Polish cities begin to fight for fleeing residents

Hel – one of the fastest depopulating cities in Poland (Adam, CC BY-NC-ND)

By 2050 Polish towns will have lost over four million residents. This is as if three medium-sized voivodeships were wiped off the map of Poland.

Depopulation is becoming an increasingly challenging issue. And it is largely up to the local governments whether this exodus can be stopped.

When you’re heading for the Hel Peninsula on a summer weekend in a several-kilometre-long traffic jam, it’s hard to believe that Hel is one of the fastest depopulating towns in Poland. The third fastest, to be precise. In a mere 15 years it has lost as many as one third of its inhabitants. According to the Central Statistical Office of Poland (GUS), there were almost 5,000 residents in Hel in 1998, while today there are just under 3,500. And the mass escape should not be surprising – in the off season there are neither jobs, entertainment nor any prospects to be found across the whole peninsula.

However, the problem of the dwindling number of permanent residents is not restricted to holiday enclaves. It would be no exaggeration to say that Poland as a whole is becoming depopulated. As “The Population Forecast for 2014-2050” prepared by GUS indicates, the population of Poland is expected to shrink from the present 38.4 million to 36 million by 2035. By 2050 the number will have fallen below 34 million. The forecasted population decline will almost exclusively affect towns, big ones in particular. After the record year of 1999, there were almost 24 million city dwellers in Poland, whereas in 2013 their number had already fallen by half a million. By 2050, there will be 27 metropolises left of the 39 currently boasting over 100,000 residents.

City dwellers are also the majority of those who leave for economic reasons. Most of the 2.3 million Poles who have emigrated abroad in search of employment come from towns or cities. The GUS data show that in 2013 city residents accounted for over 71 per cent of emigrants, which is not only due to the fact that towns are more populated, but also to differences in the intensity of emigration. Its intensity in towns was distinctly higher than in the countryside. In every 100,000 inhabitants there were 98 emigrants in towns and 61 in the country.

Fewer children, more older people

“First and foremost, for purely demographic reasons. In this respect, Poland follows in the footsteps of the rest of Europe,” thinks Prof. Piotr Szukalski of the University of Łódź.

These are processes demographers call the “second demographic transition”, characterized by  a decline in marriage and birth rates, and a delayed age of childbearing and establishing relationships, among others. “The new demography of Europe” – a term introduced in 2003 by the Dutch demographer Dirk van de Kaa – refers not only to the changes accompanying the processes of transition to “contemporary” reproduction patterns, but also to the establishment of the process considerably below a simple replacement of generations. Low fertility along with steadily increasing life expectancy and growing significance of migration result in decreased population growth, leading to irreversible changes in the population structure. By 2050, there will be 27 metropolises left of the 39 currently boasting over 100,000 residents.

Even though in comparison with other European Union countries Poland still stands out as relatively “young” (according to Eurostat data, the median age in 2012 was 38.7, while the indicator for all the European Union countries amounted to 41.9), the fertility rate (1.3) in Poland is one of the lowest in Europe and – as shown in the latest Eurostat forecast – after 2024 the total share of people aged 65 plus in the population structure of Poland will exceed 20 per cent, and after 2060 – 33 per cent.

In other words, there will be fewer and fewer of us and we will be older and older. This is well exemplified by Łódź, one of the fastest depopulating Polish cities (after Opole and Kielce).

The population of Łódź has been decreasing by approx. 1 per cent a year for as long as a quarter-century. In 1988-2013  the population of Łódź declined by 143,000 inhabitants. “80 per cent of this results from negative population growth, and only 20 per cent from the emigration of inhabitants,” explains Grzegorz Gawlik from the municipal press office.  

These two processes are naturally associated. “It is primarily young people who are inclined to migrate. In a situation where the number of middle-aged people decreases in the first place and, as a consequence, the number of children falls, the fraction of senior citizens, and hence those least inclined to move, increases, the birth rate falls and the population shrinks more and more rapidly,” explains Piotr Szukalski.

