• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

How Are Russian Cities Different from Western Cities?

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

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

See also:

A City in Your Mind: HSE Urbanists on Perceptions of Place and Imagined Neighbourhoods

Associate Professor Kirill Puzanov of the HSE Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism and HSE University Professor Oleg Baevskiy have held lectures at the Red Square Book festival. They talked about perceptions of the city, its private and public aspects, chamber and representative spaces, and imaginary (or ‘vernacular’) areas. The open lectures took place as part of the HSE University Open to the City project.

Eurasian Barriers: Obstacles to International Economic Integration in the Post-Soviet Space

The creation of the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) contributed to the development of mutual trade between their member countries. That process picked up pace significantly starting in 2019. Still, it is too early to say that the efforts by EAEU member states to achieve economic integration have been an unqualified success. This problem is the focus of a joint report that a group of experts from Russia (HSE), Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan presented at the XXIII Yasin International Academic Conference organised by HSE University in April.

Representatives of More than 30 Countries Took Part in the XXIII Yasin International Academic Conference

The XXIII Yasin (April) International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development has come to a close at HSE University. In 2022, more than 3,000 participants took part in the event, including 250 registered foreign representatives—almost 10% more than last year.

‘There Is a Big Question as to What Extent a Human Is Still a Human and a Machine Is Still a Machine’

Will new technologies divide or unite people and society? What mechanisms should be used to balance society’s interests and progress so that innovation does not dehumanize humans? How should interaction between humans and AI be structured? Is all technology good for people? TheXXIII Yasin (April) International Academic Conference of HSE University discusses these questions and more.

‘Uncertainty Transforms the Social Protection System into a Safety Cushion’

As part of the XXIII Yasin (April) International Academic Conference, HSE University held a meeting between HSE scholars and Anton Kotyakov, Minister of Labour and Social Protection of the Russian Federation. The title of the meeting was ‘The Future of Social Security: Trends and Forecasts.’ The experts and the Minister discussed the experience and lessons learned from population support initiatives during the pandemic, social protection efforts to reduce poverty and inequality, measures to counter sanctions, and the situation in the labour market.

Long-awaited Long-term Care

The number of older persons and their life expectancy are on the rise in many countries worldwide. As they age, some people need assistance with daily living activities, something their family is not always capable of providing. This creates a demand for professional long-term care that integrates medical and social services. How Russia can benefit from other countries' experience of providing public long-term care is discussed in a report* presented by the HSE Centre for Social Policy Studies at the XXIII Yasin International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development hosted by the HSE University.

Justice 'Ex Machina': Using Artificial Intelligence to Fight Corruption

In Mexico, a pilot project applying artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms enabled the Tax Administration Service to detect 1200 tax-evading companies and 3500 fraudulent transactions within three months – a task that would have taken 18 months using conventional methods. Despite some obvious benefits, the use of AI-based solutions to counter corruption also entails several challenges, according to experts of the HSE Laboratory for Anti-Corruption Policy (LAP) and the HSE Faculty of Law who have examined the relevant experience of several countries. A report based on the study’s* findings was presented at the XXIII Yasin (April) International Academic Conference hosted by the Higher School of Economics.

HSE Experts Discuss the Situation in the Country with Presidential Aide Maxim Oreshkin

HSE University academics held a discussion with Maxim Oreshkin, presidential aide and graduate of the HSE University, as part of theXXIII Yasin (April) International Academic Conference. They talked about the current socioeconomic situation and the future of Russia's development. The discussion was moderated by HSE Academic SupervisorYaroslav Kuzminov.

‘Our Task Is to Preserve the Market Segment as Much as Possible’

What risks is the Russian financial system facing today? What is the Central Bank of Russia going to do to mitigate them? Why do we need a high key rate? Has the regulator changed its approach to the building of forex reserves? Will the regulator remain hawkish on cryptocurrencies? Ksenia Yudaeva, First Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia, answered these and other questions during a round table entitled ‘Russia’s Financial Sector under New Global Conditions’. The event was held as part of the XXIII Yasin (April) International Academic Conference.

‘The Northern Sea Route Is an Efficient Transport Communication Channel to Deliver Goods Sold on Trade Platforms’

The Northern Sea Route has a key role to play in developing Russia's export potential in the Asia-Pacific region. As the current situation requires a reorientation of export flows from Europe to Asia, this route is taking on a new significance in the search for effective transport communication with Indian and Chinese markets. An Arctic Research session was held at the XXIII Yasin International Academic Conference.