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Urban Development

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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Urban Development

The living air purifiers cities need more of

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In our all-too-hectic urban lives, a city park is a great place to unwind. Trees and green spaces have mental health and well-being benefits, on top of being great for relaxation and recreation.

Trees also help reduce air pollution. According to the study Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States, particulate matter, which is particularly damaging to lungs, is retained on tree surfaces, while leaves act as filters, absorbing polluting gases.

But the study also warns that while trees can mitigate the effect of air pollution, deposits of air pollutants on leaves can also affect photosynthesis “and therefore potentially affect pollution removal by trees”. As with everything, balance is key.

The cooling effect of trees

Trees can also significantly cool temperatures in cities. In hot climates, tree cover can reduce energy expenditure on air conditioning, while driving down the consumption of air polluting fossil fuels that power these cooling systems. Experimental investigations and modelling studies in the United States have shown that shade from trees can reduce the air conditioning costs of detached houses by 20–30 per cent.

“Trees could reduce temperatures in cities up to 8°C, lowering use of air conditioning and related emissions by up to 40 per cent,” says Simone Borelli, an Agroforestry and Urban/Periurban Forestry Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“When part of a wider landscape mosaic, large green patches within and around cities would also reduce emissions through avoided sprawl and excess mobility requirements,” he adds.  

Urban tree-planting has to be done right. Species planted should be ones that are most effective at trapping pollution, typically those with large leaves. Officials also need to account for things like wind patterns and tree spacing. If water is scarce, they’ll want to consider drought-tolerant varieties, and avoid trees that increase pollen and allergies.

Action is all the more important given that urbanization is accelerating—the proportion of people living in cities will be 60 per cent in 2030 and 66 per cent in 2050. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia. To address the impacts of this rapid growth and the related challenges, a large-scale effort is needed.

 Building the Great Green Wall of Cities

Nearly 8,000 km long and 15 km wide, the Great Green Wall is an African-led movement of epic proportions initiated in 2007 to green the entire width of northern Africa, a semi-arid region extending from Senegal to Djibouti. A decade in and roughly 15 per cent under way, the initiative is slowly bringing life back to some of Africa’s degraded landscapes, providing food security, jobs and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path. 

An initiative of this nature in urban areas is being developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners in preparation for the UN Climate Summit in September 2019. It aims to create up to 500,000 hectares of new urban forests and restore or maintain up to 300,000 ha of existing natural forests in and around 90 cities of the Sahel and Central Asia by 2030. Once established, this “Great Green Wall of Cities” would capture 0.5–5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year and stock carbon for centuries. 

On 1 March 2019 the UN General Assembly established the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which should give further impetus to tree-planting efforts.

“UN Environment promotes the planting of trees as a key way to mitigate climate change and boost land-based biodiversity, 80 per cent of which is in forests,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. “We are working with partners across the planet to boost tree planting for ecosystem restoration. There is scope for planting one trillion more trees, in addition to the 3 trillion that already exist on Earth. But it has to be done right; planting indigenous trees, supported by local communities, is a good way to go.”

Let the stones gather some moss

In those forest ecosystems, trees are not alone in cleaning the air. An ambitious project by Greencity Solutions in Berlin, Germany, seeks to marry high-tech applications with another natural air purifier: moss.

“The ability of certain moss cultures to filter pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from the air makes them ideal natural air purifiers,” says Greencity Solutions.

“But in cities, where air purification is a great challenge, mosses are barely able to survive due to their need for water and shade. This problem can be solved by connecting different mosses with fully automated water and nutrient provision based on unique Internet of things technology,” it explains.

Or by planting more trees that will provide the cover and humidity, that will help moss take hold and grow.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

New study expected to chart Melaka’s pathway to urban sustainability

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photo: UNIDO

Within the framework of the ‘Sustainable City Development in Malaysia’ project, which seeks to address the country’s urban challenges and which is being implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), executed by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), and supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the ‘Melaka Sustainability Outlook Diagnostic: Pathway to Urban Sustainability’ was launched today. The report is the result of an assessment performed by the World Bank’s Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) in which Melaka actively participates. The study will inform the Melaka State’s Structure Plan and its long-term planning document; it will also offer key recommendations for the State to chart its own pathway to urban sustainability.

The diagnostic consists of an overview report containing a policy brief, an executive summary and a benchmark assessment as well as six supporting reports that cover each of the diagnostic’s dimensions, namely Reinforcing Melaka’s Economic Success; Integrating Environmental Plans; Enhancing Housing and Services; Shaping a Compact, Efficient, and Harmonious Urban Form; Shifting Melaka’s Mobility Modal Split; and Demonstrating Fiscal Sustainability.

One of the report’s recommendations calls for the State and the City of Melaka to obtain a credit rating; accordingly, both entities already agreed to undergo a formal rating assessment with UNIDO’s support. Depending on the assessment’ result, they could tap capital markets to finance future infrastructure projects. Moreover, another recommendation calls for the City of Melaka to complete a climate-smart capital investment plan for which the city indicated its willingness, with UNIDO coordinating local and national inputs to raise funds.

Being one of most urbanized countries in Asia, 75 percent of Malaysians reside in urban areas and over 90 percent of the national economic activities are conducted in cities. Rapid urbanization has created tremendous economic opportunities for the country, but has also put enormous pressure on its urban infrastructure and services.

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Urban Development

Make Dhaka Walkable

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When it comes to urban mobility, Global South cities suffer significant challenges such as lack of transport equity and poor accessibility for the urban poor. On the March of 25-28, 2019, the Share the Road Programme (a partnership between UN Environment and FIA Foundation) participated in a workshop dubbed ‘make Dhaka walkable’ held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by the Sustainable Transport Equity Partnerships (STEPS) – a global alliance of researchers and practitioners including the Walk21 Foundation, UN Environment and the University of Leeds. The organizations are committed to identifying the essential steps decision makers and multi-disciplinary teams of experts must collectively take to meet the needs of people walking. STEPS aims to promote urban transport systems that can meet the travel needs of low income, city populations in the Global South.

Despite walking making up to 75% of all journeys, the conditions in which people walk in Dhaka are often unsafe and unpleasant. In order to highlight the needs of pedestrians in Dhaka, the meeting brought together engineers, planners, civil rights activists, NGOs, social scientists and many more for a real interdisciplinary perspective of the transferability of global walkability practices.

The opening workshop included representatives from Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), Road Transport and Highways Division, Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, University of Asia Pacific and others to help push the local walking agenda forward.

A study visit was also conducted in the Korail slum in Dhaka, to assess the real insights into the walking and accessibility issues affecting local, low income communities.

One of the gaps identified through the STEPS programme is the severe inadequacies of non-motorized transport in transport policy in the Global South.  The Share the Road programme shared knowledge on the experience of non-motorized transport in Nairobi -the small initiatives needed to make big differences, the need to have NMT users included in the planning of road construction projects, and the importance of securing a percentage in transport budgets. The vital and economic aspects of walkability projects cannot be ignored.

Having discussed the ‘eight steps to walkable Dhaka’ facilitated by Walk21, the workshop was brought to a close by Professor Jamilur Choudhury from University of Asia Pacific who gave some personal reflections on the development of transport policy and walking in the city, and stated his commitment to moving the walkability agenda forward locally.

UN Environment

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