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Government / Local politics

Chart: Eastern Europe's incredible shrinking cities

The trend towards urbanisation means that most cities, in most of the world, are getting bigger. But for a select group in Eastern Europe, the opposite is true. This chart shows the population of Europe’s four most rapidly shrinking major cities in Europe, as a proportion of their 2001 figures:

Population change in the fastest shrinking of 250 European cities, shown as a proportion of 2001 population. Source: CityMetric Intelligence.

All of these cities are among the largest in their countries; two of them, Vilnius and Riga are capitals, of Lithuania and Latvia respectively. This makes the drop even more surprising: even in times of financial crisis, people move to big cities in search of better employment, health and education. 

So what gives? The obvious explanation is the EU, which give residents the freedom to live and work anywhere in Europe. Locals are thus more likely to move to more prosperous cities elsewhere in Europe with better employment prospects. Since Latvia joined the EU in 2004, at least 10 per cent of its population has left.

The dramatic drop in 2011, when populations in Kaunas, Riga and Vilnius fell by between 4 and 9 per cent, is likely due to the global financial crisis, which hit the Baltic States harder than the rest of Europe. In the year following December 2009, Latvia’s unemployment rate rose from 7 per cent to 22.8 per cent. (Changes to local regulations can sometimes mean that drops that have taken place over several years are recorded in one.)

In response to the corresponding drop in population, the country’s president Andris Berzins warned that the country could lose its independence if emigration doesn’t slow. Latvia’s émigrés are mostly young people who look elsewhere for university or employment. As one sign at a Latvian protest read: “Would the last student out of the airport please turn off the lights?”

Miskolc, Hungary, didn’t experience a dramatic drop in 2011: this may be a testament to its heavy industry-based economy, which was more resilient to the crash.

But it also highlights that this shift is not simply a response to changing economic circumstances: in all of these cities, the population has been shrinking for some time. Riga’s population peaked at 910,000 around the year 1980. It’s now just 640,000, and falling.

In fact, economic emigration is being compounded be a phenomenon afflicting most of Eastern Europe: a region-wide shortage of babies. Hungary has a birth rate of 1.23 children per women, the lowest in the EU. In Lithuania it’s 1.76, in Latvia 1.34; all are well below 2.1, the “replacement rate” needed to keep the population stable.

In 2013, the Hungarian authorities took the drastic step of sponsoring a series of dance parties to encourage its reproduction-shy population to find “the one” (and, more importantly, breed). Perhaps other European countries should follow their lead. 
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