What can we learn from how the Soviet bloc tackled its housing crisis?

The 16th Microdistrict of Zelenograd, Russia. Image: Baykonur/Flickr/creative commons.

Editor's note: This article draws heavily on the work of the architecture writer Owen Hatherley, particularly his book Landscapes of Communism and this article in the Architectural Review. We are happy to make this clear.

Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis – but we are not the first country to face a desperate shortage of housing. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union and its satellite states faced a crisis on a much larger scale. The urban destruction caused by the war, and the relocation of vast numbers of people to the cities due to rapid industrialisation, had led to overcrowding and housing conditions similar to those experienced in Victorian England.

In the second half of the 1950s, the Communist party set about solving the problem by producing vast quantities of housing, mostly made of prefabricated parts that could be easily mass produced. The huge program of post-war housing construction is both one of the Soviet bloc’s greatest successes and most iconic failures.

These new housing estates were called “microrayons” (literally micro-regions), and many had a population equivalent to entire cities in the West. Through these microrayons, governments in the Communist countries succeeded in providing nearly-free housing for all workers. Rents were set at 5 per cent of income (in the UK today we spend 52 per cent of our income on rent, and 72 per cent in London). Citizens were provided with brand new dwellings with central heating, hot water and electricity, which was unusual for the USSR at that time.

Some microrayons sum up everything that was lifeless, grey and oppressive about life under Communism: identical flats, on identical floors, in identical blocks, arranged around identical quads that stretched as far as the eye could see, crushed any sense of individualism. These new housing districts lacked identity, history, pride and place; everything that makes a collection of housing units located near each other into a community.

Despite being mass produced by a centrally-planned economy, there were substantial differences between microrayons. The Thousandth Anniversary Estate in Katowice, Poland, has visually distinct blocks, grass and wooded areas. Its most iconic building is the Corns, so named because its cylindrical structure resembles cobs of corn.

This microrayon is beautiful by contemporary standards of urban planning – partly because its green areas have grown up as the community grew, but also because EU funding has been used to restore the estate. Another example is Seskine in Vilnius, Lithuania, where variations in the prefabricated modernist architecture and locating the blocks around a central shopping square breaks up the uniformity of the microrayon.

But for every microrayon that expressed some individuality, there were others that were the epitome of how Communism was indifferent to the individual. These were designed from the top down and looked magnificent from above – but on the ground they were impractical for living. Usachevka in Moscow was made from almost-identical three-to-five story square blocks. Built under Joseph Stalin, it is the epitome of a totalitarian housing development.

Lazdynai, Vilnius, Lithuania. Image: Umnik/Wikimedia Commons.

Lazdynai in Vilnius houses over thirty thousand people, but is entirely uniformly designed and consists of low cost concrete-panel blocks of flats, known as Khrushchyovkas as they were the building choice of Nikita Khrushchev’s regime.

Estates like Lazdynai, design in the International Style of modernist architecture, dominated the Warsaw Pact countries during the 1950s and 60s. Stalin largely suppressed modernist architecture, as he did not want workers’ housing to be oppressive, uniform dwellings. The International Style was uniquely suited to the mass production of prefabricated parts, and this was the best way for Khrushchev’s centrally-planned economy to produce enough housing to meet demand.

This quote from Czech writer Václav Havel sums up their approach:

“It would be to the greatest advantage of a centrally-directed system of production if only one type of prefabricated panel were constructed, from which one type of apartment building would be constructed … and together this would create a single type of housing development constructed according to one standardized urban development plan, with minor adjustments for landscape, given the regrettable irregularity of the earth’s surface.”

The housing crisis that we face in the UK is very different to that of the post-war Soviet bloc. The Communist governments of Eastern Europe had an abundance of land to build on, which made housing developments on the scale of the microrayons possible. These countries were able to provide cheap housing for millions of people using centralised planning and mass production, but some microrayons were uniform to the point of being oppressive. Our capitalist system’s strength is in using different combinations of mass-produced goods to express our individualism, which does not lend itself to the construction of microrayons.

The microrayons show what can be achieved if a government has the will to tackle a housing crisis. We can learn from the mistakes of an over-reliance on mass production and prefabrication to create estates that are varied, pleasanter and more likely to foster vibrant communities.

To read more on this topic, check out Owen Hatherley's book Landscapes of Communism, which you can buy online here

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.