Monday, February 2, 2015

The common origin of North American suburbs and Soviet towers in parks

So I read an article recently about the "Soviet City", ( which made a link between the Soviet city planning and the urbanist movement. The author noted that, like urbanists, Soviet city planners were focused on walkability and transit, and sought density, building big concrete apartment blocs. She said that they were imposing their vision in an authoritarian manner, contrasting this with North American suburbs, that she describes as emerging organically from the desires of consumers. The whole piece is meant as a warning against urbanists not to impose their vision on an unwilling population.

You may consider this post as a rebuttal. I believe that despite the author's claim, both North American suburbia and Soviet suburbs (yes, they were suburbs, not cities) share many basic design points.

First similarity: both were planned from above and imposed on the population

The most glaring error of the text is that it supposes that North American suburbia is a spontaneous emergence from consumer preferences. The reality is very, very different. Though the United States as a whole likes to boast of capitalism and property rights, in terms of development policy, it is one of the most controlled countries in the world.

American elites in the middle of the 20th century were clear about their vision for the future of the country. The American Dream would be about owning a house on a plot of land, with cars to travel around, like a miniature version of the estates and villas of the rich. Renting was out. Mixed use was out. Multifamily housing was out... even outright "un-American" according to some of these elites.

As a result, American cities and governments adopted strict policies to make almost anything that wasn't suburbia was harder and more expensive to build... if not outright impossible.

Cities implemented Single-Family Detached (SFD) only zoning, forbidding anything else but detached housing in most of their area. Any attempt to convert houses to multifamily housing would face quick backlash from the defenders of this zoning. Regulations would mandate huge parking lots to make sure traveling by car was easy, even if they made walking, biking and transit very inconvenient.

The Federal Housing Administration offered mortgage insurance only to places that fit the standards of suburbia. Redlining, where whole areas were denied government-backed mortgage insurance, is often associated with race, but it was also singling out urban areas, based on ideas regarding urban planning that are opposed to best practices today (mixed use was wrong, street grids were wrong, cul-de-sacs were great, etc...).

Advantageous fiscal advantages were put in place for homeowners to make paying back a mortgage cheaper than renting.

Not only that, but State governments would destroy entire neighborhoods to run highways through cities to allow suburbans quick automobile access to entire cities, without which the suburbs would have been unable to sprawl farther as distances (in minutes) would be growing too great to support the sprawl. These highways would be free of charge to use, subsidizing suburbs that depend on them by using tax money from other areas. Transit would choke faced with this subsidized competition.

Canada has a bad tendency of doing whatever big brother America does, so much of these policies were imported North.

Of course, in a time of great population growth (the babyboom and mass immigration), when you destroy urban housing for "urban renewal", ban new urban housing from being built and subsidize sprawl, it is no surprise that sprawl is what gets built and where most people start living in. Whether or not there really was consumer preference for this type of housing, we will never know because of the imposition of that model and its subsidization. Price is part of consumer preference, an essential part of it, by subsidizing a certain lifestyle and increasing costs of other lifestyles, you change what consumers will opt for.

Second similarity: Soviet suburbs and North American sprawl are built based on the same anti-urban modernist ideas

If you only look at buildings, there seems to be no similarity between North American suburbia and Soviet suburbs.
Typical Soviet suburban apartment bloc
Typical older single-family home of US suburbs
However, even if the Soviet example is very dense, very tall and is multi-family housing, that alone doesn't make it an urban form of development. In fact, the Soviet example is an accomplished case of "tower in the park", Soviet suburbs are often full of greenery with blocs facing trees rather than each other. Just like the detached single-family homes of North America are separated by distance and often use trees to isolate themselves from other buildings and the street.

Both the single-family home of North American suburbs and the apartment blocs of Soviet suburbs are designed to be isolated, to provide a feeling of being close to nature, not to a city. In order to achieve that effect, they use green buffer spaces next to the building on its lot so that other buildings are reasonably far away. In fact, both house and apartment building share the same basic design of a building in the middle of a lot, kept at distance from other buildings:
Basic design of a typical US SFD home
Basic design of a Soviet apartment building
In fact, take a typical villa-type SFD, stretch the lot to make it bigger then build one big building that is essentially homes built side-by-side and one over the other, and you have the Soviet apartment building. In both cases, some kind of isolation is the result, as the units over the ground floor are effectively isolated from any activity on the street. As opposed to single-family homes built with only small setbacks and low-rise apartments with balconies built next to the street, which are less isolated from the street.

