From the end of World War II in 1945 until the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, strategically located cities throughout the Third World were unintentionally molded by Cold War competitive grand strategy.
In the context of the American-Soviet competition for global prestige and influence, many cities in the developing world received large infusions of superpower military and economic assistance, weapons, and technology.
The impact of Cold War assets on cities was so substantial and so pervasive that the urban form and organization of many metropolitan areas began to reflect, in varying degrees, their inflow.
Most importantly, the opportunity structure available to urban planners and decision-makers was affected by Cold War rivalry.
The pervasiveness of the Cold War conflict makes it difficult to find a metropolitan region that was not, at least in part, impacted by superpower pressures.
Superpower ventures and military investment had substantial impact on Third World cities during the Cold War era because, during this time frame, militaristic activity overlapped with a period of domestic change involving rapid urban population growth and spatial expansion.
Some observers label the reorganization that occurred “restructuring,” but others argue that the change was the result of a more profound transformation of the capitalist system.
All agree that urban adjustment occurred in several areas:
- patterns of settlement
- regional and urban economies
- occupational structure
- urban spatial patterns.
Of course, change in any one of these areas influenced development prospects.
Clearly Cold War and domestic variables intermingled to reshape the postwar process of urbanization throughout the less developed world.
In the 1950s the rate of Third World urbanization exploded, catching up with and, in fact, exceeding that of the already industrialized countries.
For example, between 1950 and 1960, the proportion of the population in cities of 100,000 or more rose about a third faster in the underdeveloped regions of the world than in the developed areas.
As we have mentioned, Cold War influences were not the sole determinant of urban transformation. Rather, they were occurring in tandem with accelerating population growth from natural increase and rural-urban migration.
Therefore, any restyling of the urban environment during the Cold War period must be considered in the context of other factors — demography, social structure, political and economic development — which are more historic and internal.
Nevertheless, the spillover from the American-Soviet militaristic competition was so widespread that many cities integrated Cold War resources into their post World War II reality.
As examples, during this period, Isfahan (Iran) grew from a sleepy tourist city of 200,000 to a militarized metropolis of one million. Taipei (Taiwan) expanded from a colonial city of about 300,000 to a defense oriented ‘world city’ of almost three million, and Havana metamorphised from a dependent (capitalist) city of less than 700,000 to a socialist city of over 2,000,000.
The effects of Cold War military expenditures on each city deserve closer examination in light of current budgetary allocations for our war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, these cities provide insight into the success or failure of possible military action in Iran and North Korea.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.