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Living a Full Life Not Just for Big Cities

Fifteen Russian cities, including major university cities, capitals of Russia's constituent national republics, and regional centres, rival Moscow and St. Petersburg in terms of human development. In fact, Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Chelyabinsk, Kazan, and Novosibirsk are actually ahead of Russia's two capitals in terms of this parameter, according to a study conducted by the HSE's Graduate School of Urban Studies and Planning. The study was led by the late Dean of the School Alexander Vysokovsky. The study’s findings were presented at the Fourth Moscow Urban Forum.

The study characterising Russian cities in terms of their comfort for living was conducted by Ekaterina Dyba, Yegor Kotov, Anton Gorodnichev, and Arina Miksyuk under the guidance of Alexander Vysokovsky. Other contributors included the HSE's Institute of Demography, the Novaya Zemlya Company, and other analytical centres. The study was commissioned by the Directorate of the Moscow Urban Forum held in 2014 under the theme ‘Drivers of City Development’.

Given its geographical scope—the study covers more than 60 major towns and cities of various Russian regions, territories, and constituent republics, as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the range of topics covered—from regional economies to the internet penetration, the resulting paper 'Fighting for the Citizen: Human Potential and Urban Environment' can serve as a style guide of modern Russian urbanism.

Central to the paper is the idea of an individual's wellbeing in a city, i.e. the potential for living a full and comfortable life in cities of different sizes. The authors found that in many Russian cities, people live as fully as in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The researchers identified a group of Russian cities with a high human development index (HDI), including five cities with a population of over 750,000 (the first stratum, in the authors' terminology), four cities with a population of 500,000 to 750,000 (the second stratum), and six cities with a population of less than 500,000 (the third stratum).

Notably, the top five Russian cities in terms of HDI, which leave Moscow and St. Petersburg trailing behind, are located outside the central part of Russia. In fact, the two capitals tend to deplete human resources in surrounding communities. This effect stops at the Volga Region (Povolzhye) in the east and at the Black Soil Region in the south—beyond these virtual boundaries, local cities tend to develop their own sustainable human potential without losing out to the capitals.

A survey was conducted as part of the study to determine how comfortable people felt living in their cities: 6,400 respondents were asked about the city infrastructure, everyday conveniences, leisure options, business opportunities, social capital, migration, and internet penetration; the study also used published data from Rosstat, government ministries, and municipal authorities.

Moscow and St. Petersburg Deplete Human Resources in Surrounding Areas

According to a number of studies conducted in Russia, oil and gas mining regions such as Tyumen (see 'Winners' and 'Losers' among Russian Cities) and recipients of large federal subsidies to finance important projects (e.g. Sochi and Vladivostok) or for other reasons (e.g. Grozny), as well as the ‘two capitals’, i.e. Moscow and St. Petersburg, are the country's leaders in terms of economic development.

The economy, however, is not the only measure of the quality of life in a particular city; many other things matter, i.e. whether the urban environment is convenient, whether it creates psychological comfort and offers opportunities for self-expression, etc.—all the things that contribute to human development. Other obvious things contributing to human development include well-functioning healthcare and education systems, and material wealth.

The study used the following types of parameters to determine the human development index:

  • demography/health care (includes infant mortality rates and total death rates per 1,000 population, both reflecting the state of health care and the age structure in a particular city);
  • education (students and people with university degrees per 1,000 residents);
  • welfare (the average salary adjusted to the local cost of basic consumer products and services).

The researchers identified 15 top cities in three strata—large, medium-sized, and relatively small.

Cities in the first stratum: Yekaterinburg (HDI of 5.564), Krasnodar (5.521), Chelyabinsk (5.483), Kazan (5.470), and Novosibirsk (5.448).

Makhachkala, Tomsk, Tyumen, and Irkutsk are leaders in the second stratum, while Cheboksary, Belgorod, Yakutsk, Ulan-Ude, Tambov, and Stavropol top the list of cities in the third stratum with a population of 250,000 to 500,000.

The authors found two major patterns.

First, cities with high HDI levels are virtually nonexistent in central Russia, even though this part of the country has the highest level of population density. According to the researchers, one of the reasons for this is the proximity of Moscow and St. Petersburg—both capitals tend to deplete surrounding areas of their human potential. Indeed, the majority of Russian cities with low HDIs are located in areas close to Moscow and St. Petersburg—particularly in the Central, Northern, and North-West economic areas, and only communities located hundreds of miles away from Moscow and St. Petersburg—beyond the Volga Region in the east and the Black Soil Region in the south—tend to develop their own sustainable human potential without losing it to the capitals, according to the study's authors.

