In Soviet times, relocation to northern monocities was seen as an attractive option, with high pay and good perks, along with a well-developed infrastructure, perceived as offsetting the harsh climate. The situation is different today, with some cities on the verge of vanishing into extinction. A prominent and rather striking example of this process is Vorkuta in the Komi Republic. A team of researchers from the HSE and Politecnico di Milano, having examined the progressive shrinkage of this once booming monocity, concluded that the case of Vorkuta could suggest effective approaches to managing urban depopulation in the Russian Arctic.
Over the past century, the Russian Arctic has passed through a number of development stages, from intense industrialisation during the Soviet era to a decline in the 1990s and 2000s. The Soviet government invested heavily in the country's northern territories, seeking both to fill the growing need for natural resources and to establish control over the vast, sparsely populated areas. New mines and quarries, scientific and meteorological stations, and military bases were set up and new cities and villages emerged where no permanent settlements had existed before.
The collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s was associated with the phenomenon of shrinkage affecting many Russian cities which used to live off a single industrial enterprise. Facing a severe crisis due to a reduction in state support for industry and infrastructure and dwindling investment in science and in the military, Arctic cities – except for those located in oil and gas-producing areas – experienced a massive population loss.
Shrinking cities are metropolitan areas which experience significant and sustained depopulation while their urban design and engineering infrastructure remain the same as when they served a much larger community. A clear-cut example of a shrinking city is Detroit in the U.S. state of Michigan, which experienced a steep decline in the second half of the 20th century due to deindustrialisation.
'Currently, the Russian Arctic is a controversial space where intensive economic development zones – the oil and gas-producing provinces – are adjacent to vast areas of shrinkage and decay showcasing the "hybrid spatialities" of change', according to the study authors.
They emphasise that the phenomenon of urban shrinkage calls for a rethinking of approaches towards urban planning, because the use of land, buildings and infrastructure is closely linked to the economic and political environment. The paper examines how the local authorities in the Russian Arctic communities deal with the challenges of depopulation, using the case of Vorkuta – one of Russia's fastest shrinking cities, according to Rosstat – as an example.
The study involved field observations and semi-structured interviews with representatives of the local administration, cultural and non-governmental organisations, and businesses. Desk research included a review of policy documents related to urban planning and socioeconomic development, data from Rosstat, and municipal statistics.
Before proceeding to the Vorkuta case, the paper discusses the broader context of urban shrinkage and its implications, from institutional to aesthetic, caused by physical decay. Among the biggest challenges are those related to the urban morphology, i.e. formation and transformation of the city's physical form which is usually the most conservative component of a city’s environment and the slowest to adapt to rapid economic, political and social changes.
Research suggests that the balance between densely populated and abandoned areas is seriously disrupted in shrinking cities, causing urban spaces to fall apart into loosely connected fragments. Urban shrinkage can follow different spatial patters, such as suburban decline, the 'doughnut effect', i.e. a hollowing of the city centre, or an intertwining of growing and declining quarters. All of the above can go hand in hand with a continuing urban sprawl.
Despite the growing number of shrinking cities worldwide, there are few, if any, international examples of effective attempts to plan for potential urban shrinkage. Indeed, only when efforts to bring people back to the community fail do cities initiate measures – such as demolition, redevelopment or landscaping to fill the emerging voids – to adapt to a smaller population size.
Vorkuta’s population of 116,000 in 1991 has dropped by more than half to 54,000 today.
The city's history began in the 1930s, when geologists confirmed the existence of rich coal deposits in the area, leading to a decision on industrial development. The area was placed under the control of the GULAG system using the forced labour of prisoners, and the construction of the first mine started, alongside a settlement around it to house the administrations of the GULAG subdivisions of Vorkutlag and later Rechlag.
In 1943, the settlement became officially a city designed to use forced labour to meet the needs of the country's rapid industrialisation in the absence of sustainable economic solutions. The city was incapable of autonomous existence, as all supplies, from construction materials and equipment to consumer goods and food, had to be brought in over long distances, and the urban infrastructure required extensive subsidies from the central government.
'Vorkuta is by all measures an uncomfortable area for living. The presence of permafrost, bare tundra, frequent snowstorms, extremely low temperatures and the polar night all complicate human activity', the authors explain. Despite the challenges, Vorkuta continued to grow throughout the Soviet period. 'While just one mine was operational before the Second World War, eleven more were added during the war, surrounded by several mining settlements that formed the so-called Vorkuta ring'.
Starting in the mid-1950s, with the gradual disbandment of the GULAG system after Stalin's death, voluntary migration to Vorkuta started, motivated by various 'northern' perks such as high pay and long vacations, as well as a broad ideological campaign that used the rhetoric of 'conquering nature' to promote the development of Arctic territories. Efforts were made to make northern cities more convenient and better suited for living in the harsh climate.
The central government viewed Vorkuta as a centre of 'colonisation' of the North and a symbol of the unshakable communist party rule. These ambitious goals were pursued despite the harsh climate and the high economic, environmental and human costs. After World War II, as Vorkuta was assigned the status of a city, it acquired a ceremonial centre with neoclassical administrative buildings and comfortable housing for the elites, surrounded by barracks for the workers.
