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Due to their high population density and activities that are harmful to the environment, cities are the main cause of global environmental problems.

The first human settlements appeared approximately 8,000 years ago in South West Asia, when people began to live in permanent dwellings and engage in crafts and cultivation.

Today, cities are home to huge numbers of people and are expanding rapidly, giving rise to many environmental concerns both inside and outside urban areas.

The individual character of a city is shaped by its geographical location, local climate and morphology, social structure and economic activity. Cities can be considered as specific ecosystems in themselves. Each has its own structure and function. Changes in the quality of the urban environment are mostly the result of human activity. How much space is needed and how resources are shared depend on factors such as population density and individual lifestyles. When people and their activities are spatially confined, the impact on natural habitats is enormous. No city can exist solely from the resources found within its own territory. Energy, water and other resources are procured from, and often processed at, locations distant from cities.

Although most of the world’s environmental problems are concentrated in cities, urban environments offer unique opportunities to solve environmental problems efficiently while saving energy and other resources.

Several indicators are used to assess the state of an urban environment:

  • quantitative indicators (number of inhabitants, population density, total size of the urban area, abandoned territory, newly developed territory, and modes of urban mobility);
  • urban flow indicators (consumption rates of water, energy, materials and food products, plus waste generation); and
  • indicators of the quality of the urban environment (air and water quality, road safety, housing quality, condition of flora and fauna, availability of green areas, and noise levels).

Urbanisation is the process that results in the growth of urban areas and the development of cities. It is a powerful environmental factor and is accompanied by the transformation of landscapes, land and water resources. Urban environments produce massive amounts of waste that are discharged into aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and into the atmosphere.

Urbanisation presents humankind with many new environmental challenges due to the acute vulnerability of urban systems, the migration and concentration of the human population, the degradation of habitats, the loss of fertile land and the generation and disposal of waste.

Although an understandable result of social wants and needs and modern production methods, urban growth, especially in the past decade, has been so rapid that the natural environment is unable to meet many modern needs. A large city changes almost all components of the natural environment: atmosphere, vegetation, soil, topography, water networks, groundwater, surface features, and even the climate.

Many cities are growing together into urban agglomerations — spatially and functionally unified groups of urban settlements constituting a general socioeconomic and ecological system. Agglomerations within a country or region are characterised by functional linkages, formed as a result of industrial activities and relations. An example of this is Greater Minsk — an agglomeration of the Belarusian capital and surrounding satellite towns.

As of January 1, 2013, the population of Belarus was 9,463,300, up 1,900 from the previous year. By and large, the country’s population has remained unchanged for the past 30 years.

The population of Belarus

There has been a slight shift in the population from villages to urban environments. While cities account for just 1 percent of the country’s territory, the proportion of Belarusians living in cities is currently 75 percent (the highest rate among the former Soviet Union states).

According to UN projections, the urban growth trend in Belarus will reach a peak in 2020, when an estimated 7,219,000 people will be living in urban areas.

Internal migration in Belarus reflects the global trend towards urbanisation, although Belarusians are less mobile than people in many developed countries.

The population has declined in 108 of the 117 administrative districts of Belarus. Minsk has had a particularly strong pull for decades (one in five Belarusians lives in Minsk), although regional centres are also attractive. The dynamic of urbanisation has had a great impact on social structure: 80 percent of those internally migrating to the capital are between the ages of 15 and 19. Many young people from all over the country are eager to move to the capital after leaving school in order to continue studying at university or other educational institutions. This age group accounted for about half of all migrants arriving in the capital. There is also a significant flow of migrants aged between 20 and 24, although the greatest number of people departing from Minsk are also within this age group. Most migrants leaving the capital are young graduates returning to their homes to look for work independently, or those who have been sent to a particular region because of state distribution requirements.

Cities and towns in Belarus were mainly established near major rivers, which in the Early Middle Ages were the main transportation routes. Examples include Polatsk (first mentioned in 862), Turau (established in 980), Grodno (established in 1124) and Brest (established in 1019). The emergence of cities in the 19th and 20th centuries was connected with the construction of railways (Baranavichy, Asipovichy, Gantsavichy) or the activities of industrial enterprises (Salihorsk, Belaazyorsk, Mikashevichy, Biarozauka).

Green spaces are important in optimal human environments, for health, recreation and aesthetic reasons, while they also protect soil and water. One of the main indicators of landscape quality is the presence of vegetation. In Mozyr, for example, there are 176.4 m2 of green space per person; in Baranavichy 68 m2; in Gomel 46 m2; in Vitebsk 41 m2; in Brest 39 m2; and in Grodno 26 m2. According to town planning regulations, the proportion of urban landscaping areas should be no less than 40 percent, and no less than 25 percent inside residential areas. However, at present the proportion of urban green space in Belarus varies from 6.1 percent in Kastsukovichy to 60 percent in Mozyr.

In cities, nearly every habitat component has been transformed in significant ways:

  • Large cities that are home to industrial plants and factories, hazardous production facilities and growing transport infrastructure put great pressure on the environment and jeopardise human health.
  • Housing large numbers of people on small plots of land — whether due to social or income inequality — has led to the emergence of various social problems in cities.
  • Cities are a significant source of technogenic substances that are distributed not only in the urban environment, but also in the suburban and regional migration areas. A city’s impact zone can exceed its actual territory 20 to 50 times.
  • Navapolatsk produced 64,000 tonnes of annual pollutant emissions, Minsk 50,000 tonnes, and Novalukoml 29,000 tonnes.
  • In 16 cities in Belarus in which maximum single values of maximum permissible concentrations (MPC) are regularly measured, values were exceeded in just 1.6 percent of the samples taken. The main pollutants are formaldehyde (the MPC was exceeded in 76 percent of monitored cities); hydrogen sulphide (60 percent of cities); and particulates (50 percent). Maximum concentrations of the following pollutants have also increased: phenols (in 38 percent of cities), nitrogen dioxide (in 35 percent), ammonia (in 25 percent), nitrogen oxide (in 14 percent) and carbon monoxide (in 11 percent).
  • The city of Mogilev has the widest range of air pollutants exceeding MPCs: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, phenols, ammonia and formaldehyde.

Cities are the main sources of industrial and domestic waste. Permanent population growth in cities leads to an increased need for sanitation services at domestic and community levels. Belarusian cities are responsible for 78 to 83 percent of the country’s generated municipal waste. They are also responsible for 69 percent of treated wastewater discharged into rivers.

Rivers in Belarus receive mixed wastewater discharge. Water bodies in the Dnieper River basin received 642 million m3 of wastewater in 2009. The highest intake was in the Svislach River, which flows through Minsk. The Neman, Zakhodniaya Dzvina and Zakhodni Bug rivers received 122, 81 and 39 million m3 respectively. Most of the wastewater contains excessive concentrations of nutrients, such as ammonium nitrate, nitrate nitrogen and phosphorus.

Soils in urban areas contain large amounts of heavy metals. Compared with non-contaminated territories, urban soils contain 2.6 the normal amount of enriched cadmium and copper, twice the normal amount of lead and zinc, and 1.8 times the normal amount of nickel.

Additional resources on the topic of urbanisation can be found in the following places: