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Face aux risques et défis

Rethinking urban form in a shrinking Arctic city

Repenser la forme urbaine dans une ville arctique en décroissance
Maria Gunko, Elena Batunova et Andrey Medvedev


Les villes en décroissance – soit des lieux qui nécessitent de ‘réduire’ leur vaste cadre - posent des défis à l'urbanisme général qui vise normalement à la croissance, et aux approches directes qui la préconisent. Bien que les villes en déclin se trouvent dans le monde entier, les réponses à ce phénomène sont spécifiques à chaque lieu en fonction des connaissances et des ressources des décideurs, ainsi que des discours sur le développement spatial souhaité. En ce sens, on ne sait pas encore exactement pourquoi et comment l'urbanisme évolue dans des conditions de rétrécissement. Depuis le début des années 1990, de nombreuses villes russes ont commencé à perdre de la population. À l'exception des provinces pétrolières et gazières, l'Arctique russe est devenu une ‘vitrine’ de l'exode de la population du pays. Notre contribution se fonde sur des données empiriques provenant de Vorkouta (République des Komis, Russie), une ville arctique d'environ 54 000 habitants qui fait partie de celles qui connaissent le déclin le plus rapide. En raison du besoin simultané d'améliorer les conditions de logement et de faire face aux effets physiques négatifs du rétrécissement, ainsi qu’aux coûts élevés d'entretien des logements et des infrastructures, les acteurs locaux ont dû trouver une nouvelle approche de la planification - la ‘décroissance contrôlée’, qui a permis d'éviter l'étalement et la fragmentation.

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Notes de l’auteur

The research was carried out in the framework of the Basic Research Program of the Institute of Geography Russian Academy of Sciences (‘Problems and prospects of Russia’s territorial development under conditions of its unevenness and global instability’; AAAAA19-119022190170-1 / 0148-2019-0008).

Texte intégral


1The Arctic is passing through different economic and political development stages which result in the changing economic and social settings, as well as shifts in the cityscape dynamics [Laruelle, 2019]. During the first half of the 20th century, the Far North experienced a profound industrialization, followed by militarization after the Second World War [Coates & Broderstad, 2020]. The Russian Arctic was a showcase of these trends. Over the course of state socialism, the extensive development of the Russian Far North was due to the need for natural resources extraction for industrialization with the establishment and maintenance of control over a vast sparsely populated area [Bruno, 2016; Josephson, 2014]. Mines and quarries, scientific and meteorological stations, as well as military bases were located all over the Far North along with new cities established where no permanents settlements had ever been before.

2The collapse of state socialism and the new development rationalities have led to a reduction of state support for industries, investments into science and military activities causing a structural crisis in many Russian cities [Collier, 2011], especially in the Artic ones in particular due to the higher maintenance costs of housing, infrastructures, and utilities, as well as often mono-specialized industrial economy. Currently, the Russian Arctic is a controversial space where intensive economic development zones –the oil and gas provinces– are adjacent to vast areas of shrinkage and decay [Heleniak, 2009; Heleniak, 2017] showcasing ‘hybrid spatialities’ of change [Golubchikov et al., 2013].

3The phenomenon of shrinkage calls for a rethinking of urban form and urban planning as a political and technical process engaged with the development of land use and the built environment (Fainstein & Defilippis, 2016). Against this background, our contribution seeks to shed light on official urban planning in shrinking cities of the Russian Arctic. The empirical evidence is drawn from Vorkuta (Komi Republic) which is among the most fast-shrinking cities of the country [Rosstat]. Due to a simultaneous need for improving housing conditions, dealing with negative physical effects of shrinkage, and high maintenance costs of housing and infrastructure, the local administration had to rethink urban planning presenting an exemplary case for research. In the following sections we will discuss common approaches in regard to planning for decline, provide an overview of the changes in the cityscape development and planning in Vorkuta – from the city’s emergence in the 1930s to nowadays, while the concluding section will critically engage with the findings.

