Urban planning in communist countries

Urban planning in communist countries

Urban planning in communist countries was subject to the ideological constraints of the system. Except for the Soviet Union where the communist regime started in 1917, in Eastern Europe communist governments took power after World War II. The ideological guidelines generated in Moscow and even if, in fields like urban planning, they were not imposed by force by the Soviet Union, the various communist regimes followed a generally similar approach, even if there are differences in the specific of urban planning in different communist countries.

Beginnings of urban planning in communist countries

All eastern European countries had suffered due to the war and their economies were in a very poor state. There was a need to reconstruct cities which had been severely damaged due to the war. Warsaw in Poland had practically been razed to the earth during the 1944 uprising, Dresden in Eastern Germany had been totally destroyed by a bombardment in February 1945, Stalingrad had been destroyed during the battle and few houses if any were still standing. Many other cities had to be rebuilt. The financial resources of the countries, which after nationalization of industries and of big landowners, were under total government control and all development and investment had to be financed by the state. According to communist ideology, the first priority was building a socialist industry. Therefore for 10-15 years, most resources were directed towards the development of industry and the rebuilding of destroyed cities. In most cases, this reconstruction was carried out without any urban planning, first of all because reconstruction had to be started immediately, without waiting for the planning exercise and also because the man-power and expertise for developing urban plans for a great number of cities was not available. However, many countries where historical centers had been badly damaged, efforts were made to restore, at least partially, the damaged historical buildings and experts worked to have this restoration made as closely as possible to the original. Examples of such exercises are the rebuilding of the old city center in Warsaw, of the Zwinger in Dresden, of many historic buildings in Budapest though there are many other examples in the zone under soviet influence. [ Diefendorf J.M. - Urban Reconstruction in Europe after World War II - Urban Studies, Volume 26, Number 1, February 1989, pp. 128-143 ] A notable exception is the building of the National Theatre of Bucharest, Romania, which was damaged by bombing in August 1944. Though part of the building was still standing, after taking complete power in 1947, the communist authorities decided to tear down the remains of the building. This decision is even more disturbing if it is recalled that the head of state (having the official title of Chairman of the Presidium of the National Assembly) was Constantin Ion Parhon, a scientist, and the vice-chairman was Mihail Sadoveanu, a writer, both members of the Romanian Academy. Even if they were figure-heads, yielding little political power, their personalities could have saved historical buildings, of no political significance so as to upset the regime. However, there is not the slightest evidence that either even tried or was concerned about the issue of preserving historical monuments.

In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union developed a new type of high-risers. The first such buildings were built in Moscow: Moscow State University, Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, Block of flats on Kudrinskaya Square, Hotel Leningradskaya, Hotel "Ukraina", Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Heavy Industry. The were duplicated in some other countries, the main examples being the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw and the Press Palace in Bucharest. The Stalin Allee (subsequently named Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin was also flanked by buildings having the same Stalinist style, though their concept was different from the Moscow high risers. These buildings are mainly examples of a new architectural style, but did not involve urban planning to a significant extent, and there is no visible conceptual link between these buildings and their neighborhood. It may however be recalled that these buildings required the demolition of the structures which were located on their sites. The most notorious is the demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, erected in Moscow as a memorial of Napoleon's defeat. The site was required for the Palace of the Soviets, which was never built. The demolition of historic buildings, especially churches, to make place for the new communist structures is thus a general trait communist urbanism. Recent examples, such as the Demolition of historical parts of Bucharest by Nicolae Ceauşescu are just a continuation of this ideology but not an isolated case.

As in most cities there were few new housing units which were built, a severe shortage of housing units soon became apparent. All communist countries adopted the solution which had been applied by the soviets after the 1917 revolution. Strict limits were set on the area to which each person was entitled and the authorities would place people who needed housing in the exceeding rooms. Generally the area allocated to which a person was entitled was about 9-10 square meters (100 sq ft.) and more than one person had to share the same room. There was no area allocated to living and dining areas. Four or more families had to share the same apartments. The industrialization brought more people from the rural areas to the cities and gradually, even it became impossible to house more people in the cities without starting an extensive program of new constructions.

First attempts of socialist city planning in Eastern Europe

However, in the process of socialist industrialization, industries were built not only near existing cities but also on new cites where only small rural communities existed. In such cases, new urban communities emerged in the vicinities of the industrial plants, to accommodate the workers. This is the case of Nowa Huta near Krakow, Poland started in 1949, an of Oneşti, later renamed Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, in Romania, started in 1952.

Other cases where new communities had to be created were related to the relocation due to the construction of storage reservoirs on big rivers. As traditionally villages were located near the water, they were flooded and had to be relocated. This created the need to design and construction of new villages. This trend is not specific to the post-war area nor to the communist system. However, the technological progress made the construction of big dams possible to a greater extent that in the prewar area. The harnessing of the big rivers was also extended, especially in countries, where space was not a problem and the flooding of great areas was acceptable such as the Soviet Union or Canada, but in smaller countries too. For instance, in Romania, the construction of the Izvorul Muntelui dam on the Bistriţa river required the relocation of several villages with a population of several thousand people.

These trends of the early post-war years were just a sign of what was to follow in the next decades when the constraints of the reconstruction had been overcome and such developments were undertaken at a much greater scale. However, the first projects highlighted the need of urban planning for the new localities. This included also the design of the entire infrastructure such as roads, water supply and power supply and also social studies as in many cases the life-style of the population was severely affected and. in the new conditions, the old occupation were not sustainable. The most frequent case was that of farmers whose farmland had been flooded and who could not get new farmland in the new locations.

All these required some urban planning, which was carried out without major difficulties.

Urban development in the 1960s and 1970s

In the big cities few new housing units were constructed and the existing unit were overcrowded. Towards 1960 the Soviet Union changed its policy and started extensive programs for the construction of new apartment buildings. This trend was immediately followed by all communist countries in Eastern Europe. The development of new neighborhoods in order to extend the housing capacity of cities required an important urban planning effort. In most cities, the development took place on the outskirts of the existing cities, incorporating suburbs or undeveloped land into the city. Also, in cities in which slums existed, the area of these slums was developed with modern housing units.

While the actual design and construction of the apartment buildings is not part of the urban planning exercise, the height and type of the buildings, the density of the buildings and other general characteristics were fixed by the planning exercise. Besides, the entire development of the infrastructure had to be planned. This included the transportation system and the roads, water supply, sewerage, power supply, shopping centers, schools and other infrastructure. Flood control was also a concern for cities located in flood prone areas. The planning also covered the industrial zones where new industries were to be located.

In some parts, urban problems were raised also due to other infrastructure, mainly to the development of waterways. The construction of reservoirs on big rivers in the proximity of cities created new waterfronts which had to be developed. This happed mainly in the Soviet Union, but also in other countries. Also some urban planning was required in the inner cities in the areas where new official buildings were constructed. An example in this respect is the development of the area of the congress hall attached to the previous royal palace in the center of Bucharest.

While the main urban planning effort was concentrated on the newly developed areas, they also had to cover the old city, as many of the utilities were linked to the existing infrastructure. After the first developments were completed, it became apparent that the cities had emerged in having new buildings at the periphery, while the center of the city had old buildings which were frequently decaying. While similar developments also happened in capitalist countries, private enterprise also made construction in the inner cities possible, both by replacing older buildings with new structures and by renovating the existing ones. This process was practically inexistent in the communist countries, where the maintenance of the old houses was extremely poor. Therefore the difference between the inner and outer cities became quite visible.



