The Evolving Urban Form: Budapest


The Budapest area has lost population overall since 1980, having fallen from 3.03 million to 2.99 million in 2016, according to Hungarian Central Statistical Office data as reported by (Graphic 1). This 1.3 percent loss is smaller than the national population loss over the same period of 8.2 percent. Moreover, during the last five years, the Budapest area is estimated to have gained 1.7 percent, even as Hungary lost 1.1 percent. In this regard, the trend in Budapest has been similar to that of Warsaw, with stronger population growth than in the nation as a whole, but at the same time greater population growth outside the urban core.

The Budapest area described in this article includes two of Hungary's county level jurisdictions (megyék), the core municipality of Budapest and Pest, which surrounds Budapest with inner and outer suburbs. Each of the county level jurisdictions is further divided into districts.

Urban Core Districts

Budapest's center spans the Danube River and includes District I (former Pest) and District V (former Buda). These districts largely encompassed the "walking city" that existed before the coming of transit in the 18th century. Walking cities have especially high densities, and were subject to huge population losses when after transit and the automobile arrive. For example, from 1860 to 2010, core walking arrondissements (I through IV) of the ville de Paris have lost nearly 75 percent of their population (earlier comparisons are not readily available because new arrondissement boundaries were adopted in 1860).

Similarly, since 1980, the former walking center of Budapest has lost 44 percent of its population. The largest loss occurred in the decade following the exit of Soviet influence, between 1990 and 2001. Over the past five years, these two districts have experienced a small population reversal, having increased approximately four percent.

On the east side of the Danube, there are a number of high density districts adjacent to District V (Districts VI, VII, VIII, IX, X and XIII). These largely developed in the mass transit era and have suffered less serious losses. Since 1980, these districts have loss 29 percent of their population. Again, the greatest declines were between 1990 and 2001. However, modest losses continue and the most recent five year loss more than offset the gains noted above in the inner core districts.

Budapest's urban core is renowned for its magnificent buildings, largely from the 19th century. Its core is a feast of architecture rivaling such urban showpieces as Paris, Barcelona and Buenos Aires.

The urban core of Budapest includes the Royal Palace (Graphic 2) on the west side of the river and Parliament on the east side. There is the notable 'Chain Bridge," which opened in 1848 and still handles pedestrian, transit and highway traffic (Graphic 3).

Parliament was completed in 1904, when Budapest was one of the two capitals of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, under the dual monarchy (top photograph and Graphics 4 and 5). It is, in my view, one of the most distinctive seats of government in the world, having features that resemble those of the Palace of Westminster in London and a dome resembling that of the U.S. Capitol. Its distinctive reddish roofs are seen in current river cruise PBS television commercials.

The Parliament is in Kussuth Square (Graphics 6 and 7), which was at the heart of the 1956 rebellion against Soviet rule, which resulted in a death toll of 2,500, followed by the loss of 200,000 refugees. There is now a memorial to the event below Kussuth Square, with exhibits tied together by a lighted red line symbolizing the bloody event (Graphic 8).

The urban core also includes the Opera House that reminds one of the Garnier Opera in Paris. There are many more examples of ornate architecture, principally from the 19th century (Graphics 9 to 17), extending to "Heroes Square," where Imre Nagy, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Hungarian People's Republic (the national leader) was reburied, after having been executed for leadership of the 1956 rebellion.

Other City Districts

The other 15 districts of Budapest have lost six percent of their population since 1980. These districts are newer, have lower population densities and are more automobile oriented (Graphic 18). However, since 2011, these districts experienced a three percent increase. The other districts have more than 70 percent of Budapest's population, and this increase was enough to produce an overall two percent increase for Budapest county between 2011 and 2016. Even so, Budapest county has lost 15 percent of its population since 1980.

The Suburbs (Pest County)

The only part of the Budapest area that has grown since 1980 is Pest County, with its inner and outer suburbs (Graphics 19 and 20). Overall, Pest County has grown 27 percent. The eight inner suburban counties experienced the bulk of the growth, adding 50 percent, while the 10 outer suburban counties added four percent to their population.

In the Soviet era, high rise apartment blocks were the rule, while there was little construction of detached housing. Following the Soviet exit, suburbanization developed rapidly, with considerable single family detached housing construction (Graphics 21 to 22). Houses continue to be under construction, both in existing suburban areas and in greenfield areas (Graphics 23 to 28), some in the Buda Hills, with stunning views of the city. This greenfield development appears to have stronger infrastructure regulations, illustrated by unusually wide (for Europe) suburban roadways and complete sidewalk development, even before house construction begins (Graphic 29).

Progress in Budapest

Hungary faces serious challenges, particularly due to its substantial population losses. Yet, as in the case of Tokyo-Yokohama, a national capital in a nation losing population can prosper by capturing nearly all of the nation's growth. This is also the reality in the Budapest region, where recent modest population gains have been achieved, even as the nation continued to lose population. Over the last three decades, Budapest has moved quickly from the excessive political and economic controls to a new future of people-centered modernity that the more fortunate cities in North America, Europe and Oceania were able to embrace much earlier.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Top photograph: Parliament from across the Danube (by author).