Theoretical Framework: Planning under Conditions of Shrinkage

4The concepts of urban shrinkage and shrinking cities are widely used remaining at the same time ambiguous [Olsen, 2013]. Generally, the term ‘shrinkage’ is used in the academic, as well as policymaking and planning debates to describe a trajectory of urban development opposite to the ‘normal’ growth. Until now, significant and stable depopulation remains the only agreed upon feature of shrinking cities [Bernt, 2016; Haase et al., 2014; Hollander, 2018]; though often in a shrinking city depopulation is parallel to a structural crisis including that caused by de-industrialization.

5The material negative consequences of shrinkage–abandonment and housing vacancies, deteriorated buildings and infrastructures–bring about the loss of social control over territories and their subsequent marginalization contributing to declining liveability. The above challenges the mainstream planning which normalizes growth and direct policies towards growth [Hollander, 2011; Pallagst et al. 2019].

6Theoretical discussion on planning under conditions of shrinkage might refer to various aspects– from an institutional organization and planning culture to tax policies, from managements of infrastructures and land to aesthetics of ruination. Among the most complicated issues are those related to the transformation of a shrinking city’s morphology since urban morphology is the most conservative component of city’s essence. It can hardly be adapted to the fast-changing economic, political, and social conditions.

7In a shrinking city, a balance between the solid and the voids is missing [Canniffe, 2015]. As depopulation and de-industrialization persist, the city continues decomposing into disintegrated fragments – isolated solids and undefined voids. But there is no single trajectory for the transformation of urban morphology under shrinkage. If a city shrinks, it does not necessarily mean that it reduces its spatial settings. Shrinkage might have different spatial patterns, e.g. ‘doughnut’ effect, suburban decline, perforation or intertwining of growing and declining quarters [Hollander et al., 2009]. All the above may be parallel continuing urban sprawl.

8Despite the growing number of shrinking cities worldwide, international showcases of efficient ‘planning for shrinkage’ are lacking, in part due to the fact that most such cities continue to pursue a growth agenda in their planning [Haase et al., 2014; Pallagst et al., 2017]. It is only when attempts to turn back to growth fail and the burden of surplus becomes too heavy cities turn to ‘planning for decline’ or right-sizing approaches which are aimed at reducing the cost of infrastructural maintenance, preventing the housing market from failure, managing vacancies and fragmentation of the urban fabric [Bernt et al., 2014; Hospers, 2014]. Several right-sizing approaches appeared in shrinking cities all over the world for adapting urban morphology to a smaller population size, such as demolishing programs in Germany and the USA [e.g. Haase et al., 2012; Hackworth, 2014; Weaver & Knight 2018] or greening, urban agriculture, and landscaping that help fill ‘urban voids’ and increase the market value of vacant properties [e.g. Hollander et al., 2009; Scherzer, 2016; Oda et al., 2018]. However, the success of any kind of approach largely depends on the combination of several factors, among most important: national political system and planning culture, available financial recourse, power distribution (relation between different levels of governance), the structure of property rights in the city, presence of skilled professionals and stakeholders involved [Pallagst et al., 2019]. Moreover, the existing urban forms have different potentialities towards reacting to spatial changes provoked by shrinkage. Thus, there can be no ‘one fits all’ approach for planning in shrinking cities.

Methodological Approach

  • 1 Urban okrug (gorodskoy okrug) – a type of urban municipality in Russia that is directly subordinate (...)
  • 2 In Russian, strategy for socio-economic development and general plan are the two main long-term urb (...)
  • 3 All remote sensing data were obtained through official distributors, such as USGS EarthExplorer and (...)

9The current research utilized a mix-method approach within a case study research strategy [Yin, 2003]. The data for the study was collected in 2018–2019. Desk research included analysis of 1. official planning and policy documents of the local level (Vorkuta urban okrug1) – strategy for socio-economic development, general plan, municipal programs2; 2. archival materials; 3. statistical data from The Russian Federal Statistical Agency – Rosstat and statistical data provided by the municipality. Remote sensing data (1968, 1975, 1980 – Corona (Keyhole); 2002 – Ikonos; 2005 – QuickBird; 2009, 2014, 2018 – GeoEye and WorldView 1/2/3)3 were interpreted using a semi-automated algorithm in ArcGIS.