Water supply and sewerage



Planning of rural localities

One of the main dogmas of marxism-leninism was that the difference between the urban and rural living standards will gradually decrease and that in the communist country there will be no difference between the living standards. By the beginning of the 1970s it became obvious that this was not happening. Even worse, while in the capitalist western Europe the quality of life in villages had improved, this was not the case in the rural areas of the communist countries, where few progress had been made except for electrification. Therefore, the regimes of many socialist countries considered it necessary to take steps towards the development of villages.

In the Soviet Union as well as in some other countries, the solution was considered to be the construction of urban types of houses, mainly apartment buildings in different villages, considering that such buildings could provide a degree of comfort which the older peasant houses did not.

Beginning in 1974 it consisted largely of the demolition and reconstruction of existing villages, towns, and cities, in whole or in part, with the stated goal of turning Romania into a "multilaterally developed socialist society".

Urban planning began as a program of rural resettlement. The original plan was to bring the advantages of the modern age to the Romanian countryside. For some years, rural Romanians had been flocking to the cities. Systematization called for doubling the number of Romanian cities by 1990. Hundreds of villages were to become urban industrial centers via investment in schools, medical clinics, housing, and industry.

As part of this plan, smaller villages (typically those with populations under 1000) were deemed "irrational" and slated for reduction of services (at best) or (at worst) forced removal of the population and physical destruction. Often, such measures were extended to the towns that were destined to become urbanized, by demolishing some of the older buildings and replacing them with multi-story "modern" apartment blocks. Unsurprisingly, most peasants were displeased with these policies.

Although the systematization plan extended, in theory, to the entire country, initial work centered in Moldavia. It also affected such locales as Ceauşescu's own native village of Scorniceşti in Olt County: there, the Ceauşescu family home was the only older building left standing. The initial phase of systematization largely petered out by 1980, at which point only about 10 percent of new housing was being built in historically rural areas.

Given the lack of budget, in many regions systematization did not constitute an effective plan, good or bad, for development. Instead, it constituted a barrier against organic regional growth. New buildings had to be at least two stories high, so peasants could not build small houses. Yards were restricted to 250 square meters and private agricultural plots were banned from within the villages. Despite the obvious negative impact of such a scheme on subsistence agriculture, after 1981 villages were mandated to be agriculturally self-sufficient.

In the mid-1980s the concept of systematization found new life, applied primarily to the area of the nation's capital, Bucharest. Nearby villages were demolished, often in service of large scale projects such as a canal from Bucharest to the Danube - projects which were later abandoned by Romania's post-communist government. Most dramatically, eight square kilometers in the historic center of Bucharest were leveled. The demolition campaign erased many monuments including 3 monasteries, 20 churches, 3 synagogues, 3 hospitals, 2 theaters and a noted Art Deco sports stadium. This also involved evicting 40,000 people with only a single day's notice and relocating them to new homes, in order to make way for the grandiose Centrul Civic and the immense Palace of the People, a building second in size only to the Pentagon.

Urban planning, especially the destruction of historic churches and monasteries, was protested by several nations, especially Hungary and West Germany, each concerned for their national minorities in Transylvania. Despite these protests, Ceauşescu remained in the relatively good graces of the United States and other Western powers almost to the last, largely because his relatively independent political line rendered him a useful counter to the Soviet Union in Cold War politics.


* Anania, Lidia; Luminea, Cecilia; Melinte, Livia; Prosan, Ana-Nina; Stoica, Lucia; and Ionescu-Ghinea, Neculai, "Bisericile osândite de Ceauşescu. Bucureşti 1977–1989" (1995). Editura Anastasia, Bucharest, ISBN 973-97145-4-4. In Romanian. Title means "Churches doomed by Ceauşescu". This is very much focused on churches, but along the way provides many details about systematization, especially the demolition to make way for Centrul Civic.
* Bucica, Cristina. [http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/kokkalis/GSW5/bucica.pdf Legitimating Power in Capital Cities: Bucharest - Continuity Through Radical Change?] (PDF), 2000.

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