The second important finding was that Russia's HDI leaders include particular types of cities, namely major university centres, such as Tomsk, Novosibirsk, and Yekaterinburg, regional centres, such as Tyumen and Krasnodar, and capitals of Russia's national republics, such as Kazan and Makhachkala. Their HDIs are somewhat higher than even those of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Balanced HDI Components Make Cities Attractive

The authors examined the relative weight of each HDI component—relevant to education, health/demography, and living standards—in each city, and compared statistics on how the residents describe the situation in these areas (based on surveys).

They found that in cities where each component's contribution to the overall HDI is about the same, more survey respondents tend to be satisfied with the local health care and education and with their own incomes. This is true of Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, and Krasnodar, where each of the HDI's five components contributes some 18 to 22% to the total.

In contrast, in cities with unbalanced HDIs dominated by just one or two components, survey responses do not match the statistics.

Thus, in Tomsk, two indices make the largest contributions to the overall HDI—the number of students (contributing 25%) and the infant mortality rate (contributing 21%), but Tomsk residents’ subjective assessment of health care and education in the city does not match the statistics. In Tyumen, however, where proportional contributions of different indices to the total HDI are somewhat more balanced (23% and 24% respectively for the above indices), the survey responses are consistent with the statistics, i.e. people in Tyumen are quite happy with local education and healthcare.

It means that people tend to be more satisfied with the city's environment when different indices contributing to the HDI are well-balanced—emphasising the importance of policies aimed at balancing education, healthcare, and living standards. "Such a balance makes cities more competitive in attracting highly skilled and creative people," the authors note.

Residents of High HDI Cities Are Happy to Live There

The study's authors used the cases of Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Voronezh, Tomsk, and Krasnodar to test a hypothesis that cities with high HDIs, no matter how big or small, make their residents happy. Among other things, the survey respondents were asked about whether and to what extent they enjoyed living in their cities, including their involvement in community life, attendance of cultural events, etc.

The researchers found that in high HDI cities, 69% of respondents, on average, enjoy living in their city, and another 24% answered that they 'somewhat enjoy it'. The proportion of satisfied residents is similar across cities, with just 12% difference between the leading Tomsk (77%) and the last in category Novosibirsk (65%), while Tyumen (71%), Krasnodar (69%), Yekaterinburg (67%), and Voronezh (67%) rank in-between.

More than half of all respondents in these cities (55% on average) believe that many cities in Russia are comfortable to live in, while almost a third (31%) believe that only big cities are comfortable; in Tomsk, respondents were more optimistic than others in this regard (61% say many Russian cities are comfortable to live in) and residents of Yekaterinburg (49%) were more skeptical than others.

Notably, a survey conducted by Superjob in 2014 demonstrated similar results in the same sample of cities as above: 87% said they were satisfied with their city of residence. It is consistent with the findings of the Graduate School of Urban Studies and Planning, as by adding up the responses 'I enjoy living in my city' (69%) and 'I rather enjoy living in my city' (24%) in the latter survey, the total is 93%.

Culture and Infrastructure Attract People to Cities

The main reasons why residents enjoyed their city of residence included its beauty (58%), convenience stores (58%), museums, theatres, and cultural centres (49%), numerous markets and shopping malls (47%), good restaurants (47%), and entertainment options, such as bars, clubs, karaoke, bowling, etc. (43%). The respondents also appreciate opportunities for getting a good education (49%) and availability of infrastructure for comfortable travel (46%).

However, while residents of different cities have a high overall assessment of their quality of life there, they associate it with different characteristics of the urban environment, of which only a few were consistently mentioned across the sample of cities. Thus, the respondents' assessment of their city's architecture varied just slightly between 62% in Tomsk, Voronezh, and Yekaterinburg and 59% in Tyumen and Krasnodar, and only in Novosibirsk it was much lower at 43%. The assessment of convenience stores across the sample ranged from 57% to 67%, and only in Tomsk it stood as low as 28%.

When asked about things they did not like about their cities, respondents mentioned traffic, including congestion (74%) and parking problems (65%), and everything about real estate, from the cost of buying (44%) or renting (31%) property, to utility prices (40%) and quality (40%).

Almost 60% of respondents are convinced that doing business in their city is 'difficult' or 'somewhat difficult'.

Social Capital Low in Cities

Just 35% of urban dwellers ever ask others for help, while 15% never do so and rely only on themselves. 80% do not belong to any non-governmental organisation, and only Krasnodar has the highest rate (26%) of involvement in NGOs.

When asked about trust in institutions, 18% said they do not trust anyone; 37% said they trust the government, and 21.2% trust mass media, medical professionals, and teachers. It means that the level of social capital in Russian cities is still quite low.

Despite that, Russia's leading cities open up good opportunities for human development—an optimistic conclusion, apparently shared by the residents of the cities themselves.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, December 11, 2014