10A weeklong field research was carried out in January 2019 that included field observations and 9 semi-structured interviews with the representatives of the local administration, entrepreneurs, representatives of cultural and public organizations. The first interview was conducted with the First Deputy of the Head of the Vorkuta urban okrug administration, the latter respondents were selected based on snowballing technique. The goal of semi-structured interviews was to understand what drives the changes to urban planning and how is urban morphology being adapted to shrinkage, as well as the main challenges and opportunities of this process.

Results of the Study: Managing Urban Shrinkage in Vorkuta

A Brief History of the City

  • 4 Main Administration of Camps (Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerey) – government agency in charge of the Sovi (...)

11Vorkuta is by all means an uncomfortable area for living. The presence of permafrost, bare tundra, frequent snowstorms together with severe frosts, and the polar night complicate human activities [Selin et al., 2011]. Like many other Russian Arctic cities and towns established in the first half of the twentieth century, the story of Vorkuta’s foundation in the 1930s and its early development are linked to the GULag4 system that used prisoner workforce in mining and construction activities in remote areas with harsh natural conditions [Barenberg, 2014; Laruelle, 2019]. The rich coal deposit was discovered in the area in 1930. Already in 1931, the state started the construction of the first coal mine and a settlement around it–Vorkuta–where the administration of GULag divisions Vorkutlag (since 1938) and Rechlag (since 1948) were situated. In 1943, the settlement gained city status [Negretov, 1977]. In this sense, Vorkuta’s foundation was a result of the unsustainable economic situation in the Soviet Union when the rapid industrialization required cheap workforce, the demand that was satisfied with forced labor [Barenberg, 2014]. Moreover, the unsustainability of the Vorkuta’s foundation was also defined by the lack of construction materials, equipment, consumer goods, and food in the area; everything had to be brought from afar making the city’s autonomous existence impossible [ibid].

Figure 1. Location of Vorkuta in Russia and the structure of ‘Vorkuta ring’ in 2019.

Figure 1. Location of Vorkuta in Russia and the structure of ‘Vorkuta ring’ in 2019.

Draft and design: Andrey Medvedev.

12Despite all the hardship, Vorkuta grew over the whole socialist period. If before the Second World War only one mine was open, during the war another 10 mines started operating with several mining settlements established around them forming the so-called ‘Vorkuta ring’ (figure 1).

13While the first inhabitants of Vorkuta were GULag prisoners and forced migrants, after the decline of the GULag system in mid-1950s, voluntary migration set in. Migrants were motivated to live and work in the Arctic through various ‘northern’ benefits, e.g. higher wages and the like. Moreover, an intensive ideological campaign for exploration of the Arctic was launched, actively using the rhetoric of ‘nature conquest’ [Bolotova, 2014]. Gradually, by 1989 – the last soviet census, Vorkuta reached a maximum population number of 116 thousand people after which it began depopulating. In 2019, the population of Vorkuta was 54.2 thousand people. Thereby, the population dynamics for the period 1989-2019 was (-53.1%) [Rosstat] ranking Vorkuta 15th among all Russian shrinking cities.

  • 5 Monogorod (plural, monogorods) – A Soviet/post-Soviet company town. According to the official Russi (...)

14To date, Vorkuta remains a mining center. The city is listed among Russia’s monogorods5 with VorkutaUgol (VorkutaCoal) part of the Severstal metallurgy holding being the core employer. However, the transitional economic crises, worldwide declining demand for coal, and several tragic accidentscaused by methane explosionshave led to cease operations in Vorkuta’s mines. Out of 13 mines at its peak, currently only 4 mines and 1 quarry remain functioning.

Genesis of the Cityscape

15As other Arctic cities established in the early Soviet period, Vorkuta was viewed by the central government as a center of ‘colonization’ and a symbol of the communist party rule [Bolotova, 2014]. This implied that it should evolve into a permanent and multifunctional city with a distinct Soviet identity in the built environment symbolizing the power of the state [Paperny, 2016]. In this respect, the city was planned against all odds in impossible extreme conditions, realizing the ambitious idea without counting economic, environmental, or human cost [Bolotova, 2014; Jull & Cho, 2017; Streletskiy & Shiklomanov, 2017; Virtanen et al., 2002)]

16Vorkuta started as a small labor camp with dugouts, tents, and wooden barracks. After the Second World War when it gained a city status, a ceremonial center with neoclassical administrative buildings and housing for the higher population strata were constructed (late 1940s–early 1950s) that, however, were surrounded by the same barracks for workers and labor camp prisoners. This was a typical city organization during the reign of Stalin indicating a sharp social polarization in the country [Gunko et al., 2018]. In the late 1950s, the city’s architectural appearance largely changed, following the countrywide change in urban planning and architectural standards (ibid) with prefabricated block – or panel housing and non-residential buildings becoming the predominant form.

17As Vorkuta’s build-up area was expanding, the center drifted along with the construction frontier. Older-developed parts of the city were gradually neglected. This applies to quarters on the left bank of the Vorkuta river (Rudnik), and predominantly northern part of the city on the right bank – Shakhterskiy and Timan microdistricts. The whole city in its evolution slowly ‘crawled’ into new untouched space simultaneously increasing density in new areas and leaving behind ruins and disturbed terrain (figures 2 and 3). The settlements forming the ‘Vorkuta ring’ followed a similar development path. Their development did not assume adaptability of the build-up area and utilities to the changes in economic and social settings. The harsh climate conditions significantly limited the typology of housing and materials used for construction and became a reason for the erection of rigid centralized technical infrastructures managed by the state.

Figure 2. Changes in Vorkuta’s build-up area during 20th–21st centuries.

Figure 2. Changes in Vorkuta’s build-up area during 20th–21st centuries.

Draft and design: Andrey Medvedev. Sources: own interpretation of remote sensing data.

Figure 3. Demolition of housing and non-residential buildings in Vorkuta during 20th–21st centuries, revised for 2019.

Figure 3. Demolition of housing and non-residential buildings in Vorkuta during 20th–21st centuries, revised for 2019.

Draft and design: Andrey Medvedev. Sources: own interpretation of remote sensing data.

Decline of Vorkuta and ‘Controlled Shrinkage’

18The loss of jobs and overall murky perspectives of Vorkuta’s future being dependent on a single aging industry caused an intensive population out-flow from the city immediately after the collapse of state socialism. The emergence of new small and medium-sized businesses in the post-Soviet period being linked to services could not significantly impact the situation, since miners were reluctant to take up jobs in the service sector.

19Since 2002, out-migration from Vorkuta has partially been institutionalized through the Federal law ‘On housing subsidies to those leaving the Far North and areas equated to it’ [Federal Law, 2002]. Moreover, Vorkuta became one of test polygons for resettlement in line with the Northern Restructuring Project financed by the World Bank which had been implemented until 2009 (World Bank, 2010). The Komi Republic, and Vorkuta authorities, e.g. former mayor Igor Shpektor 1998-2007, have been active in promoting resettlement and supported the federal relocation policy [Nykina 2011; Shiklomanov et al., 2019]. Intensive depopulation led to the abolition of several settlements of the ‘Vorkuta ring’– Khalmer-Yu, Stroitelny, Yuzhny, Zapadny and Montazhny significantly changing the appearance and functioning of the remaining ones. Currently, Vorkuta urban okrug includes 16 settlements (Law of the Komi Republic, 2005): the city of Vorkuta; eight settlements of urban type –Vorgashor, Yeletskiy, Zapolyarny, Komsomolskiy, Mulda, Oktyabrskiy, Promyshlenny, Severny; five settlements of rural type – Meskashor, Seyda, Sivomaskinskiy, Khanovey, Your-Shor; and two villages –Yelets and Nikita. However, by 2010 five settlements were deserted, while the population of another six was less than 100 people each [Rosstat].

  • 6 Vorkuta has a record-high share of non-privatized real estate, including 60% of housing stock [Inte (...)

