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Challenges of European Cities in transition

Zagreb © joyfull / Shutterstock.comThe State of European Cities in Transition is the latest addition to UN-Habitat’s rapidly-expanding series of regional reports on the state of cities, which already include the African, Arab States, Asia-Pacific and Latin America-Caribbean regions.

The current report gives an indepth overview of twenty years’ transformation efforts by the 23 countries and territories in northeast, central, east and southeast Europe that, in the early-1990s, embarked on a monumental transition from Socialist centrally-planned economies to democratic and market-based systems. As this report shows, the transition has been a long and winding road with these countries now in various phases of completing their reforms.

The European transitional nations are a varied group of countries. Domestic populations in 2011 ranged from 68.9 million people in the Ukraine to as few as 632,000 in Montenegro. National urbanization levels also varied significantly in 2011: from 75 per cent in Belarus to 48 per cent in Moldova, averaging about 60 per cent region-wide.

The latter figure would appear to indicate that the region is in the last phases of its urban transition. However, both recorded and projected figures indicate a trend of notable region-wide population declines and near stagnant urban population shares. Consequently, the region-wide urbanization level is projected to only slowly increase to 70 per cent by 2050 and, currently, more as a result of rural depopulation than actual growth of urban populations.

The challenges associated with this on-going historic political and economic transition process faced by the region’s more than 200 million inhabitants are enormous and without precedent in modern history. It involves, as this report shows, deeply unsettling and extremely complex governance reforms that affect all aspects.

But disquieting as major change often is, it can also bring new opportunities. Improving the human condition is one of the main aims of the current transition. But, while reform processes unfold, circumstances can be extremely painful by creating turmoil, suffering and deprivations in the short-term.

The breaking up of the former Yugoslav Republic, for instance, brought conflict, war and significant loss of human lives. Likewise, throughout the region, the collapse of industries and manufacturing processes rendered uncompetitive by their sudden exposure to global markets had major impacts on the region’s cities; especially those whose urban economies were insufficiently diverse, or worse, based only on a single industrial sector. Almost over-night, such cities saw their very economic raison d’être  evaporate, while the subsequent rapid exodus of many young and entrepreneurial inhabitants left them with even weaker prospects for the future.

But worldwide, cities have a strong record as engines of growth, human development and prosperity. By carefully exploring the human ingenuity embedded in urban areas, together with cities’ locational, agglomeration and other advantages – both as individual urban entities or as components of cooperating urban networks – economic revival can often be achieved.

With this report, UN-Habitat hopes to contribute to that revival process and help create a better urban environment for the citizenry of European countries in transition.

Download The State of European Cities in Transition.