Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Despite economic growth in Central and Eastern Europe, the continent is still migrating to the Northwest.
Europe’s population is shifting to the Northwest. The GDP in its more easterly nations seems to be booming, while the countryside and many smaller cities continue to empty at the expense of the great conurbations. And while Europe’s southern nations continue to suffer under austerity, cities around the Mediterranean are nonetheless among the fastest growing in terms of population. These are just some of the key demographic shifts outlined in a recent report [PDF] from Bloomberg Philanthropies and LSE Cities. While the report focuses overall on the 155 submissions made to last year’s first ever Europe-based Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, its data provides a fascinating snapshot of a continent on the move.
While they’re often depicted as the continent’s poor relations, it’s actually the states of Central and Eastern Europe where per capita GDP has grown fastest. Calculating an average from growth rates between 2003 and 2013, the speediest developers overall are Lithuania, Moldova and Albania. Within this broad region, big cities are generally growing at a slower rate than the countries that contain them. There are admittedly some exceptions to this rule. Bulgaria’s and Slovakia’s respective capitals, Sofia and Bratislava, are notably powering ahead of their hinterlands. Meanwhile austerity-hit Southern Europe continues to languish (as does Ireland), with second tier cities like Southern Italy’s Messina and Greece’s Larissa particularly hard hit. Had the survey period covered only the five years prior to 2013, it’s likely the GDP drops would have been sharper still.
The pink glow that this map gives Europe’s eastern end shouldn’t lull us into a falsely rosy view of the region, however. Transylvania’s Cluj-Napoca, for example, has seen an impressive GDP boom over the past decade, with an average annual rise of 4.1 percent. This still places GDP per capita in this apparent boomtown at €5,840 ($6652), which is barely more than 10 percent of Copenhagen, where per capital GDP is €56,100 ($63,900). If the East is rising, it still has a long way to go.
No Work for the Young
This youth unemployment map highlights some predictable bleak spots (almost two-thirds of under-25 year-old Athenians and Barcelonans are out of work) but also some surprises. Even cities that are otherwise doing fairly well are having serious trouble integrating young people into their workforces. Wealthy Stockholm, for example, has a shockingly high youth unemployment rate of 30 percent. There’s also major disparity from city to city, especially in the U.K. Here cities such as Sheffield, with a youth unemployment rate of 35 percent, are within a few hours of Edinburgh and Cambridge, where young citizens find it far easier to find jobs.
Big City Drain
If Europe’s big cities are growing, it’s often because they are attracting people from outside—not just immigrants, but migrants from within the same countries. That’s why the Albanian capital Tirana has grown so much (with an annual population growth rate of 2.8 percent) even as its surrounding country has become depopulated. By volume, this migration flows to the largest cities, but the list of cities that have grown most by proportion isn’t a simple case of the usual suspects. After Tirana, Larissa and the Athens suburb of Acharnes, the highest proportional climbers are actually Manchester, Utrecht and Brussels—none of which earn a high ranking in the European megatropolis league. What these cities all have in common is relatively affordable property, one possible reason why they may have proportionally outpaced more expensive cities such as London and Paris.
Migrating to the Northwest
The European cities currently receiving the most migrants born in other countries are overwhelmingly clustered in countries that border the North Sea and English Channel. London may have the largest total number, but the greatest proportion in relation to the rest of the population is actually to be found in the Swiss city of Lausanne. As a relatively affordable part of a wealthy region with a low birth rate, French Switzerland’s second city has in fact been attracting migrants (initially from Southern Europe) for decades. And the lack of migration to Central and Eastern Europe is actually something of a headache for those countries, as it means that every talented worker who leaves (and many do) is especially hard to replace.
Taken in isolation, the picture all this leaves can be partly misleading. The cluster of German cities swelled by migration gives the impression of a country facing a demographic spike. In fact, the country’s low birthrate is causing the country’s population as a whole to fall, a fact that immigration to its larger cities is only partly managing to mitigate.