20Despite the fact that the Russian state itself promotes depopulation in the Arctic through resettlement, it does not provide municipalities with additional funding or managerial and legislative support for dealing with the physical consequences of shrinkage. Thereby, the local administrations independently must use available funds and creatively rethink urban planning to deal with the issues at hands. In the early 2000s, Igor Shpektor promoted the idea to simply abolish Vorkuta and surrounding settlements, resettling all their residents [Shiklomanov et al., 2019]. Even though the idea was not successful, clearly there was a need for a new urban planning approach since the withdrawal of state subsidies, thinning of municipal budget, negative physical consequences of collapsing industry and significant depopulation (abandoned and partially vacant housing, various buildings and land plots) left the local administration to deal with costly issues. Among them is the need for ongoing maintenance of building located on permafrost [Shiklomanov et al., 2019], issue of utilities degradation due to the ‘freezing’ of vacant apartments in still habitable apartment buildings which distorts the heating, sewerage, and water supply systems (figure 4). The more so, according to the Housing Code [2004], the municipality as the owner is responsible for paying for heating of non-privatized vacant premises and maintenance of the shared property in apartment buildings6. Thus, the main reason for the change in urban planning approach which eventually occurred in Vorkuta was not the scale of the cityscape and infrastructure degradation, but as the case with other shrinking cities was related to the need of cutting costs [Bernt et al., 2014; Interview no. 2].

Figure 4. Partially vacant apartment building in Vorkuta with a ‘frozen’ section.

Figure 4. Partially vacant apartment building in Vorkuta with a ‘frozen’ section.

Source: Elena Batunova

  • 7 Only those residential buildings can be demolished which were recognized by a state commission as b (...)

21Since the mid-2000s the administration of Vorkuta has worked out an urban planning approach aimed at adapting to the negative effects of urban shrinkage which was called ‘controlled shrinkage’. The principles of ‘controlled shrinkage’ are fixed in the following urban planning documents of Vorkuta urban okrug: strategy for socio-economic development, municipal programs ‘Maintenance and development of municipal utilities’ and ‘Comprehensive development of the single-industry town Vorkuta’. At the core of ‘controlled shrinkage’ is a compact development of the central, most habitable districts of the city with apartment buildings renovation, enhancing the quality of utilities and infrastructure. Partially vacant housing in central districts is subjected to ‘densification’ (uplotnenie), meaning that people living in the city’s outskirts are offered to resettle into newly renovated (previously abandoned) municipal apartments to lower the level of vacancies in the city center. At the same time housing in the city’s outskirts, as well as housing in emergency condition in other parts of the city, is being disconnected from utilities and sometimes demolished7. The fate of vacant municipal non-residential buildings depends on their technical condition and their location in the city. Those in satisfactory condition with potential for the development of commercial activities are being sold or leased to private investors, others are disconnected from utilities and abandoned. Along demolition and dismantling of utilities runs the greening of the city, including derelict and demolished building sites [Interview no. 3]. In the second half of 2010s, ‘controlled shrinkage’ has gained regional support [Pro Gorod, 2017] which ensures subsidies from the regional budget for the further ‘densification’ of Vorkuta’s most habitable areas.

22In addition to the actions carried out by the local administration, there is also a pragmatic redevelopment of vacant buildings in satisfactory condition by private investors. Among the several such initiatives are a former swimming pool, central market, and fire station turned by the new owners into shopping and entertainment centers [Interview no. 3,4]. In 2016–2017, entrepreneurs were also involved in demolition programs of several brick-made buildings located in the older northern part of the city, receiving construction materials of dismantled buildings for reuse. However, the overall scope and scale of private activities in the realm of ‘controlled shrinkage’ remain insignificant [Interview no. 3,4,5].

23Paying most attention to the center of Vorkuta city and largest settlements of the ‘Vorkuta ring’ (e.g. Vorgashor), the local administration largely neglects smaller settlements which is a direct result of budget austerity. The overall process of urban system change is not monitored; transformation of urban morphology and alteration of its relationship with the natural environment is not registered or mapped by the local administration. Our analysis demonstrates that in settlements that were deserted in the post-Soviet period, ruined buildings and infrastructures remain (e.g. Your-Shor settlement totally deserted by 2010, figures 5 and 6). Though some buildings were purposefully destroyed to discourage informal use [Zamyatina et al., 2020], no proper reclamation works were carried out. Ruins and rubble gradually dissolve into the harsh natural environment.

Figure 5. Your-Shor’s urban morphology in 1968 and 2018.

Figure 5. Your-Shor’s urban morphology in 1968 and 2018.

