Futuristic Russia

A new report from the presidential administration suggests that instead of supporting small towns and villages, the state should concentrate on establishing a number of urban agglomerations.

The next generation of Russians may one day wake up in a new geopolitical formation, if efforts by state officials and policymakers to redraw the map of Russia are successful. Under a new project that seeks to alter the country’s territorial and urban development setup, Russians will no longer live in 83 regions, but in 20 metropolitan areas clustered around major cities, where resources are concentrated, the Vedomosti business daily reported on Tuesday, citing an official document in its possession.

The document, which was reportedly prepared by state officials from the presidential administration, claims that the country’s current territorial structure is far from perfect, with local administrative divisions often misplaced – a fact, it says, which has had a negative impact on the quality of life in small towns and rural areas. Federal institutions are often located not where needed, but in areas where budgetary allocation affords the maximum optimization of resources. In addition, the document says, there is no homogeneity in the criteria by which regional authorities decide which settlement is urban and which is rural.

According to the document, 90 percent of Russian cities are small towns, each with a population of about 100,000 people. About 50 percent of these are “monogorods,” cities whose economies are based on a single enterprise, often producing for a single market segment. The authors attributed the crisis in the country’s urban settlement to the fact that migration in the single-industry towns is static, and the population is bogged down without the possibility of renewal. Over the years, the number of residents has remained unchanged, says the document, while social institutions such as schools, theaters and museums are almost nonexistent in most of them.

The authors’ findings confirm the long-held view that monogorods have always been the Achilles heel of Russia’s urban development, as they highlight the dangers of the country’s mono-cultural economy, analysts say. Last year, as the financial crisis raged, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered his cabinet to develop a special economic program to redeem the single-industry cities, after workers in Pikalyovo in the Leningrad Region blocked the federal highway demanding payment of wage arrears. Last week, Putin announced state aid totaling 2.7 billion rubles ($90 million) for seven single-industry towns, including Leninsk-Kuznetsk, Baikal, Chusovoi, Gavrilov-Yam, Kovdor, Gukovo and Revda. The prime minister told a government meeting in May that the federal government plans to spend 27 billion rubles ($900 million) this year to prop up single-industry towns, RIA Novosti reported. First Vice Premier Igor Shuvalov said on Saturday that the government would increase to 50 the number of monogorods getting support from the federal budget. There are currently 335 single-industry towns in Russia, Shuvalov said.

However, according to the authors of the new concept, it is pointless to try to develop or save the small towns. Rather, the government should “create general conditions for the accelerated migration from single-industry towns into larger cities, and thereby ensure that the urbanization process is on a qualitatively different level.” The document calls for institutionalizing the current trend of migration from small one-industry towns to bigger, economically viable cities. The current trend is that the share of city population is growing, while the populations of monogorods are decreasing as part of a general trend of a 0.1 percent annual decrease in the country’s population. Cities are also expanding at the expense of smaller towns, rather than at the expense of villages, as was the case in the past.

By 2025 or 2030, when Russia’s urban population is expected to plummet by about 15 percent, only six major cities – Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg and Samara – can expect a slight increase in population. Other million-strong cities, such as Omsk, Kazan, Ufa, Chelyabinsk, and Rostov-on-Don will experience a population decrease.

The authors call for a qualitatively new system of concentrating resources to attract investment to new population centers, as Russia’s provincial township system has lost 20,000 population centers in the recent years. The authors also believe that policymakers should not swim against the current, but rather invest in the development of big agglomerations, adding that populations will concentrate only in places with added value and the best conditions for reproduction and application of labor and capital.

"There is nothing novel about the idea of developing agglomerations in Russia," Dmitry Badovsky, the deputy director of the Social Systems Research Institute at Moscow State University, said. "The development of agglomerations does not have to be tied to reforms of the country’s territorial and administrative boundaries. I don’t believe state officials are planning to liquidate the present administrative or regional boundaries and replace them with some 20 mega agglomerations."

The whole reform, Badovsky said, revolves around the economy and effective use of budget funds. "In some places, such reforms are urgently needed," he said. "In Moscow for instance, there is a need to develop agglomerations and merge Moscow with Moscow Region. However, this does not entail the creation of a new region."

Vedomosti wrote on Tuesday that the new development concept, which appears to negate efforts to bolster monogorods, could form part of President Dmitry Medvedev’s electioneering campaign in 2012. Vladimir Pribylovsky, the head of the Panorama think tank, dismissed this suggestion, saying that redrawing the map of Russia is too serious a matter for the president to undertake. “Such a step will require unqualified support from prime minister Putin, who really holds the reins of power,” Pribylovsky said. “While state officials traditionally love to merge and divide territories, it is inconceivable that such issues could emerge during an electioneering campaign, as it may threaten to undo the Putin-Medvedev tandem.” Badovsky added that it is “incorrect” to put a political spin on the project.

The future form of settlements in Russia should consist of 20 large urban agglomerations, each with a population of over one million people, the authors wrote. As large cities are already centers of regional development by retaining significant territories, new, highly-urbanized territories should be created by exploiting inter-city spaces, the document says. This should be achieved by creating a unified high-speed public transport system, creating an industrial hub outside metropolitan centers, relocating people to the suburbs and creating a common commercial, educational and cultural space.

In the new setup, creating agglomerations will neither require a mechanical unification of settlements nor the creation of a unified municipality. All that is required for fulfillment, according to the authors, is for the government to coordinate plans for territorial and infrastructural development and provide a free migration regime. The intellectual resources in each three-million strong agglomeration will serve as the basis of the future economy by “implementing a new model of urban governance and the concept of creative cities." The new urban centers will also require city managers, a developed electronic interaction system, and multifunctional centers providing urban services and public services.

The authors warn that new urban centers must not evolve spontaneously, so as not to pose “serious risks” for the state and create imbalances in regional development. Among the factors that could trump the novel ideas is that Russian laws do not currently allow the formation of agglomerations, as this contradicts the system of intergovernmental relations. The suggestive boundaries for such agglomerations also do not correspond to the country’s current administrative divisions, which could be a potential problem when distributing budget funds.

Agglomeration will not ring the death knell for small towns, but will contribute to their development as well as spur the creation of new cities, the document stated. "New cities must be created with systematically planned infrastructure and requirements for efficiency in the organization of transport, energy self-sufficiency based on renewable energy, eco-efficiency and comfortable urban space,” wrote the authors.

With permission from
Russia Beyond the Headlines

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