Experiments in socialist urbanism: From Red Vienna to Red Bologna

The socialists probably didn't do all of this: Bologna. Image: Charlie Clemoes and Jake Soule.

The wide open public squares in the Italian city of Bologna convey a long history of public participation. Linked by a complex web of narrow, portico-lined streets, their smooth marble paving stones mark centuries of civic activity.

Vienna, Austria’s capital, has a very different feel. It’s a city with obvious imperial pretensions, drawing immediate comparisons with Paris in its wide boulevards and extravagant baroque palaces – a far cry from Bologna’s condensed and intricate lay-out.


The visual contrast between these two cities conceals a vital shared history of socialist municipal control. The Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ) rose to power in Vienna’s first free elections in 1919, controlling Viennese urban policy until the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. In Bologna the Italian Communist Party (PCI) held the mayoralty of the city from 1945 until the dissolution of the party in 1993. The legacies of both periods of radical municipal government have earned these cities the nickname “red”.

The approaches of both the SPÖ and the PCI constituted a challenge to the narrow and short-term focus of the free market. In Vienna a more equitable city was fostered through the building of grand, integrated social housing complexes; while in Bologna a dwindling public realm was revived through democratisation of urban policy. At a time when cities worldwide are beholden to market forces – with the associated decline in democratic accountability, and grossly widening disparities between the richest and poorest – there is much to learn from these histories.

"Rotes Wien"

Winarsky-Hof.

Only recently industrialised, Vienna after the First World War was a city of extreme inequality. In the late 19th century, Czech peasants from neighbouring Bohemia came to the city in their thousands in pursuit of work in the era’s massive reconstruction projects. By the time of the Social Democrat’s election victory in 1919, a handful of landlords had grown rich off the back of housing these new arrivals in the city’s expanding slums.

The first priority of the newly-elected mayor, Jakob Reumann, was to break these landlords’ grip over rents by providing housing directly, through a system of progressive taxation. But the housing complexes built under the SPÖ were more than just homes: they were social worlds, replete with kindergartens, shops, health care, libraries, laundries, lecture halls, theatres and parks. These provisions represented an ambitious attempt to empower the citizenry by offering them both material security and opportunities for self improvement.

Jutta Schwarz, who grew up in a social house in the outskirts of Vienna in the 1950s, was herself the granddaughter of Czech migrants. When her grandparents first arrived, she says, they lived in a cramped apartment shared between five people, without electricity. They faced such poverty that her grandparents had to rent out their bed during the day for a night-worker to sleep in. Herwegh-Hof, the housing complex on the so-called Proletarian Ringroad which her grandparents moved into in the 1920s, transformed her family’s existence for generations.

Herwegh-Hof. 

She recalls her grandmother’s regular reminders of how much their material situation had improved. “Every month my grandmother used to say, like a kind of mantra, ‘What an enormous amount of freedom we have gained’.” It says something of how quickly things changed that Jutta admitted finding it harder to appreciate these gains.

By this time, Vienna’s revolutionary moment of working class empowerment through material security had passed, with the post-war period bringing new problems of community participation and democratic accountability across Europe. In another context, Red Bologna emerged as a response to these changing conditions.

“Bologna la Rossa”

In 1968 Bologna’s Communist government took executive action to protect the city’s central square, the Piazza Maggiore, after it had gradually begun to be used as an informal car park.

Piazza Maggiore in 1968.

This decision encapsulates how socialism’s role had shifted in the fifty years since Vienna’s “Red” moment. Postwar redevelopment of industrialised cities advanced the interests of individual consumption at the increasing expense of public space. Progressives now shifted their concerns towards a creeping social alienation, epitomised in the atomising effects of the automobile.

The revival of a once bustling city square, through the introduction of fare-free buses in the city’s centre, is only one of countless interventions that put public involvement in political decision making at the centre of the PCI’s postwar project in Bologna.

Reflecting a conscious shift in the PCI away from the centralised model of its Soviet counterpart, and indeed that of Red Vienna, the process of “decentramento” in Bologna involved extending power to neighbourhood councils. These councils had the power to make demands of the legislature in such areas as education, health care, traffic policy, culture and the built environment (with particular concern for conservation of the city's ancient architectural heritage).

Piazza Maggiore today.

Stefano Bonaga, a political philosophy professor at the University of Bologna, summed up the spirit of the time with a play on the famous slogan of the American Revolution: “In Bologna, our demand was no representation without participation.” Prominently involved in Bolognese politics since his youth, Stefano reflected that the main aim of Red Bologna was empowerment: “It’s the responsibility of politics to give political dignity to the citizens.”

This sentiment neatly sums up the thread that runs through both periods. Socialist municipal control was called upon at different times to alleviate different problems. Yet both calls constituted a demand for collective empowerment against the dehumanising effects of a city life driven solely by the free market. It’s a demand which resonates to this day.

Charlie Clemoes has an in urban studies from UCL and is on the editorial staff of Failed Architecture.

Jake Soule is studying for a PhD at Duke University

All images courtesy of the authors.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.