Green buffers are used to destroy the urban fabric, meaning the appearance of a dominance of built areas in cities, of buildings forming a coherent whole, enclosing the street and public areas (bringing buildings in contact with the street). By creating these gaps between buildings and filling them with greenery, the goal is to make "natural" landscape dominant, as if one was walking in a park or a forest, not in a city.

Note that this use of green buffers isn't an efficient use of space, not at all. In the case of SFD homes, it represents a huge waste of space that reduces density to a minimum and forces all trips to be motorized. Only mass motorization and the subsidization of high-speed roadways can allow such waste of useful land to go on. And indeed, US suburbs MANDATE that waste. Residents and pro-sprawl planners react with holy terror when the rules that impose green buffers (mandatory setbacks, minimum lot sizes, etc...) are questioned, because they know that without them, many lot owners would seek to make the green buffers productive by building on it, and it would raise the value of land, making the big estates they like more expensive.

In the case of the USSR, I think it goes without saying that this waste of land was also mandated by the government. However, as the USSR was much poorer and planners knew that they would need to rely on walking and transit to move around their population (another nail in the coffin of the canard that cars are cheaper than transit), they still insisted on density, resulting in very tall buildings full of small housing units. That way, they could match the older, dense neighborhoods while maintaining the green buffers. But while they managed to salvage spatial efficiency by doing so, they sacrificed housing affordability as tall buildings are more expensive to build, even the cheap, mass-produced stuff they built. To compensate, they made the housing really, really cramped. If your housing costs twice more per square foot to build, just build units twice as small, right?

It seems to me that everywhere green buffers are abundant, it has been mandated by government in some way. Huge setbacks and distances between buildings is simply not an economically efficient use of space, it is wasteful, so the only way to make sure it remains frequent is to require it.

What does a city that doesn't mandate green buffers and allows individuals to do what they want with their property looks like? Look to Asia for the answer (but not China, which is also planned like the USSR, even if it's less "tower in the park"-y in some places). People are probably getting tired of me bringing up Japan, so here are:
South Korea...
...and Taiwan
You can also look at old European villages, which have a lot of similarity with Asia. In any case, these loosely regulated cities are completely different from both North American suburb and Soviet suburbs. They have strong urban fabric and could even be called buffer-less cities. Motivated by economic reasoning, they have created dense cities where buildings are built very close to one another, which only rise to the skies when the demand for it is actually there.


So I hope that I have made a convincing argument that North American and Soviet suburbs actually both originate from modernism that rejected traditional cities and wished to tear apart the urban fabric, using green buffers to isolate buildings and people, and try to create the impression of living in a park or a forest rather than in a city. In both cases, the government used different tools to impose the vision of their elites on their population, often until the population just figured this was how things are and always will be. So they are two flavors of the same idea, not two diametrically opposed ideas, and the differences there are were largely dictated by transport needs and wealth level.

I'm not saying that such suburbs are terrible and should be banned. Some people do crave the isolation they bring about. I do not resent their choices. However, I don't think that these preferences should be imposed on people nor subsidized by having everyone pay for the transport infrastructure this kind of development requires to be viable. The idea that North American suburbs emerged organically and represent consumer preferences perfectly also needs to be confronted. It is incorrect, it is a myth, and the fear of development deregulation by promoters of sprawl shows that even they acknowledge that without these regulations imposing sprawl and the subsidies distorting price signals, a lot of people would opt out of sprawl.


  1. Very intriguing original post and rebuttal. I think John Sanphillippo's comment over there, titled "top down housing policy" summarizes your argument nicely. Both approaches are outgrowths of Garden City utopianism; the US and the USSR merely used different tools to achieve slightly different configurations.

    The USSR put everyone in leafy tower blocks, but gave them all allotment gardens, rural dachas, and cheap trains to the countryside. The US put nearly everyone in SFDH (but shunted some into tower blocks) but gave them easy highway access to the CBDs.

    Both are Garden City utopianism. jane Jacob's description of the Garden City applies equally to most postwar American SFDH suburbs and most postwar Soviet tower block suburbs: "[Ebeneezer Howard's] aim was the creation of small towns; very nice towns if you were docile, had no plans of your own, and didn't mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. [Howard] conceived of planning as a series of static acts; in each case the plan must anticipate all that is needed and be protected against any subsequent changes. He conceived of planning as essentially paternalistic, if not authoritarian. (17-19).”

