The Soviet Model
The “ideal type” Soviet model is reportedly characterized by massive government involvement in the economy as well as by the absence of private land ownership and free-market forces. Cities fitting the Soviet model have been identified in China, Eastern Europe, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.
Those who accept the relevance of an “ideal type” model use the following rationale as justification.
The socialist territorial order will not only be against the forms of concentration and division of labour developed by capitalism, but will also oppose any form of regression to the old, agricultural, rural, and pre-capitalist community. It is a totally new order, neither urban nor rural, based on undivided polyvalent productive unities. . . it is possible and necessary for societies in transition to begin to establish counter-trends (at least experimentally). As soon as possible, new polyvalent communities must be created with a high degree of socialist decentralization and development of uninhabited regions . . . industrialization of the countryside should be pursued by means of new small-scale technology, and diffusion of equal levels of services and knowledge.
Proponents also argue that the socialist city reflects specific physical characteristics, observing that:
skyscrapers are absent because no profit motive exists for their construction. Instead, large public squares mark the centers of most cities. These squares are politically significant since they are used for public gatherings and rallies. In addition, they are symbolically important, because they mark the communal heart of the socialist city.
It is interesting to note that some capitalist cities also have large public areas. For example, Taiwan’s memorial to Chiang Kai-shek makes Mao’s tomb in Tiananmen Square in Beijing look miniscule in comparison. It is easily the largest structure in all of Taiwan. The memorial is a good example of the problems associated with labeling cities according to ideal type for it reflects Leninist influences which permeated the Nationalist (KMT) government under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek.
In addition to the absence of skyscrapers and the presence of large public squares, three other characteristics are also said to distinguish the built environment of the socialist city:
- a “realism architecture” consisting of massive buildings constructed in “wedding cake” style and decorated with red stars
- an old town, the remnant of a more distant, but not necessarily valued, past
- greenbelts and parkland separating industrial development from the city center.
There was frequently a need for heavy industry to develop quickly without concern for environmental proprieties. Greenbelts were designed to separate this industrial development as far from the city center as possible. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is found in China where thousands of workers are active in agricultural communes in greenbelts surrounding many large cities. Havana is also noted for its green belt.
Interestingly, some argue that “realism architecture” is integral to the fascist city as well.
At any rate, according to Stanley D. Brunn and Jack F. Williams, the combination of these features is said to result in an “ideal type” Soviet model which “has produced distinctly different cities in virtually all aspects of urbanism, including morphology and internal spatial structure.”
Socialist cities are also described as having slow rates of urban growth, contributing to a reduction in their degree of urban primacy. You might remember that Brunn and Williams define the primacy ratio as the ratio of the first to the second largest city in a country, reflecting the degree of population dominance of the largest urban center. This variable is believed to reflect the key role of the state in relation to both the economy and civil society.
As Giddens notes:
. . . a strongly centralist Leninist ideology will sacrifice participation for control with consequent urban effects such as the desire to use cities as an explicit mechanism of surveillance to keep the population in check.
Control not only provides for the penetration of private and social space by the state, but also allows the government to restrict population mobility, including immigration to urban areas. So while many cities throughout the less developed world experienced growth from immigration flows as well as from in-migration, neither type of population flow had much impact on socialist cities which were more likely to be affected by emigration than immigration or even rural-urban migration. Consequently, it should not be surprising that many Marxist urbanists argue that socialist developing countries exhibit ” a slower rate of urban growth, compared to many ‘capitalist’ developing countries.” They go on to say that:
Whilst a slower rate of urban growth is not typical of all socialist developing countries, it is typical of enough — and especially those which have been in existence for a comparatively long period of time — to make this a significant and important phenomenon.
A statistical snapshot of the Cold War period does provide some credence for slow-growth assertions. The socialist developing countries are under represented in a listing of the 40 fastest growing urban agglomerations from 1970-1985. Apart from Zibo and Chengdu in China, only Algiers (Algeria), Rangoon (Myanmar/Burma), and Baghdad (Iraq) are specified.
Needless to say, some non-socialist cities also exhibited slow growth, including Montevideo (Uruguay), Manila (Philippines), and Columbo (Sri Lanka). Taipei, too, is noted for its balanced urban development.
On the other hand, while not the fastest growing, many socialist countries were among the world’s most urbanized at Cold War’s end, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, and Mongolia.
In our next post on Cold War Cities, we’ll discuss The Capitalist City.