Gaidar Forum experts: “Moscow will be first to get out of the coronacrisis”

What impact the coronacrisis has had on the economic situation of cities and why urban scientists are dissatisfied with a growing density of high-rise buildings

Gaidar Forum experts: “Moscow will be first to get out of the coronacrisis”
Photo: Vladimir Gerdo/TASS

The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant, albeit short-term, impact on the current settlement system in Russia. For example, the number of people who want to move to Moscow in 2020 decreased by a third, and the demographic outflow from the capital outside of it amounted to more than 20%. In general, the pandemic has changed many stereotypes of the urban population, according to experts of the Gaidar Forum, which began its work in Moscow on 14 January. This year's forum is called “Russia and the World After the Pandemic” and is held in two formats: experts and speakers take part in panel discussions on the site of the RANEPA central campus, and participants watch the discussions online. Among the many issues discussed during round table and various discussions, the experts decided to focus on the impact of the pandemic on spatial and urban development. The correspondent of Realnoe Vremya found out what conclusions its participants reached.

The higher the population density, the higher the risk of infection

The year 2020 has changed the world, and last winter many people started talking about how it will change the spatial development of Russia. According to urban experts, the coronavirus has hit the largest cities the most, where the degree of contact with the outside world is much higher than in the provinces. Scientists put forward several hypotheses about what exactly affects the rate of spread of Covid-19 — population density or contact density, but convincing evidence has not yet been found.

Other factors were also analysed: method of movement, level of wealth, education. For example, the Institute of Urban Economics Foundation, in the course of a study on the example of Moscow, confirmed that the use of personal transport reduces the degree of spread of coronavirus, and public transport, on the contrary, increases. However, research in New York showed the exact opposite result. As a result, neither scientists nor urbanists have found a clear understanding of how space affects the development of the pandemic.

According to MSU Professor Natalia Zubarevich, population density has a significant impact on the rate of development of the pandemic. She considers the excess mortality rate as proof of her theory: in January-October, it increased by 17% in Moscow, in St. Petersburg — by 16%, and in the country as a whole — by 10%. Things are quite obvious — the more contacts, the greater the risk of infection.

She is also sure that the pandemic has hit the capital and St. Petersburg the hardest. But from the point of view of economic development, “we see how Moscow is struggling after the strongest recession associated with the most severe quarantine, and it is struggling more than thoroughly: industry +4% in January-November, investment +11%, trade in November has already reached zero, that is, it compensated for losses.” Two areas do not see positive dynamics yet, Zubarevich believes — the sphere of paid services, including public transport, and the high level of underemployment of the population, which is “even worse in St. Petersburg”.

“As many as there are employees now — they are not loaded, and new ones are no longer necessary in Moscow. From the point of view of migration in Moscow, arrivals fell by a third. And if in April people left when they lost their jobs, then a decline in mobility stopped arrivals — the number of arrivals decreased by a third, and the number of departures by only 11%. Registered unemployment for the capital is already less — not more than three percent, but two, and in the whole country — more than four, but for Moscow it is also a lot, when it was always 0,3%.

At the same time, the professor is sure that as soon as the pandemic is over, people will return.

According to urban experts, the coronavirus has hit large cities the hardest. Photo: Vladimir Gerdo/TASS

Moscow will be the driving force

As for the impact of the coronacrisis on the industry, according to Natalia Zubarevich, today it is pulled down by the extractive sectors — oil, gas and metallurgy, global demand for which has very much shrunk. This means that the budgets of resource-producing and export-oriented regions of Russia are also suffering losses. So, the crisis of 2020 brought both an industrial downturn and a drop in budget revenues in the developed regions of the country, where income tax matters. Past crises, the expert noted, did not hit cities so much, this is the unique case, since the impact on the labour market was specific — on the service sector, where there was a catastrophic contraction of the labour market.

But in the provinces, the pandemic has not had any impact, Zubarevich is sure. Since the scale of infection of the population with Covid-19 is much smaller because the density of contacts is less, “economic life was half-dead, and remained so, well, the pandemic, well, call it something else — nothing has fundamentally changed for people”.

According to the professor, it was hunky-dory for the owners and developers of suburban housing, and it was almost impossible to rent a summer cottage in the suburbs — not only because of the high price tag but also because of a multiply increased demand. Construction in the suburban sector rushed up, due to which Moscow Oblast began to emerge from the economic failure. If earlier a summer cottage was just fashionable, now it has become safe. But against the background of rapidly growing development, infrastructure fails — medicine, kindergartens, which, Zubarevich stressed, are very expensive outside the city or they do not exist at all. And this issue now needs to be resolved within the framework of the development of agglomerations.

Speaking of predictions to overcome coronacrisis, Zubarevich said: “Moscow will be first to get out of it because this city has power, this city has increased budget spending by 20% and the national economy by 27%, this city has huge money, despite the losses, Moscow will be the driving force.” Then it will be the turn of the northern capital, but the recovery will go much slower, and after them, other cities with millions of people will slowly begin to catch up, Yekaterinburg will be the fastest, she is sure.

“And the word 'to get out'," the professor stressed, “is the key here — they will do it, who is worse, who is better, but they will.”

How not to turn cities into ghettos of “humanhills”

Another expert, Natalia Trunova, the vice-president and head of the Spatial Development Department of the Centre for Strategic Research Foundation, spoke about migration processes caused by the pandemic and priorities in choosing a place of residence during the discussion. She is sure that digital infrastructure is important for almost everyone when choosing a location today — it is unlikely that a Moscow citizen or a resident of another city of a million people will decide to live where, for example, digital public services do not work or there is a low level of medicine.

Thus, the pandemic has helped to change many stereotypes in the minds of the authorities and the population of Russia, Natalia Trunova is sure. It became clear that it is necessary to strengthen medicine, and given the migration flows, and transport infrastructure. The transition to remote work not only during the lockdown but also after its cancellation demonstrated the uselessness of office sites.

Speaking about the appearance of cities, Trunova, like the previous expert, stressed the high rate of development, despite the pandemic. In Moscow, the housing market grew by 134% over the year, in Kaluga Oblast and Bryansk Oblast — by 120%. In St. Petersburg, this figure is only 75%, but in Kaliningrad Oblast — 150%. The leader in the Volga Federal District in terms of housing construction is Tatarstan — 130%, followed by Samara and Bashkortostan — 110%. Almost all others are in the red or unchanged. This statistic, Trunova believes, suggests that strong economic leaders also attract construction capacity. As for the types of housing construction, then high-rise construction — apartment buildings with a number of floors above 20 — reaches 50% in some regions of Russia. And Tatarstan and Bashkiria, noted Trunova, have increased the volume of suburban individual housing construction.

Here the square footage of housing becomes important. However, there is a big but — this is money, Natalia Zubarevich joined the discussion. In her opinion, the population does not have enough money for large apartments and will not have it for a long time, which increases the demand for one-room and “small-sized apartments, and a small-sized two-bedroom apartment is our everything”. She expressed dissatisfaction with that today the provinces are built up mainly by “humanhills”. But this is not only the fault of the developers themselves, but also in the “expressed interest of those who earn from it”. Only a clear state policy will help to change this situation, Zubarevich believes, which will limit appetites with the long-term goal of “not turning these places into ghettos”.

Increasing the transparency of the construction system will help to reduce the appetites of developers who are guided not by the comfort of housing and territories, but by the desire to earn, Trunova is sure, “then it will be clear who what rate of profit has and who works for what”.

By Angelina Panchenko