A smaller market and deflation

The shrinking and ageing of society has disastrous consequences. One of them is a decline in consumption potential. This in turn leads to a somewhat delayed decline in demand for labour. Depopulation causes difficulties with acquiring employees with specific qualifications, which in turn limits investment that boosts new jobs.

“A natural consequence of depopulation is its impact on price levels. This mainly applies to real estate. Along with the falling number of inhabitants, the demand for new homes decreases, giving rise to deflationary pressure. This discourages investment in real estate as a security for old age, which additionally lowers market prices,” says Piotr Szukalski.

And so Łódź holds the last place among the 10 biggest Polish cities in terms of transaction prices in the property market. The differences in relation to cities with a similar population potential, e.g. Kraków or Wrocław, reach 20-30 per cent, and in the primary market (new homes) – 40-50 per cent.

In the vicious circle of depopulation, Łódź additionally falls victim to the proximity of the capital which, being the financial, business and political centre, naturally attracts newcomers from other regions. In 2014, Warsaw officially had a population of 1.7 million (4.4 per cent of the total population of Poland). Unofficially, the City Hall estimates the figure at even 2.5 million. On the basis of the area of buildable land in the spatial development study, the City Hall calculated that the target population of the capital will amount to as much as 3 million people.

Warsaw is the only city in Poland, apart from Rzeszów, which is not threatened by depopulation, according to the GUS forecasts. Thanks to the bigger number of jobs, better pay and the opportunities usually offered by capital cities, new people keep coming to Warsaw. They arrive especially from the regions which – as in the case of the Łódź or Silesian voivodeships – were severely hit by unemployment after the political transformation and the demise of local industry.

Ironically, these very regions used to be the direction of migration a few dozen years ago. And according to the GUS data, the level of migration in the 1950s was much higher than today. As many as one and a half million people a year would move from the country to the city.  And the total population was smaller. This trend began to turn around only in the year 2000, when industry no longer played such an important role as, for example, in the 1970s.  The cities which had not found a new niche for themselves then started to depopulate.

The Opole Region continues to be the part of Poland with the highest emigration rate. It also has a relatively lowest birth rate. The situation in the Opolskie voivodeship is so bad that the voivodeship authorities indicated depopulation as the Strategic Area of Intervention within the framework of the Regional Operational Programme. European funds are to be assigned to vocational training projects, improvements in pre-school education, establishment of businesses or utility infrastructure for investment land. However, it is the voivodeship capital itself which has the biggest job to do.

“Many residents had a family abroad and left in search of work already before our accession to the European Union. After 2004, emigration became even easier, so the whole region was becoming more and more deserted. But in Opole the greatest problem is migration to the neighbouring communes,” complains Arkadiusz Wiśniewski, the Mayor of Opole.

This problem is actually faced not only by Opole but also by Łódź, Olsztyn and Poznań. The last two cities are prospering centres, where there are both jobs (Poznań has the lowest unemployment rate in Poland) and good infrastructure, and there is no competition of other urban centres in the vicinity.

“Cities are becoming depopulated because people – though still working, studying and benefiting from services – are moving out to the suburbs which offer them cheaper homes, land, cleaner air, green areas and peace and quiet. This is fostered by the nature of many jobs changing towards greater mobility,” explains Jacek Poniedziałek, PhD, of the University of Warmia and Mazury.

And so, Olsztyn or Poznań are not shrinking as functional cities where people concentrate their activities, but their administrative boundaries are contracting. Meanwhile, suburban villages, as exemplified by the Olsztyn poviat, are swelling and are beginning to resemble urban housing estates.

“Such a sprawl poses serious problems for municipal authorities since they have to maintain the infrastructure for those who are registered and pay taxes in the neighbouring communes,” adds Jacek Poniedziałek.

Increased costs of the provision of public services have to be added to this. The maintenance of roads, railways, water lines, sewage systems or gas networks is divided between a smaller number of residents, which increases per capita costs. As a result, cities have to increase prices or subsidise them from the shrinking public budget.

Thus city authorities are beginning to fight for “their” residents. This is an increasingly difficult task since water parks or big family discount cards are no longer sufficient attractions. The authorities have to take maximum advantage of the special economic zones in order to help create new jobs and develop the infrastructure necessary to support them. Ironically, ring roads, good exit roads and efficient suburban transport are conducive to urban sprawl. Hence, EU funds are being used in every possible way to make living downtown more attractive.

There is a growing number of urban revitalisation and riverside development programmes as well as municipal transport development projects. It has become vital to get the residents involved in the process of deciding about changes in their city. Joint decision-making concerning investment under participatory budgets gives people real (albeit so far low-budget) power to shape the environment they live in. And this is a way to stop them from abandoning this environment.

Finding a niche on the map of the country – such as a highlight or a professional offer – has become important. For example, Nowa Sól has become a “town of gnomes” and Rzeszów is developing around its aviation cluster. 

Many cities can see no depopulation problem today. During the recent European Financial Congress in Sopot, their administrators maintained that the phenomenon did not concern them as their population was not on the decline for the time being.

“According to the GUS forecasts, Gdańsk should already have 30,000 inhabitants fewer than it actually has, whereas it still maintains a population of approx. 460,000. This is thanks to jobs, among other things, that people don’t run away from us,” says Andrzej Duch, Director of the Urban Planning and Architecture Department of the City Hall in Gdańsk.

 The administrators do admit, however, that great care should be taken not to miss the critical moment and that already it is necessary to start looking for ideas on how to prevent depopulation. They are already building new nurseries and kindergartens, and developing student scholarship projects as well as social rented housing projects.

“In September, Ukrainian lessons are due to start in schools across Wrocław. We’re taking care of the considerable Ukrainian immigrant community. We’re also extending a very interesting programme launching nurseries at the parents’ place of employment. We intend to ensure people the greatest possible comfort of living in the city,” revealed Maciej Bluj, Deputy Mayor of Wrocław.

Ideas to incorporate the neighbouring communes into cities appear more and more frequently. This leads to conflict. As in the case of Opole, where the Mayor’s suggestion to incorporate the territory of 13 villages in 5 communes of Opole into the city’s boundaries has come up against strong protests of their administrators. If this idea succeeds, Opole will gain almost 9,500 residents (it has approx. 119,000 today) and over 5,300 hectares. The Mayor believes that this would enable the city to develop.

“The point is to gain space for the enlargement of the special economic zone, the construction of council flats and the co-funding of health care. Without such investments, not only Opole, but the whole voivodeship, will suffer,” explains Arkadiusz Wiśniewski.

The city is already subsidising places in non-public nurseries, it has launched the Opole family card and the council flat construction project and is opening new university courses, e.g. medicine. The aim is not only to retain the residents of Opole, but also to encourage migrants from other regions or even countries. As in Poznań, where the statistics are redeemed by incomers, the balance of internal migration is positive.

In the long term, it is more important to accommodate the city’s administrative division and functions to the new realities.

“Perhaps in 10-20 years’ time it will be necessary to think about a different division and demographic changes will naturally stimulate unions of communes and poviats? The popularization of this solution will be facilitated by both reluctance to formal changes and the technological changes dissociating some administrative and social services from a specific location,” thinks Piotr Szukalski.

A smaller number of inhabitants has its advantages too. Smaller density, fewer parking problems, fewer traffic jams and faster travel around the city mean less stress, more satisfaction and a better quality of life.  Depopulation associated with the ageing of society positively affects the sense of security. Research shows that the older the society the lower the crime levels.

Depopulation and the prevalence of individual centres over others are unavoidable processes at a certain stage of a country’s development. It is only necessary to find one’s place in the new circumstances.

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