories really resonated with them, and in some cases gave them the confidence to move away from the city and carve out a career elsewhere.

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 event space and gallery. They managed to do it in four months without any investors. The business is thriving, and they even have days off! Something that would have been unthinkable in the city. So this trend, if you want to call it that, is also about reframing what it means to lead a successful life.

 
Photo of the Lil’ Deb’s Oasis team by Heidis Bridge

Photo of the Lil’ Deb’s Oasis team by Heidis Bridge

 

What tangential themes arose in the writing of this book that you’d like to explore?  What would the sequel look like?

I am toying with the idea of doing a documentary on the same topic. Film would allow me to go a lot deeper, and bring the stories to a broader audience.

I would also love to explore the visual world of rural life a bit more, to create a visual essay about contemporary ruralism that moves away from this idealised concept of nature and countryside that we have in the city. The work of Diane Deschaneux, a young Swiss photographer, is one great example of a different rural reality.

Part of me wants to move on to new themes. There is an urgent need to rethink our consumption – of stuff, social media, food, everything! I’m really interested in people who find ways of doing less, needing less, the concept of self-restraint. It’s happening already, for example with the tiny house movement, or a cohort of Gen Z who navigate life without a smart phone. The idea of downshifting – on all levels – really interests me. Doing less, but with more intention and care.

You currently live in London and (from what I gather) haven’t decided to leave the city just yet. Has writing this book changed your thoughts on city living?

I’ve been in London for 13 years now and have lived in cities all my life, but I’m starting to question that lifestyle, too. So who knows...

Thank you for the interview, Karen!

You can connect with Karen via her website and Instagram, and purchase City Quitters via Frame Publishers.

Photo by Mariana de Delás & Gartnerfuglen

Photo by Mariana de Delás & Gartnerfuglen