Welcome to Urbanistan

© Fuad Ismayilov

Welcome to Urbanistan.

So what’s the deal with post-socialist cities?

There is much (interesting) debate over whether it makes sense at all to group ‘post-socialist cities’ together as a category. The Soviet authorities undoubtedly left their mark on these urban spaces. The legacy of ‘Soviet gigantism’ illustrates how ‘wider conditions of political authority and power are often revealed in mediated form in the skylines of individual cities‘. However as others have pointed out, 70 years may amount to only  a short interruption in the long, slow process of urban development. That  process also takes its cues also from, for example, the extensive architectural legacy of the Russian imperial mission in the Caucasus, or the sacred Buryat topology of the Russian city of Ulan-Ude. Unity in diversity.

Side-stepping that debate for now, the drive behind the Urbanistan platform is to tell the stories of those cities once under the control of the Soviet Union, and dealing with the architectural, social and planning legacy that has left – asking questions about where they share commonalities and where they may diverge.

Perhaps the main reason ‘post-socialist’ cities (sometimes intriguingly called ‘cities after transition‘) escape global attention is that scholars, journalists and others simply don’t know which box to put them in. They do not belong to the cities of the so-called ‘Global North’ that have historically dominated urban theory. But neither is the ‘subaltern agency’ emerging from the informal, sprawling cities of the so-called Global South a useful lens to see them through. Post-socialist cities – whether they form a coherent grouping or not –  often fall between the gaps.

Common narratives, diverging narratives…

But what is it like to live in a post-socialist city today? Familiar scenes of Soviet-era metro infrastructure, weird and wonderful bus stops, vast seas of ‘kruschevki’ mass housing projects, and brutalist-porn modernist relics to make young architects drool, knit the narratives of these cities together and provide recognisable visual cues to those travelling between them.

But since the 1990s, rapid transformations have broken away from Soviet uniformity, with radically different results for the urban fabric. New generations have provided new flavours to the city – the crowdsourced Hoodmaps project now lets you identify where hipsters hang out in Almaty, where tourists dominate in Kiev, or how the ‘rich’ cluster around Tbilisi’s Vake district. Developers too have left their mark, unashamedly, on the urban face of these cities.

Living in post-socialist cities

It always pays to take with a pinch of salt any composite global indices measuring the ‘quality’ of cities. However the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 ‘liveability’ rankings included 7 post-socialist cities among the 140 they compared on a number of criteria, with the highest coming in at 77th (St Petersburg) and the lowest Tashkent (116th).

  1. St Petersburg (77th)
  2. Moscow (81st)
  3. Sofia (87th)
  4. Belgrade (97th)
  5. Almaty (100th)
  6. Baku (103rd)
  7. Tashkent (116th)

As you can see from the graph below, taken from the EIU rankings, the cities performed surprisingly well on healthcare, but suffered in the rankings on infrastructure scores. The backbone of infrastructure build by the Soviets  may once have been a source of pride, but its crumbling legacy across successor states has meant they lag behind other global cities. Even EU member Bulgaria and potential future member Serbia fare little better.

liveable post socialist cities

I have plenty of future posts planned for the next few months. I hope you’ll join me, and let me know what you think, as myself and guest posters share our ideas on what makes these cities tick, why we love them… why we hate them… and where their future lies.

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