Sources: Corona and WorldView3 images

Figure 6. Your-Shor in 2019.

Figure 6. Your-Shor in 2019.

Source: Elena Batunova

24Moreover, the rigid technical infrastructures made the city and surrounding settlements hostage to past planning decisions: water supply, sewerage, and heating systems were constructed to serve the whole urban system of the ‘Vorkuta ring’. Their reconfiguration requires total system’s redesign reducing the capacity of all its elements. Though, some measures related to the heating system optimization were implemented (i.e. redistribution of capacities and modernization of boiler-houses), nearly nothing was done with the water supply and sewage systems except for ‘cutting’ branch lines of pipes that lead to abandoned buildings. The existing capacity of the water supply system significantly exceeds the current needs [Interview no. 1] contributing to a negative impact both on the natural environment and urban economy through energy over expenditure and pouring out excess water into the tundra. Though less prominent, the issue with public services and amenities also remains. The latter are scattered in different parts of the city and are difficult to relocate even when the surrounding quarters become only partly inhabited due to the lack of appropriately engineered and equipped buildings.

Conclusions and Discussion

25Urban shrinkage calls for close attention from researchers, planners, and policymakers to identify consequences of the phenomenon and possible solutions for ensuring urban sustainability and liveability. In the current paper we investigated the trajectory of change and associated planning approaches in a shrinking Arctic city based on the example of Vorkuta in the Komi Republic.

26Constructed under conditions of state socialism with a different ideology and rationality of resources usage and infrastructure erection in the Arctic, Vorkuta always dependent on state support. As noted by Gaddy and Ickes [2013], the Soviet state ignored the cost of cold and remoteness due to the artificially low prices for energy and other inputs. Therefore, when the settings changed, Vorkuta, not surprisingly, began to shrink. The collision of the specific infrastructures created as a result of Soviet planning and neoliberal rationality uncovered that the former are extremely difficult to adapt to new conditions, requirements, and technologies [Collier, 2011]. The rigid planning structure of centralized utilities and infrastructures largely impedes the changes to Vorkuta’s urban morphology and cityscape. The locally developed and employed approach–‘controlled shrinkage’–mitigates the situation to some extent. However, it has a limited capacity to trigger profound change. ‘Controlled shrinkage’ ensures that the urban quarters of central Vorkuta remain in the words of Zamyatina et al. [2020] ‘pleasant and active’, making the city seemingly vibrant; whilst the periphery is emptying and turning into rubble. In this respect, alike other remote Russian Arctic cities facing ongoing shrinkage, Vorkuta should be subjected to state support to pursue comprehensive smart decline solutions [Rink et al. 2012]; as the lack of own resources, unclear property issues (e.g. incomplete privatization, millions of ownerless elements of urban infrastructures), gaps in legislation, high maintenance cost, and planning legacy become obstacles to efficient urban planning policy [Snob 2017; Batunova & Gunko 2018].

27Overall, the rapid shrinkage of Vorkuta showcases that despite the growing public and political interest in the Arctic [Sellheim et al., 2019; Coates & Holroyd, 2020], the degree to which this region is being integrated into the globalized world should not be overestimated. Though the focus of the current paper was on Russia, we argue that the analytical frame is broader. Shrinking settlements and idle infrastructures of the Russian Arctic are not merely ‘monuments’ to state socialism through which the power of the fallen empire occupies the present [Stoler, 2013] or indicators of the changing priorities of the Russian state [Bennett, 2020]. They are univocally illustrative of global trends–austerity politics and reshuffling power relations [Dzenovska, 2020]– that to a different extent shape spatial polarization throughout the whole Far North [Heleniak et al., 2020] compelling local communities to deal with disruption produced by forces beyond their control [Tsing, 2005]. In the future, the deepening socio-economic inequality between the rapidly growing ‘successful’ Arctic settlements and the shrinking ‘left behind’ ones will inevitably become a major obstacle to the sustainable development of the region and well-being of its inhabitants. Thus, Vorkuta’s experience may be valuable for the many other shrinking cities and towns of the Far North.

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List of Selected Interviews

1. First deputy of the Head of City Administration responsible for property issues, Vorkuta urban okrug. Interviewed 21 January 2019.

