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How Are Russian Cities Different from Western Cities?

Robert Buckley, Senior Fellow in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School, US
© Ekaterina Oreshkina

One of the roundtables held during the XIX April Academic Conference featured a discussion of the report on morphology of Russian cities presented by Robert Buckley, Senior Fellow in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School, US. The report looked at what Russian cities look like in terms of population density, how the patterns Russian cities exhibit compare with those of other cities around the world, and what individual behaviours might have contributed to the appearance of a certain pattern.

Cities and Tent Poles

Generally, morphology of the cities is one of the strongest empirical regularities in economics. Most cities follow certain common patterns in terms of population density. If the population density of city is mapped against the distance from the city centre, the resulting shape often looks like the top of a circus tent with a pole. Thus, cities with high population density in the centre have a negative density gradient, whereas others with a positive gradient will have more people residing in the further from the city centre. It is also possible to have several ‘tent poles’ or spikes of population density in a city. All these patterns usually find an explanation in the economic behaviours of its residents. 

It appears that most cities ‘west of Budapest and east of Los Angeles’ have a negative density gradient. The land in the centre of such cities is very valuable, so the buildings are quite tall

It appears that most cities ‘west of Budapest and east of Los Angeles’ have a negative density gradient. The land in the centre of such cities is very valuable, so the buildings are quite tall. As Professor Buckley noted, there ‘structure substitutes for land’ leading to the appearance of ‘monocentric’ cities. As population and income grow, poly-centered cities may appear. Evidence shows that most European cities are strongly monocentric. They often have extreme urban planning regulations and rigid enforcement of laws. If a city is not monocentric, there is typically a policy explanation for that – for instance, in Cape Town part of the population was relegated to the outskirts or in Brasilia the urban design was based on a modernist idea of creating a new capital in a completely new location.

Cities as Ski Slopes

What is important in analyzing the morphology of the cities is the shape of the density/location curve, and not the density figures themselves. If we compare the curve with a ski slope, all cities can be described as various types of ski slopes. Thus, most Western European cities will be ‘expert slopes’ with population density going down very quickly as we move from the city centre, while Eastern European cities have ‘milder intermediate slopes’ with a more gradual decrease.

The morphology of Russian cities is quite unusual by comparison. Out of thirteen cities analysed, there appeared:

  • six cities with expert slopes and enormous early moguls where density declines for some distance and then rises sharply before decreasing again (St. Petersburg, Rostov, Ufa, Yekaterinburg, Volgograd, and Novosibirsk).
  • two cities with ‘cross-country slopes’, that is with flat gradients that mean that density does not decline for some distance (Chelyabinsk and Samara);
  • one city with a pattern like that produced by a heart monitor, i.e. completely erratic and resembling an EKG or Fourier series (Omsk) 
  • four cities with a positive gradient where population density increases towards the outskirts (Moscow, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, and Perm).

Most Western European cities will be ‘expert slopes’ with population density going down very quickly as we move from the city centre, while Eastern European cities have ‘milder intermediate slopes’ with a more gradual decrease

According to Professor Buckley, deviation from the standard ‘negative gradient’ pattern represents economic inefficiency. He posits that in countries with market economy or even in former Soviet block countries, such as Hungary with its ‘goulash communism’ with somewhat lax control, the market forces inevitably led to the emergence of negative gradient pattern, whereas the strict command economy in the Soviet Union did not allow for spatial optimization because the regime didn’t pay attention to land costs. One would think that the allocation of such a system would change when the system did but it appears to be doing so very slowly and seems to be costly.

There might be various explanations for why Soviet-based morphologies still persist 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It may be due to the physical or topological conditions of an area where the city is located or the fact that buildings represent long-lived capital stock. However, Professor Buckley offered another hypothesis linking the nature of patterns Russian cities demonstrate to contracting problems.

Why Privatization Did Not Work as Planned

The idea of privatization in Russia was to give everyone property so that they could respond to resource costs. However, it did not produce the desired result. Firstly, negotiating property uses in large, run-down buildings on large estates with diffused ownership is difficult. It is an example of the ‘tragedy of anti-commons’ - instead of too many having unfettered use rights, too many have control rights, which destroys value because a decision cannot be reached. The fact that income distribution in a given building may be very uneven compounds the problem. Often there will be pensioners living in a building and they will be opposed to costly repair initiatives or attempts to repurpose the building. Secondly, transport and utilities in Russia remain to be subsidized to a certain extent. Besides, many residential buildings have long outlived their useful lives. Put simply, people living in old residential areas in the outskirts do not realize the full cost of their housing that includes deferred maintenance, utilities, and transport. If they did, they would be motivated to relocate. Since this is not happening, deterioration and misallocations of buildings continue and land use changes very slowly.

Negative Consequences

Failure to reach agreement leads to inability to repurpose more convenient sites, higher vacancies in peripheral locations, greenfield construction rather than repurposing sites and reduced mobility across cities. What’s more important, it leads to the lack of land supply for housing, as it is difficult to reconfigure existing non-optimal uses. As a result, prices increase and it becomes difficult for people to afford housing. This impedes locational productivity because people cannot move to a place with high productivity. Consequently, economic growth is slower and the country’s economy suffers.

Failure to reach agreement leads to inability to repurpose more convenient sites, higher vacancies in peripheral locations, greenfield construction rather than repurposing sites and reduced mobility across cities

There are a number of policies that could help overcome the Anti-Commons Problem but there is also a prior distributional problem that makes the policies difficult to pursue.  Moving to market-based spatial allocation would require making the gradients steeper, smoothing the ‘moguls’ and dismantling the positive gradient through a variety of initiatives.

Some solutions Professor Buckley has suggested include:

  • recognizing a lower number of negotiators for agreement on building use at least on some sites;
  • encouraging the production of multi-family rental buildings; 
  • introduction of land taxes to increase the cost of negotiation delays; 
  • recognizing that subsidies for transport and utilities are, in part, the result of contracting problems.


Prepared by Maria Besova

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