Socio-spatial change in Lithuania: Depopulation and increasing spatial inequalities


  • Rūta Ubarevičienė TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment



Perhaps what first strikes you when you travel into Central and Eastern Europe is the incredible mélange of practices, rhythms, and identities that flow through particular places; past and present landscapes seem literally to tumble over each other suggesting that something new is underway, something old is being sustained, and something that combines the two is emerging. State socialist and market economies are articulating and re-articulating with one another in a heady mix of creative destruction and social transformation. (Pickles and Smith, 2007, p. 152)

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signalled a major change for Europe, especially for Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries1 (Gentile, Tammaru, & van Kempen, 2012; Kornai, 2006; Kovács, 1999; Shleifer & Treisman, 2014). From a Soviet-type communism2 with centrally planned economies, CEE countries suddenly shifted to a capitalist system with market-led economies. Almost overnight the political and economic systems completely changed. This shift had a major effect on population developments in these countries. All of them experienced a drop in fertility rates, mass emigration and an increase in regional inequalities. Of all the post-socialist countries, it is Lithuania that stands out the most, experiencing an extreme drop in population (Eurostat, 2017; United Nations, 2015).3 Since the 1990s, Lithuania has lost more than 20 percent of its population, which makes it one of the world’s fastest shrinking countries.

From a historical point of view, an extreme population decline seems contradictory in Lithuania. For several decades the citizens of Lithuania had passionately sought a new sovereignty that would bring independent and democratic development to the country. This goal was finally achieved in 1990. In general, independence was a success and an accomplishment that led to a new economic and constitutional order (Burneika, 2012; Kornai, 2006; Leyk, 2016; Stanilov, 2007). However, the opening of the borders to the West and the free flow of capital and labour (especially after integration into the EU), meant that many people decided to leave Lithuania to look for better opportunities (mostly economic) abroad (Klüsener, Stankūnienė, Grigoriev, & Jasilionis, 2015; Sipavičienė & Stankūnienė, 2011; The Economist, 2017). Many of them thought to be leaving temporarily, but stayed and never returned. The reasons behind the choice to emigrate are quite obvious: although GDP per capita levels are similar among CEE countries (The World Bank, 2017b), Lithuania is distinguished in having one of the lowest wages, pensions and social spending rates, as well as a high degree of social inequality (Aidukaitė, 2011, 2014). Furthermore, population decline is accelerating even though the economy of the country is growing and standards of living are improving.

While the processes taking place on the national level are quite well recognised in Lithuania, little is known about how macro-level changes are affecting different spaces and groups in society. Sharp population decline has been accompanied by an increase in regional inequalities and levels of segregation. These processes are strongly linked with Soviet spatial planning principles (see e.g. Clayton & Richardson, 1989; Demko & Regulska, 1987) that were more extensively adopted in Lithuania than in other CEE countries. For several decades, planning policy in Lithuania favoured the organised distribution of the population and economic activities (Šešelgis, 1996; Vanagas, Krišjane, Noorkoiv, & Staniūnas, 2002). As a result, a quite uniform – spatially and socially – society was created.

In 1990, the moment market forces came into play, major changes in the socio-spatial fabric began to occur and the distribution of the population started to change, having major spatial and social consequences. For example, economic restructuring led to a spatial mismatch between the distribution of labour and available jobs; although residential patterns started to change, the network of public amenities remained almost unaffected (until now). The general feature of this process was that, economically and demographically, socio-spatial disparities started to increase within the country, with the larger urban regions becoming the ‘winners’ and the peripheral rural regions the ‘losers’ in this transformation process. Vilnius, whose development was suppressed in Soviet times, began growing extensively after 1990 through the process of suburbanisation. The process was similar to but much quicker than what had occurred in Western countries two decades earlier (from the 1970s onwards). In Lithuania, this led to increasing regional inequalities, which was inhibited to some degree by the socialist system, but now, the market-led system left regions much more exposed.

Despite the fact that these recent socio-spatial changes continue to take place at an unusually high speed, these processes have received very little scientific attention. The aim of this thesis is to gain more insight into these socio-spatial transformation processes and their consequences in Lithuania. The thesis investigates the main features and drivers of socio-spatial change in post-socialist Lithuania. The results of the research will provide a better understanding of the development processes and will reveal how the Sovietdesigned socio-spatial structures adapted to a market economy environment. The results of this thesis will also show why we should be concerned, despite the growing economy and improvements in the standard of living, as Lithuania is facing major challenges related to extreme population decline and increasing socio-spatial inequality. Until recently, doing socio-spatial research on Lithuania was a major challenge due to very limited data availability. One of the achievements of this thesis was to gain access to more detailed statistical data. As a result, this thesis is the first research project to use individual-level geo-coded Lithuanian census data for the whole population.

The rest of this introductory chapter is structured as follows. Section 1.2 provides the background, presenting a historical overview and explaining the specific setting of Lithuania, also offering information about the general macro-level changes that took place in the socialist and post-socialist periods. This background information is crucial to an understanding of the more recent socio-spatial changes and processes behind them. Section 1.3 offers a more focused discussion of the literature on population decline, migration, suburbanisation, segregation and increasing regional inequalities. It provides a literature review concerning the processes that are both typical to Lithuania but also shared with many other countries. This section aims to demonstrate that the Soviet legacy formed specific conditions for rapid and profound socio-spatial change in Lithuania. In Section 1.4, the gaps in current knowledge are identified, and the aim and research questions of the thesis are presented. Finally, Section 1.5 outlines the data that were used in the empirical chapters. Apart from this introduction, the thesis consists of five empirical chapters and a conclusion.




How to Cite

Ubarevičienė, R. (2018). Introduction: Socio-spatial change in Lithuania: Depopulation and increasing spatial inequalities. A+BE | Architecture and the Built Environment, 7(9), 49–90.