In the late 1950s, the city’s architectural appearance changed, following a countrywide change in urban planning and architectural standards, and high-rise buildings made of prefabricated concrete blocks filled the expanding city and its suburban communities in the Vorkuta ring. This approach did not allow for any flexibility in responding to changes in economic and social conditions, while the harsh climate limited the choice of building types and materials used, all contributing to a centrally managed, excessively rigid urban development pattern.
Based on Rosstat's data, Vorkuta ranks 15th among Russia's shrinking cities in terms of depopulation. Today, Vorkuta's municipal area covers the city itself, 16 townships, eight urban-type settlements and two villages. According to the authors, five townships had been almost entirely abandoned by 2010, and six more had fewer than 100 residents at the time.
Vorkuta is still a coal mining centre, listed as one of Russia's monocities, where Vorkutaugol is the main employer. However, out of the 13 mines at its peak, currently only four mines and one quarry remain operational.
Since the early 2000s, the Russian government has supported migration from the Arctic areas, including Vorkuta, and party institutionalised this in 2002 by adopting the Federal Law on housing subsidies to resettlers from the Far North and equivalent locations. Vorkuta was one of the pilot sites for the World Bank's Northern Restructuring Project for Russia, which focused on out-migration assistance and was closed in 2009.
With the central government focused on resettlement from the Arctic, the local municipalities were left to their own devices to deal with the physical consequences of depopulation, using what can be described as 'controlled shrinkage'. This approach to urban planning, designed in the mid-2000s, seeks to help cities adapt to the negative effects of depopulation. In Vorkuta, its principles are outlined in key policy documents such as the strategy of socio-economic development. According to the researchers, this approach has been helpful in curbing the city's sprawl and fragmentation and in adapting some aspects of the infrastructure to the effects of depopulation.
At the core of the ‘controlled shrinkage’ strategy lies a compact development of the more populated central parts of the city, including renovation of the housing stock and upgrading of utilities and infrastructure. People living in the city’s outskirts are encouraged to move into the newly renovated (previously abandoned) municipal apartments in the city centre to reduce the vacancy rates. At the same time, buildings in the outskirts, as well as decayed real estate in other parts of the city, are disconnected from utilities and, where feasible, demolished.
Some non-residential buildings in good condition and a desirable location have been sold out for redevelopment to private investors. These include a former swimming pool, a marketplace and a fire station which have since been converted into shopping and entertainment centres. In 2016-2017, private investors were engaged in demolition projects in the older northern part of the city and received bricks and other construction materials from the dismantled buildings for reuse.
However, the authors have learned from the interviews that the overall private participation in the 'controlled shrinkage' has been minimal.
The removal of buildings and the dismantling of utilities is accompanied by urban landscaping, in particular to fill the spaces left after the demolition. Since the mid-2010s, Vorkuta has been receiving subsidies from the regional authorities to continue the ‘densification’ of its more populated areas.
Due to financial constraints, the local administration has focused its redevelopment efforts on the city centre and major settlements of the Vorkuta ring, such as Vorgashor, leaving smaller villages, abandoned early in the post-Soviet period, unattended with decaying buildings and infrastructure.
One such ghost towns is Yur-Shor, abandoned by all its residents by 2010. Some of its buildings were taken down to discourage informal use, but no effort was made to remove the debris now gradually dissolving into the harsh natural environment.
Numerous communities in the Russian Far North and Far East have become ghost towns. The best-known examples include Kadykchan near Magadan, Nizhneyansk and Ynykchan in Yakutia, Khalmer-Yu in Komi, and Iultin in Chukotka. Even Central Russia has its share of ghost towns, such as Glavmoststroy in Moscow and Mokhovoe in the Lukhovitsky district of Moscow Oblast.
While some progress has been made, the local authorities have not been able to bring the city's shrinkage fully under control, nor have they monitored or mapped the changes in the city's morphology and relationship with its natural environment.
A major constraint is the engineering infrastructure – heating, water supply and sewerage – constructed in the Soviet era to serve the entire Vorkuta ring. Redesigning it to meet the needs of a much smaller community would require changes to all of its components. While steps have been taken to optimise the heating system, such as redistribution of capacities and upgrades to boiler houses, little has been done to adapt the water supply and sewage systems other than cutting off the branch lines of pipes connected to abandoned buildings.
The researchers mention in particular that the current water supply system's capacity far exceeds demand, leading to unnecessary waste as excess water is literally being dumped into the tundra.
Another challenge, though less prominent, is the fact that the public services and facilities are scattered all over the city and sometimes located in depopulated areas, but moving them elsewhere is difficult, due to a lack of suitably equipped buildings.
According to the study authors, Vorkuta could implement 'controlled shrinkage' in a smarter and more efficient way with adequate state support. The same applies to other cities and towns in the Russian Arctic facing a similar situation.
'Shrinking settlements and idle infrastructures of the Russian Arctic are not merely “monuments” to state socialism <....> They are univocally illustrative of global trends – austerity politics and reshuffling power relations, that to a different extent shape spatial polarization throughout the whole Far North', the authors conclude.
In the future, the deepening socioeconomic inequality between the rapidly growing ‘successful’ Arctic settlements and the shrinking ‘left behind’ ones will inevitably become a major obstacle to the region's sustainable development and the well-being of its inhabitants. The authors believe therefore that Vorkuta’s experience can offer useful insights to many other shrinking cities and towns in the Far North.