What is so unique about the growth (or decline) of cities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia?

There are the booming megacities such as Tokyo, Mumbai, and Nairobi. Then there are  cities that are declining in population, such as Detroit. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where we recently conducted a study on urban growth trends, we found unique demographic patterns affecting the urbanization process in the region. For example, the region has had fertility rates below replacement levels for more than two decades, and most countries in the region have negative net migration rates.

This signifies that the population of most countries in the region is either growing very slowly or declining, and in some countries urban population has started to decline.

What does this mean for cities?
Resulting from this competition, we find that most of the cities in the region are shrinking while population growth is increasingly concentrated in a few cities. Per our estimates, 61% of the region’s cities shrank between 2000 and 2010, losing on average 11% of their population. This scale of city population decline is unprecedented.

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 have more than 80% of their cities shrinking.

What are the policy implications?

  1. Growing and declining cities both face uniquely challenging environments.
  • Growing cities need to be able to adapt their local infrastructure and services to ensure that their growing population is well absorbed and integrated.
  • More specifically, growing cities in Europe and Central Asia are increasingly functioning as multi-city agglomeration, which can create coordination challenges.
  1. City population decline often leads to fiscal imbalances, as cities revenues are eroded, while per-capita cost of providing services increases. What happened in Rust Belt cities such as Detroit and Cleveland is an example of this.
  2. However, our study found that the population decline is not necessarily linked to economic decline in Eastern Europe and Central Asian countries. This suggests that while many declining cities in the region continue to focus their policy efforts on attracting a growing population, they should shift their efforts to better manage their population decline.
  3. While shrinking cities are not a new phenomenon, the Europe and Central Asia region, given its unique demographic transition, is at an unexplored frontier.
  4. While this is a challenge, it also means that the region has an opportunity to pilot policy options on “smart decline.”