    You were expected to be a docile worker bee in a Soviet suburb, and you were expected to be a docile "consumer" in an American suburb - John Sanphillippo describes just how restricted your opportunities are in the average suburb.

    I noticed a phenomenon in college that could be called "imprinting" - some students would begin parroting their professor's opinionns/arguments in an understandable attempt to do well in the course. I think a certain student has begun imprinting on a prominent professor of urban studies at Chapman University, because this is not the first time the "contemporary urbanists = communists" argument has been trotted out from that place.

  2. Forgot to add that while the Eastern Bloc didn't build as many highways as the US (per capita), the few they DID built were just as overblown and overengineered, especially their urban arterials and roundabouts, particularly those built in cities damaged in WWII.

    The Eastern Bloc fully anticipated and tried to accommodate a future in which all the tower block drones would eventually have cars to go everywhere. But as their centrally-planned economies stagnated, this dream was postponed and the buses/trams/trains remained in service along their eerily empty, oversized streets and roads.

    1. Are you sure those big wide roads weren't built primarily to impress foreign visitors, like the maglev line in China today? IIRC a motorway was built from the USSR's western border to Moscow for the 1980 Olympics.

    2. I don't know... it doesn't explain why closed cities (not open to foreigners, or even to most nationals) also had wide avenues.

      I've always thought that the big, wide avenues of cities in the Communist Bloc countries may have had to do with the desire to provide ways to quickly move tanks and motorized divisions into cities, either to fight off invasions or to quell unrest. After all, most of the cities were at least partly destroyed in WWII, and the lessons of WWII and the Cold War could have influenced urban planning when rebuilding these cities.

      But it could also have been more innocent purposes like simple Beautiful City imitation, or modernist urban planning influences, or the problem of what to do with snow in winter (you can just shove it on the side of the road if you have wide avenues, with narrow streets, you have to transport it elsewhere to clear the street).

  3. ...And today those tower block districts are filling up with cars quickly, because they are by nature suburban, and not urban! No one would walk/bike/transit in such a place unless they had no other choice, as was the case ~25 years ago.

    1. Thank you for your comment... or is that comments? Anyway, thanks.

      Indeed, some of the roads the Soviets built were massive, we're talking of 8 to 10 lanes in Moscow for example, but if the intent was to transition to car travel, it's a complete planning failure. Say what you want about North American planning practices, but they do work in a way by limiting density to preserve road capacity. It results in sprawl and is terrible... but it also enables car-oriented areas to be livable and avoids stressing road capacity too much.

      Soviet cities seem to have way too high density and too much use separation to deal with the traffic that would result a shift to cars. Even Moscow, with its huge avenues, is victim of monstrous traffic jams... and the vast majority of people still use transit! It's a problem of density and of bad population and job distribution, Moscow's jobs and shops are heavily concentrated downtown, where almost no one resides, creating massive unidirectional demand at peak hours.

      Still, your point does establish another similarity: the street grid. North American suburbs are defined by dendritic road networks, where you have wide, high-speed arterials with local street branching off from them, often in cul-de-sac. Soviet suburbs are pretty similar, with a few wide arterials, but with short dead-end local streets or footpaths to provide access to other areas.

    2. Being from the USSR originall, I have to disagree somewhat about Soviet urban planning and cars. Cars were definitely not widespread nor were they expected to be: there just wasn't the room for that. For one thing, there just isn't that much room for parking, because most of the green space between buildings really is meant to be park and not parking, and street parking was very rare. I think it was expected that you'd obtain a garage and park your car there, but that garage would be some distance away in an industrial area (separation of uses!).
      The road network was also not nearly big enough to accommodate everyone having cars. While there were definitely a few roads that were ridiculously huge, most local streets were, and still are, two lanes, and many buildings are not even on actual "streets" and only accessible by, effectively, "driveways", which are one lane and meant strictly for local access only. You can see this on the second map image, where there are a bunch of buildings in the middle of the block.
      The resulting street network has some similarities to the dendritic networks in North American suburbs, but mostly because they're both hierarchical. But in Soviet street networks, every level of the hierarchy was smaller and lower capacity than its counterpart in the US, from the access driveways that replaced local streets to the almost complete lack of limited access highways.

  4. I've brought this up elsewhere, though not on this blog, but that part of (and I believe one of the primary factors behind) the push for suburban decentralization was fear of atomic/nuclear attack from the USSR. It became, as you said, policy for the US gov't to accelerate population "dispersal".

