The Socialist City: Experiments in Public Welfare

First Part: Early Soviet Experience

In the advent of a society devoted to Marxist principles, the task of creating an urban system which reflected these ideas was immense. The Marxist writings used to inform notions of urban planning included few clear guidelines on how the model socialist city should be built, which led to a wide variation of interpretation and the formation of many competing schools of thought. The debates in the early years of the Soviet Union brought forward a number of ideas which were synthesized into the base of socialist planning and applied elsewhere.

Revolution had brought about a great transformation in all fronts of society, not least of which was the urban sphere. The Soviet embrace of Russian Futurism and its encouragement of dialogue between different elements of society in formulating a planning scheme for the socialist city characterized this early post-revolutionary period. Living conditions for many were terrible after enduring successive war, and the state was financially weak having little power to achieve many improvements.

To better understand the dire position the government found itself it is necessary to survey the planning history of the Russian Empire and how that contributed to the conditions of revolution. Planning tradition in the Russian empire is primarily focused on the military; because Russia had such a large territory to defend it was always depleting its resources in maintaining garrisons in all far flung corners of the Empire. Building materials were poor, and technology for transportation was lacking, altogether the prioritization of Imperial interests over urban planning explains the poor living conditions in cities.

In post-revolution Russia the government did have to contend with a legacy of neglecting planning priorities, environmentally unsafe industries, slums, overcrowded accommodation, and a lack of amenities and open space. Many of the urban conditions found in Russian cities were similar to the ones Engels described in Manchester, and help to explain the success of revolution in Russia. One of the first actions of the government was to expropriate the mansions of the rich and to subdivide it out to many of the poorer residents. This step is important as it established the government’s commitment to correcting the historical inequity in the planning of urban space and reclaiming urban space for collective benefit.

Within the context of an urgency to provide for the suffering population, and with few funds at the disposal of the government many of the proposals for socialist urban planning were far-reaching and not feasible. The enthusiasm at the triumph of the revolution may explain the great urban visions of the urbanists and de-urbanists, but it was unlikely the state could pursue any such grand plan in the mean time.

Consensus amongst Soviet planners was that capitalism itself contributes to an accidental mode of city growth, which creates poor living conditions. In this sense, the socialist city relies more heavily on planning and places its overall goals as establishing a stronger sense of community. The main schools of thought which dominated official discourse in the Soviet Union during this early period were the urbanists and the de-urbanists. Critical to Marxist ideology is the achievement of a more equal distribution of population across the landmass, and the difference in interpretation is crucial. The urbanists proposed concentrating population in cities and using high rises, while the de-urbanists believed spreading people out more evenly over the countryside in smaller settlements would be more effective. In contrast to capitalist urban planning which seeks to honor the past, socialist planning looks to the future, this tenet helps to explain the grand plans of the 1920s and fits into the general momentum of the era.

One of the earlier experiences in Soviet urban planning was that of Miliutin’s Linear city. Although it was not adopted as the standard of socialist planning it does represent an important experiment in planning. Miliutin’s book Socialist City set the groundwork for a comprehensive plan of the city, paying attention to Marxist ideology, social relations, and the economic feasibility of projects.

Miliutin’s proposals focused on the process of establishing what he called living cells; small apartments that depended on a multitude of collectivized services and would further the transition to communal living. The plan also included provisions to place residences near work, move agriculture and industry further away from residences, improved transportations systems, and locating cities near raw materials. The attention paid to environmental pollution is uncharacteristic of the era, but was also a major part of Miliutin’s plan which focused on establishing green belts, and creating more green space. The idea of the linear city was based on the assembly line realized in the concept of having everyone an equal distance from everything they needed and maintaining a constant flow to the city. The plan for Volgograd shows a direct application of the linear city. In the short term, Miliutin’s ideas for inexpensive alternative building materials, green belts, and the zoning of different areas of the city were adopted. Miliutin’s ideas experienced a resurgence in the post-war era when authorities began returning to the 1920s debates for inspiration.

The importance of Miliutin’s early attempts to establish a foundation for socialist planning cannot be understated. In adverse economic circumstances there is a certain sense of innovation to create economically efficient cities which satisfy social and environmental concerns. The resurgence of Miliutin’s designs long after his death in other socialist countries, and the more extensive use of green belts in contemporary capitalist urban planning does lend credence to the innovative capability of socialism.

By the 1930s, the government had released its own model of urban planning which had incorporated ideas from various schools of thought. Despite the advances promised by Miliutin’s plans they were largely ignored in the lead up to and during WWII, there are many reasons why this would be, but taking into account the need to industrialize the government did have a genuine need to conclude the debates on urban planning and move ahead in preparation for what lay ahead. That being said, Miliutin did remain an important contributor to socialist planning and his work is formative in establishing the socialist city which came to dominate the Eastern Bloc.

Bater, J. H. The soviet city: ideal and reality, 1980.
Milutin, N. Sotsgorod: The Problem of Building Socialist Cities, 1930.
French, R. A. The socialist city: spatial structure and urban policy, 1979.
Gutnov, A. The ideal communist city, 1968.

Further Reading
The Ideal Soviet Suburb
The Creative Renaissance

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