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Cities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia: A Story of Urban Growth and Decline

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The urbanization experience of countries across Eastern Europe and Central Asia is quite unique, and for several reasons. To begin with, most of these countries attained high-urbanization levels under a centrally-planned system, in which non-economic factors were pivotal in shaping the spatial distribution of both the population and economic activities.

By 1989, close to 64% of the population in the region lived in urban areas. Cities were founded in remote areas and often created and consolidated around a single industry. While more than 25 years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, the central-planning legacy is likely to continue influencing the trajectory of urban areas in the region for decades to come.

Today, urbanization in Eastern European and Central Asian countries is also profoundly affected by demographic transition. Having experienced more than two decades of fertility rates below replacement levels, and currently suffering from negative net-migration rates, many countries in the region are experiencing an overall decline of their population. Compared to the rest of the world, countries in the region have much lower population growth rates, and are among the only countries experiencing both a decline of their total population and of their urban population.

With a smaller labor force available, cities across Eastern Europe and Central Asia are increasingly competing against each other to attract scarce human capital. On one hand, the region’s cities are facing population decline in unprecedented numbers and scale: between 2000 and 2010, 61% of the cities in the region were declining, losing on average 11% of their population. On the other hand, population growth is increasingly concentrated in a fewer number of cities.

Spatial GINI coefficients – which measure the degree of concentration of the population across cities in each country – increased in all but 4 out of 17 countries studied over the period 2000-2010.

Across the region, Central Asian countries, as well as Poland and Turkey, appear to be less affected by city population decline, whereas countries like Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania are seeing more than 80% of their cities declining. The rate at which cities are growing or declining also varies substantially within countries, with some presenting distinct spatial patterns.

In Ukraine, for instance, data (collected prior to the ongoing crisis) indicates that most of the cities in the eastern part of the country were declining, which contrasts with the growing trends observed in cities on the western side of the country.

Which Cities are Growing and Which Are Declining?

Data for more than 5,000 cities across Eastern Europe and Central Asia indicates that bigger cities tend to grow more (or decline less) than smaller cities. Capital cities and secondary cities also appear to have an advantage in attracting populations. The degree of economic specialization matters also, with cities that are dominated by one industry or economic sector (often called monotowns) growing much less (or declining much more) than their peers.

Location also matters. Being close to the coast or having a milder winter positively impacts city population growth. However, being closer to other, larger, cities can be detrimental to a city’s ability to attract a population, particularly when located in regions and countries undergoing demographic decline.

Is the decline in city population linked to economic decline? On average, cities that are shrinking in population do perform worse in economic terms than cities that are growing. However, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, city population decline is not always linked to economic decline. In fact, some of the declining cities are performing at the same level, or better, than growing cities.

Policy Implications

Both growing and declining cities face uniquely challenging environments. Growing cities need to adapt their local infrastructure to ensure that the growing population is well-absorbed and integrated into the city, while avoiding urban sprawl and balancing urban growth beyond administrative boundaries (an increasingly common phenomenon in the region).

In many of the region’s growing cities, the population is moving from city centers – which are at times shrinking – towards suburbs. This suggest that there are issues with housing provision and/or inefficient land-use in those city centers that need to be addressed.  

City population decline has important policy implications at both the national and local level. Decline can often lead to fiscal imbalances, as the revenue base of cities is eroded, while the per capita cost of providing services increases. In addition, given the durable character of housing, decline can lead to housing vacancies, declining housing prices, and urban blight.

While many declining cities across Eastern Europe and Central Asia continue to focus their policy efforts on attracting a growing population, they should instead shift their efforts to better manage their population decline. Shrinking cities are not a new phenomenon, but the region is at an unexplored frontier – which poses both challenges and opportunities for countries as they manage urban development in the years ahead.

“Cities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia: A Story of Urban Growth and Decline is a report developed under the framework of the Global Research Program on Spatial Development of Cities, initiated by the World Bank and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) Growth Research team in 2014

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New World Bank-Financed Project to Unlock Tourism Potential of Uttar Pradesh, India

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A $40 million project, to India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), was approved by the World Bank Board of Executive Directors today to increase tourism-related benefits for local communities.

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is one of India’s biggest cultural and tourist destinations, home to some of the country’s most iconic assets like the Taj Mahal in Agra, to one of the most ancient living cities in the world, Varanasi. Two of the world’s most important Buddhist sites, Sarnath and Kushinagar are also in UP. In 2016, the state attracted 211 million domestic and just over 6 million international visitors. Despite this, UP remains India’s third poorest state, with a 37.7 percent poverty rate.

The Uttar Pradesh Pro-Poor Tourism Development Project will support the state government’s priority of re-structuring tourism in a way that optimizes the state assets in an inclusive and sustainable manner directly benefiting poor residents and local entrepreneurs, such as rickshaw drivers, local artisans and street vendors, in both economic and non-economic terms. The project will help enhance their linkages with the tourism value chain, while improving living conditions for some of the state’s poorest residents through better infrastructure and services. Such “pro-poor tourism development approach” is expected to help the state better manage its unique assets, improve quality of life, energize local communities and provide job opportunities for people, particularly women and youth, living near selected tourist attractions.

“Tourism is experiencing a period of strong growth driven by India’s burgeoning middle class. Uttar Pradesh with its rich historical, religious and cultural resources, has unrivalled tourism potential. However, the economic benefits of tourism trickle down unevenly to local communities,” said Junaid Ahmad, World Bank Country Director in India. “This project will enable culturally rich local communities to share their knowledge, traditions and heritage with visiting tourists for generating income for themselves and their families.”

The project will focus on Agra and the Braj region, which despite being two of the prime tourist and pilgrimage destinations of India and UP, have some of the state’s highest poverty rates. Agra’s most iconic asset and India’s primary tourism attraction, the Taj Mahal, is surrounded by more than 20 slums with crumbling infrastructure.

In Agra, the project will focus on retelling the story and history of the city, its more than 150 sites and monuments and its rich living heritage by stimulating “Agra beyond the Taj”— a move away from a Taj Mahal-centric tourism model — to retain visitors and increase their spending in the city. It targets the locations that are already seeing notable tourist footfall, bridging its major attractions, which are today visited in isolation, such as the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, while promoting nearby lesser visited attractions, such as the traditional Kachhpura village in front of Mehtab Bagh’s Mughal garden.

To ensure a destination-level approach, the project will finance the preparation of a tourism development plan for Agra, leverage and partner with the private sector, as well as other key agencies working in the city, such as the World Monuments Fund, which is supporting the Archaeological Survey of India in revitalizing two of the city’s four remaining Mughal gardens.

Given its association with the Krishna mythology and its popular parikrama (pilgrimage) routes, the Braj region draws millions of pilgrims annually. The project will revitalize some of these assets, many of which are intrinsically linked to local communities’ way of life. In Braj, a major emphasis will be on rescuing the living heritage of the region through support to emblematic natural assets, such as its kunds (water bodies, endogenous arts, expressions and creative industries.

“Rather than representing a specific type of tourism or market segment, the project’s pro-poor tourism approach focuses on how the sector is structured to ensure that local communities and the destinations per se benefit from tourism. It does so by supporting a range of activities from strengthening policies, regulations and institutional capacities to providing basic services to communities and tourists alike and ensuring that economic and non-economic linkages with local communities and entrepreneurs are established throughout the tourism value chain,” said Stefania Abakerli, Senior Development Planner and World Bank’s Task Team Leader for the project.

The $40 million loan from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), has a 5-year grace period, and a maturity of 19 years.

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China: Heritage Sites of Confucius and Mencius Restored to Glory, Better Life for Local Communities

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About two hours’ train ride from Beijing, in the south-west of Shandong Province, are Qufu and Zoucheng. These cities are the hometowns of Confucius and Mencius – two great philosophers of ancient China. The temple, cemetery and family mansion of Confucius in Qufu, collectively known as “San Kong” (three Confucius sites), were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

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Over 65 Phuket hotels join UN Environment #CleanSeas campaign

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Dozens of hotels in one of Thailand’s most popular beach destinations have joined UN Environment’s #CleanSeas campaign, pledging to reduce the tide of plastic waste flowing into our oceans.

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