The Socialist City: Experiments in Public Welfare

Second Part: The Golden Age of Socialist Planning

The post-war years in the Soviet Union saw a shift in orientation back to planning, despite the destruction suffered by the Nazi occupation. The exacerbation of the housing crisis necessitated planners to prioritize a quick solution. The government responded by passing successive resolutions in the 1950s aiming to decentralize control of planning to local levels of government. During the war, the enterprises that had gained relative power vis-a-vis the government did not want to relinquish power which lead to power struggles between enterprises and local governments. The central government felt that devolving power to local soviets would be the most effective way to solve the crisis.  The government pushed to empower local government and provide more funding as a means to solve the crisis, but it took multiple decrees to achieve this in the 1950s and 1960s. It is important here to stress the budgetary constraints placed on planning and how this factored into the government’s innovative capacity to attempt to solve the housing crisis with the meager funds available.

Within this context of decentralization and improving local participation in planning, it is useful to discuss the government’s view on land. Hamilton (1979) outlined the government’s land policy in The Socialist City: “Land ceased to be regarded as a commodity for profitable investment or trade, and assumed the status of a social asset to be used in national interest.” The Soviet Union calculated the value of land within a Marxist theory of value, viewing it as a finite resource and did not have interest or rental wages. Socialist planners considered that all people were equal in their basic needs, and social investments reflected this paradigm. In Planning and Decision making in the Soviet city, Reiner explains that rent was only 5% of a person’s income, recreation facilities were highly developed, there was a greater ratio of doctors and teachers than in America and Western Europe, and free welfare services were made widely accessible as part of the larger urban plan. While not misconstruing the Soviet experience during this period as utopian, the gains being made during this era are unprecedented and constituted a great rise in living standards.

Around this time Aleksei Gutnov lead a group of prominent planners in releasing the groundbreaking work The Ideal Communist City in the 1960s. Notable about the research content was that it marked a return to many of the ideas put forward in the 1920s. Expanding on the communal living ideas of Miliutin, Gutnov proposed the micro-district. These areas would comprise all the amenities of a community within walking distance, and serve a maximum of 10,000 people.
The government believed adequate housing was intrinsic to socialist development, and though the rapid industrialization programs and subsequent war years compromised this as a priority, it was always in the party discourse. In Soviet urban housing: problems and policies, DiMaio provides the government position: “the fundamental economic law of socialism is the satisfying of the material and cultural needs of workers … that is why it is so important that all workers have at their disposal comfortable housing where they can work, rest, and raise the younger generation in the best conditions possible.” Acknowledging the continuing housing crisis, the central government promoted its housing program as a great undertaking of socialism; Khrushchev intended to build 15 million apartments, which he subsequently backed up by increasing funding to planners by 83%. Each seven-year plan projected a doubling in the amount of housing. Gutnov had differed from other approached as he had recognized the inevitable migration to cities and proposed planning for it instead by using alternative urban forms. American Suburbs were widely derided as being depressing and monotonous, and discouraged social interaction and community. The government agreed, and enthusiastically embraced Gutnov’s ideas like increased decentralization, high rises, micro-districts, and pre-fabricated materials.

Once the housing shortages had been solved, the government turned its attention to bridging the divide between town and country. The integration of regional and urban planning was a key component of this policy. Insofar as suburbs in socialist cities can be called as such, they did serve the purpose of combining town and city in a way which contrasted with the capitalist model. In The Soviet city: ideal and reality, Bater explains the character of Soviet suburbs, often times they housed special enterprises related to the city. Suburbs also served as an oxygen tent, and contained forests, farming, and recreation facilities. Bater also remarks on the transportation system in two important ways. First, he notes the relative short average commute times for inhabitants as ranging between 20 and 45 minutes throughout the Soviet Union. Second, he contrasts the consistency of the Soviet transportation system with the irregularity of capitalist cities where transportation is only really efficient during rush hours. The effect of planning here is demonstrable in the equal accessibility of suburbs to all citizens, effectively underlining the egalitarian purposes of planning initiatives in the socialist city.
The contrast between suburbs in a socialist and capitalist city becomes more apparent, whereas in a capitalist city they insulate the rich from the pollution of the downtown, in a socialist city they are made available for the enjoyment of all. Suburbs were intended to be easily reachable by all in the city, and in effect be a connection to nature for those who lived in the central areas of the city. The construction and promotion recreational facilities, parks, and forest reserves confirms this objective. In addition the construction of enterprises and employment of a highly effective system of transportation facilitated the easily reachable character of these suburban areas.

A final crucial component of socialist planning was its focus on developing a society with a strong connection to the environment. Building cities to occupy more space as was done in the case of American suburbs had a larger impact on the environment in that more wide roads were needed and the forests were entirely cleared out to make room for suburbs where nature was then artificially reconstructed. By building micro-districts with low-rise and hi-rise buildings part of the idea was that the more limited impact on the environment would enable a greater percentage of green space to prevail in the urban environment. Studies by Reiner (1979) and Bater (1980) confirm the greater proportion of green space in soviet cities. Scholarly consensus in the Soviet Union was against expanding automobile usage, not because of an inability to produce cars but moreover as a reflection of an environmental policy of avoiding pollution. Conversely, the space that would have been used for parking spaces and wider roads, could be then used for parks, green, and open space.

Reflecting back to the goal of community, the real objective of socialist planning was to employ a sense of community in each micro-district, and in each building. Planners put people of differing ethnic backgrounds, and employment levels in the same building encouraging contact, yet the limiting of size of micro-district certainly helped to localize and encourage contact. Unlike capitalist cities where services and consumer goods are largely located in the center, socialist cities place a premium on an even distribution throughout the city. Keeping in mind the transportation system, and the walking distance of all amenities in a micro-district, this fit well with the larger plan of a socialist city catering to popular demand.

The model of urban planning developed in the Soviet Union during this period began to see widespread usage in countries elsewhere in the world, and lead to lively debate within academic circles on the nature of a socialist system of urban planning. French (1979) and others came to the conclusion that the new mode of planning in the socialist bloc indeed constituted a distinct and independent trend worthy of study. It is with this conclusion that the study of socialist planning can be situated in a trajectory of planning which defines its intent to be part of a democratic tradition, in essence gearing itself more toward popular participation than autocratic controls. Reviewing the extension of social welfare initiatives and the efforts to decentralize are both compelling examples of how socialist planning offers a constructive alternative to the capitalist system of planning.

Bater, J. H. The soviet city: ideal and reality, 1980.
DiMaio, A. J. Soviet urban housing: problems and policies, 1974.
French, R. A. The socialist city: spatial structure and urban policy, 1979.
Gutnov, A. The ideal communist city, 1968.
Hamilton, F. E. Spatial structure in east european cities, 1979.
Reiner, T. A. Planning and decision making in the soviet city: rent, land, and urban form, 1979.

Further Reading
The Ideal Soviet Suburb
We Lived Better Then
Traces of Utopia: Socialist Values and Soviet Urban Planning

This entry was posted in Socialism, Urbanism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Socialist City: Experiments in Public Welfare

  1. bench jacke maenner
    I basically learned about almost all of this, but with that said, I still considered it had been practical. Nice post!

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