20 February 2023
Some 93% of major metropolitan areas in Europe “shrank” or lost population as a result of the impact of COVID-19, with nearly two thirds of all European cities experiencing the same effect during the pandemic, according to new research published in Cities, the international journal.
Dr Vlad Mykhnenko, associate professor of sustainable urban development, Oxford Department for Continuing Education, and fellow of St Peter's College, and Dr Manuel Wolff from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin have studied the sudden and acute shock of the virus on the long term growth trajectories of European cities and have detected overarching patterns.
They found, recent urbanisation trends in Europe were dramatically interrupted in the first year of the pandemic: with population growth in European cities going negative (-0.3 % per annum, compared to an average growth rate of +0.3 %) compared to pre-pandemic years.
This sudden shock was especially pronounced in Europe’s largest 66 metropolitan areas (cities with 500,000 inhabitants and above). Almost all experienced a drop in population growth rates.
Dr Wolff explains, ‘In the short run, it was the exceptional pandemic-induced drop in net migration that generated the largest sudden shock to urban Europe.
‘But, in the long run, it is natural population decline that will become the main concern for most European cities, especially for smaller cities, which have been hit hardest by the death surplus – the excess of deaths over births – which accompanied COVID-19.’
Dr Mykhnenko maintains the findings were a major surprise, ‘Our study shows during the pandemic out-migration from European cities was as sudden as it was substantial, causing even the largest cities to shrink…It had seemed, general human inertia and high costs associated with moving would prevent a mass exodus from cities during the pandemic but 63% of all cities experienced shrinkage. I was not expecting that.’
The research shows, almost of a third (28%) of all 915 European cities analysed experienced a U-turn from population growth to loss. When combined with already shrinking cities, the share of shrinking cities in Europe during COVID-19 reached 63%. This far exceeded the previous peak shrinkage, recorded in the late 1990s, when 55% of all European cities were losing population. By contrast, according to the earliest data on record, between 1960-1965, only 3% of European cities were losing population.
There are two key factors behind the loss. According to the study, the rapid decline in net migration, which fell by as much as 137%, resulted from residents leaving cities in much higher numbers than the newcomers arriving to settle, especially in the largest urban areas. Plus, in the majority of European countries, death rates increased faster in cities than in the countryside – overall by 13.5%.
Dr Wolff says further research should confirm if the detected changes were transient or herald a new area of downward demographic trajectories. He maintains, ‘The post-COVID-19 revival will benefit the upper layer of urban hierarchy in the first place, helping re-grow and expand the largest cities, the core metropolitan areas. Smaller cities will continue to suffer from death surplus and out-migration.’
The study concludes, while COVID-19 has been a leveller of urban fortunes, it will be the pandemic recovery that leads to an increasingly uneven demographic development of European cities.
Notes for Editors
“COVID-19 as a game-changer? The impact of the pandemic on urban trajectories” is published in Cities 2023 at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2022.104162
Cities: The International Journal of Urban Policy and Planning is a top peer-reviewed journal published by Elsevier B.V. The journal distinguishes itself by providing an international and interdisciplinary platform for the exchange of ideas and information among urban planners, policy makers and analysts, and urbanists from all disciplines.