    Cf. this paper: - lots of primary source accounts from the era about the increasing paranoia about the USSR

    1. Amusingly enough, I've heard the same theory behind Soviet dachas (allotments), as a place where the population can evacuate to in case of imminent nuclear attack.

  5. Agreed with Marc – this is a fascinating subject. A few other thoughts. In the USSR, the state heavily subsidized (dense) housing while restricting/managing car production, while in the US, zoning inflated the cost of housing (homeownership subsidies, in conjunction with zoning, often conspired to drive up prices even further), while car production was unrestricted and its storage and movement subsidized. Thus we have contrasting models of “housing cheap/cars expensive” and “housing expensive/cars cheap,” both representing political choices rather than market forces. Even with its economic limitations, the USSR presumably *could* have left people to live year-round in suburban dacha shanties with poor infrastructure while heavily subsidizing roads, cars and/or gasoline, but for whatever reason it chose not to.

    The ideology for what constituted a proper setting for residential living, however, had some major similarities as you point out. There does appear to have been a transitional period, however. In the late Stalinist era, there is still an attempt to define streets in an urban way, and the architectural style (Socialist Classicism) is intended for public display. Things increasingly fragment and disperse after that point.

    I’d like to know more about the dacha system also -- maybe arcady can weigh in. Typologically, they look very similar to American single-family detached neighborhoods, but the literature says they are mainly summer retreats, not year-round dwellings (at least, not until recently). Having an apartment in the city and a summer cottage in the country is a mark of wealth in the US, but I’ve read that this was widespread in the later USSR – apparently many more people had a dacha house than owned private cars (apparently 1/3 of urban families had dachas in 1980s, but there was only one privately-owned passenger car per 45 people). How did so many people in such a relatively poor country maintain second homes, and why were they not broadly used as year-round residences?

    1. On the topic of the USSR's thinking about urban planning: the problem that they saw was a critical shortage of urban housing as the country very rapidly urbanized and industrialized. The alternative was not dacha shanties but overcrowded communal apartments (i.e. multiple families sharing kitchen/bathroom, one family per room), often in old and not very safe houses. Given that the problem is a housing shortage, and the tools at your disposal consist of central planning and state-owned industry, the logical solution was a massive program of housing construction, using techniques like off-site prefabrication to speed up construction. In the US, the suburban construction project was about "better", in the USSR, it was mostly about "more", just trying to keep up with urban population growth, while trying to keep it at least somewhat limited with the propiska system.

      As for dachas, keep in mind that in the USSR, there was no equivalent of, say, Home Depot, and dacha houses were built with scavenged materials or surplus and thus not generally to very high standards. This has two implications: one is that living there in the winter would be very, very cold. Putting everyone into apartment buildings in cities made it much easier to supply heat centrally and make sure the system works. The other is that dachas were generally built very incrementally: first you had to clear the land, then you built a small shed, and lived in that while you worked on building a proper house. And you could put some plants there too, and have fresh fruit and vegetables in the summer. It was one way to build some measure of wealth under the Soviet system. Cars, meanwhile, require a single big payment up front, and then start depreciating quickly after that, plus you're dependent on the central planning authorities having planned to make enough cars in a given year.

  6. You can also cite examples of much less restricted development patterns in Central and South America too. They're maybe not as tidy as some of the Asian or certainly Medieval European examples, but they fit the pattern. Mexico City, Guadalajara, Bogota, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires all have huge areas of small-lot single-family housing districts that are distinctly urban, and they're well-covered by Google Street View.

  7. Very insightful blog post, thank you!

    I live in Juiz de Fora, a city of around 500,000 people in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Despite being only a medium-sized city, it is very dense, with many high-rise apartment blocks (15 to 20 stories is pretty common). A large share of people live within a 15-minute walk from the city center, which is full of shops. (There is only one American-style shopping center, halfway out of the town.) It isn't a very green city - not many areas of trees.

    I believe the city is so dense because of a lack of density zoning restrictions - here it's pretty easy to buy up a few houses, knock them down and put up a high-rise building in their place. I imagine it's a lot harder to do that in a place like London - and because the government hasn't subsidized motorists by building freeways everywhere. There are only a few major avenues crossing the city,

    So thanks to the relative lack of government intervention, it's a very walkable city. It's kind of a pretty there aren't much trees around. However, within 5 minutes of my apartment building, there are many supermarkets, bars, restaurants, pharmacies, hairdressers, banks, etc. I really like it! It's kind of a modern equivalent of dense medieval European cities, I feel.