In most developing countries the main urban development challenges are rapid urban growth, mushrooming informal settlements and expanding infrastructure to catch up with population growth. As Urban Development specialists, we are generally trained to work under these lines; finding out how best to formalize informality, finance infrastructure expansion and absorb new comers.

In many of the cities in which I work today the issues are completely different: declining population, difficulties in adapting infrastructure to population decline, and crumbling formal housing due to lack of maintenance. As observed in cities like Detroit, declining population can generate an increasing burden on local governments who aren’t capable of raising as much own source revenue (than before) and see their per capita cost of providing infrastructure increase (due to lower agglomeration economies). As population density declines and some of the city neighborhoods are abandoned (Urban perforation), a phenomenon similar to urban sprawl can appear: when population declines faster than the rate of decline of the urban footprint.

But why are so many cities losing population in Easter Europe and Central Asia? The urban decline in some of these countries responds partly to a re-adjustment of the urban system following the fall of the Soviet Union. At communist times many cities were built following central planning philosophies (occupy strategic territory) and some – the so called monotowns – were highly specialized in one industry just like Detroit. When market economies were put in place many of the cities that did not have a “reason for being” saw their industries crumble and their population flee.


Source: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/europe-asia-russia-monotowns-industry-discontent-struggling-rust-belt

However, the urban decline in this region has other reasons. In fact, many of these countries have been losing population over the past decade. Lower natural population growth and emigration (mainly to Western Europe and Russia) mean that less and less people are available to migrate to the city. Romania, for instance, saw its population decline by 17 percent between 1992 and 2011. In addition, push factors – such as a decrease in agricultural land per capita as we see in India – play less of a role. In Bulgaria rural population is declining at a faster pace than urban population, which curiously translates into slow but steady growing urbanization levels (see graph below). A very famous paper talks about Urbanization without (economic) growth in Sub-Saharan Africa; in Easter Europe and Central Asia we are finding another type of Urbanization without (population) growth.


But are all cities declining? Most are, but not all. In most countries capital cities and a few “growth poles” continue to grow, although at a much lower pace than what we see in other developing countries. For instance Sofia grew around 1 percent per year over the 2001-2011 period while cities in Bulgaria lost an average of -0.6 per year over the same period. Apart Sofia only two – Varna and Burgas – of the seven largest urban centers in Bulgaria grew. In Romania, according to official figures the ten largest cities, including Bucharest, lost around -1.7 percent of their population every year over the 2002-2011 period. However, evidence suggests that Bucharest’s suburbs – which are not considered in the city’s administrative boundaries – are among the fastest growing areas in the country. In Ukraine, 80 percent of its 460 cities have been losing population since 2001, while Kiev is growing very very slowly.


While the phenomenon of shrinking cities is not new, the policy implications of a widespread (national) urban decline have not been completely studied. For instance, when cities shrink who are the ones left behind? Is it the poorest, the oldest? among all, who are the less mobile? What can local governments do to better manage the decline of their cities? How can urban regulations – which are generally designed for urban growth – be redesigned for population decline? And more importantly, how can cities continue to be engines of growth despite their population decline? I believe we should be asking ourselves these questions more and more, especially in places where declining cities appear to be an increasing trend.

This is the first of a series of posts in which I will explore the topic of declining cities.

Source picture on the top: One of Russia’s monotowns: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/other/tide-discontent-sweeps-through-russias-struggling-rust-belt-f2D11673630




2 thoughts on “Declining cities (I): an increasing trend?

  1. Pingback: Declining cities (II): neighborhood dynamics | {FAVEL issues}

  2. Pingback: Challenge of deteriorating urban infrastructure and its replacement - EduHawks.com

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