2. Head of City Administration, Vorkuta urban okrug. Interviewed 21 January 2019.

3. Head of the Department for Architecture of City Administration, Vorkuta urban okrug. Interviewed 22 January 2019.

4. Businessman, owner of shopping mall ‘Mir’, Vorkuta urban okrug. Interviewed 22 January 2019.

5. Businessman, shareholder of several Vorkuta’s restaurants and cafes, Vorkuta urban okrug. Interviewed 23 January 2019.

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1 Urban okrug (gorodskoy okrug) – a type of urban municipality in Russia that is directly subordinated to the regional government as defined by the Federal law on self-governance (Federal law, 2003).

2 In Russian, strategy for socio-economic development and general plan are the two main long-term urban planning documents that de jure set the direction of municipalities’ development. The strategy defines overall aims and tasks of socio-economic development, as well as resources and concrete measures; general plans pertain to the cityscape and define urban functional zoning, location of infrastructure and housing, organization of public spaces and landscaping in accordance with the strategic vision of future development. De facto the two documents remain disconnected to each other [Grishina et al., 2016]. Municipal programs are short-term planning documents serving specific sectoral needs.

3 All remote sensing data were obtained through official distributors, such as USGS EarthExplorer and Scanex Group.

4 Main Administration of Camps (Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerey) – government agency in charge of the Soviet forced-labor camp system.

5 Monogorod (plural, monogorods) – A Soviet/post-Soviet company town. According to the official Russian terminology this is a settlement where at least 20% of residents work for the same company (referred to as gradoobrazuyushchiye predriyatie – ‘city-forming’ enterprise) or group of companies operating within a technological chain. As a rule, the company or group accounts for 50% or more of gross output. Since 2014, the list of monogorods is defined by the Government of the Russian Federation and updated annually.

6 Vorkuta has a record-high share of non-privatized real estate, including 60% of housing stock [Interview no. 1] against the Russian average of less than 20% [Rosstat].

7 Only those residential buildings can be demolished which were recognized by a state commission as being in emergency condition (avariynoe). Obtaining the status of ‘residential building in emergency condition’ implies obligatory demolition and subsequent reclamation of the territory. In 2019, the total cost of the procedure with includes assessment, demolition, and reclamation was ca 1.5-2 million rubles [Interview no. 1] or approx. 20–30 thousand dollars. Given budget austerity, the local administration is reluctant to spend funds on demolition [Interview no. 2].

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Location of Vorkuta in Russia and the structure of ‘Vorkuta ring’ in 2019.
Crédits Draft and design: Andrey Medvedev.
Fichier image/jpeg, 800k
Titre Figure 2. Changes in Vorkuta’s build-up area during 20th–21st centuries.
Crédits Draft and design: Andrey Medvedev. Sources: own interpretation of remote sensing data.
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,2M
Titre Figure 3. Demolition of housing and non-residential buildings in Vorkuta during 20th–21st centuries, revised for 2019.
Crédits Draft and design: Andrey Medvedev. Sources: own interpretation of remote sensing data.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,5M
Titre Figure 4. Partially vacant apartment building in Vorkuta with a ‘frozen’ section.
Crédits Source: Elena Batunova
Fichier image/jpeg, 488k
Titre Figure 5. Your-Shor’s urban morphology in 1968 and 2018.
Crédits Sources: Corona and WorldView3 images
Fichier image/jpeg, 476k
Titre Figure 6. Your-Shor in 2019.
Crédits Source: Elena Batunova
Fichier image/jpeg, 219k
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Référence électronique

Maria Gunko, Elena Batunova et Andrey Medvedev, « Rethinking urban form in a shrinking Arctic city », Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2020/3-2021/1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 21 janvier 2021, consulté le 09 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Maria Gunko

Institute of Geography Russian Academy of Sciences;
Faculty of Geography and Geoinformation Technologies, National Research University Higher School of Economics
Corresponding author:

Elena Batunova

Politecnico di Milano, Department of Architecture and Urban Studies

Andrey Medvedev

Institute of Geography Russian Academy of Sciences;
Faculty of Geography and Geoinformation Technologies, National Research University Higher School of Economics

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