L. B. W. Drummond u.a. (Hrsg.): Socialist and Post-Socialist Urbanisms

Socialist and Post-Socialist Urbanisms. Critical Reflections from a Global Perspective

Young, Douglas; Drummond, Lisa B. Welch
336 S.
€ 82,10
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Oana-Ramona Ilovan, Department of Regional Geography and Territorial Planning, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca

This collective volume was developed through recent enquiries into socialist and post-socialist urbanisms, an under-researched topic in urban studies. The research focus is approached from a present-day perspective, with the 14 chapters providing insights into the entanglements of contemporary socialist and post-socialist cities with globalization processes. Therefore, the local and global scales intersect at a case study level, underlining a variety of local responses to change in socialist and post-socialist countries from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Considering the geographical perspective, the explored cities are from Vietnam (with three chapters, each on one city – Vinh, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City), China (with the model of the “new socialist city”), Cambodia (Phnom Penh), Tajikistan (Khujand), Russia (Leningrad – present-day St Petersburg), Romania (Bucharest), Germany (Berlin), Sweden (Vällingby, close to Stockholm), Czechia (Jižní Město – the “South City” of Prague), Albania (Tirana), Ethiopia (Addis Ababa), and Nicaragua (Managua). To sum up, six case studies are from Asia, six from Europe, one from Africa, and one from Latin America.

The editors, Lisa B. W. Drummond and Douglas Young, begin this volume with an informative introduction on the theoretical background of the book and on the authors’ contributions to the collective edited material. In this part, the editors define socialism and post-socialism – separating them according to chronological criterion as well as a series of features. For instance, drawing on the ideas of Thomas Borén and Michael Gentile, the editors define post-socialism as post-socialist transformation, which consists of “the economic, political, institutional and ideological changes associated with the discarding of ‘communism’ or ‘state socialism’ and the embracing of ‘capitalism’”.[1] These features are salient at least for the case studies in Europe, as the definition initially referred to Central and Eastern Europe, but it is also an appropriate working definition for many of the other case studies discussed in this book. In addition, socialist urbanisms are contrasted with capitalist urbanisms. Thus, socialist urbanism is characterized by “a commitment to the modernist idea of universal progress, a desire to create a socially egalitarian society, and a heightened degree of state intervention in the processes of city-building and urban governance”.[2]

The aim of this book is to employ relevant case studies to explore and assess current debates about socialist urban projects whose traces are still visible in contemporary socialist and post-socialist cities. The book is divided into three parts, corresponding to three broad themes on key issues of socialist and post-socialist urbanisms: (1) housing experiences and life trajectories (four chapters); (2) planning and architecture – designing socialist and post-socialist urbanisms (five chapters); and (3) governance and social order (five chapters).

The authors’ professional backgrounds are diverse. However, the majority of them are specialized in human geography – mainly urban geography – followed by those with a background in architecture, sociology, anthropology, social studies in general, or cultural studies. This background is transparent in the used research methodology. The methods used for collecting data were interviews, extensive fieldwork, and archival work. The research material include interview responses, historical documents (e.g. newspaper articles, official maps, or photographs), and mental maps produced by respondents. Qualitative research material and qualitative methods for processing the collected data (i.e. discourse analysis or visual methodology) were mainly used. All chapters include illustrative material in the form of photographs and maps – representations of socialist and post-socialist features or of people’s understanding of space (i.e. mental maps).

For each of the three parts, I chose a chapter to present briefly and show the key ideas promoted through research in the respective section. These are (a) the case of Vällingby (the satellite town of Stockholm), in the chapter by Bo Larsson; (b) the case of Phnom Penh, in the chapter by Gabriel Fauveaud; and (c) the mapping of Khujand, in the last chapter of this volume, authored by Wladimir Sgibnev.
For the work-life-centre (Arbete-Bostad-Centrum, ABC) town of Vällingby, based on ideas coming from Swedish social democracy during the 1950s, Larsson [3] presents the production of space and of a socialist lifestyle due to a certain type of planning and housing offer. Larson’s chapter is representative of the entire first part of the book as it shows, through a qualitative research design, how socialist space was constructed and then experienced, perceived, and lived in during socialism and decades later. Likewise, the other three case studies of the first part explore the meaning of an individual’s social status, gender, and age in relation to access to housing under socialist and post-socialist circumstances. Various inequalities are brought to light, with the affected persons reflecting on how the ideology-driven planning and housing policies changed or, in some cases, even disrupted their lives.

In the chapter on the central area of Phnom Penh, Fauveaud [4] argues that the city is a palimpsest where space is produced by adding new layers of objects, symbols, and meanings while, in the researched case, physically remaining mostly the same. Thus, urban space is not a binary reflection of ideologies (i.e. socialist and post-socialist) but a product of multiple temporalities as the central area of Phnom Penh testifies to. All five chapters in the second part of the book focus on the “works of art” that both socialist and post-socialist urbanisms proposed through planning and architecture. The socialist city is produced, then partially recycled, and regenerated – a process found in the central areas of Phnom Penh, Addis Ababa, Bucharest, Berlin, and even the South City of Prague. Many factors and forces produced and shaped urban space during socialism and post-socialism, and the political factor, besides the free-market forces of the latter period, is still strong in deciding what is changed and how, as well as what socialist heritage is and which places and buildings should be treated as such. The present historical and geographical context of the selected case studies influence particular approaches to the urban area. Its past and present planning and architectural interventions are supported, contested, or ignored by the civil society.

In the chapter on Khujand, Tajikistan, Sgibnev [5] shows how important spatial representations are and how these are transmitted from one generation to the next, influencing the way people relate to their living environment and to the larger urban area. The chapters in the third part of the book explore issues of governance and social order in China, Albania, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Tajikistan – the red thread of all these being the rather tormented evolution of the urban area, where political, economic, social, and environmental discourses and practices shaped the physical and immaterial production of urban space during and after socialism.

The conclusion of the book presents the four dimensions of space that the editors consider can answer the key question: “What is socialist about any given urban space?”[6] These dimensions are 1. The materiality of the urban space itself; 2. Space as a shaper of a way of life; 3. The governance of space and its use, and 4. The production of space.[7] Thus by referring to the chapters of this book, the editors show how urban space was planned, designed, produced, perceived, lived, managed, and represented in a socialist way. They conclude that socialist urbanisms endure both in material and immaterial forms. This is the reason why research on the topic should be increasingly paid attention to. Another reason is that “individuals can embody socialist-era ideas and values for decades and those values can be redeveloped in the interest of post-socialist regimes and meaning associated with socialist space can be reassigned and/or reinvented”.[8]

This book contributes original research on socialist and post-socialist urbanisms, which is necessary for anyone who strives to understand how past decisions still and very much influence present production of space and of spatial imaginations, within either a socialist or post-socialist context. This collection of studies underlines what socialist and post-socialist geographies have in common, starting from their ideology-based decisions and practices. However, these case studies also underline the decisive impact that particular geohistorical contexts have on the production of space and spatial representations, although the ideological framework is the same.

Progressing through the book, one may realize that its strengths lie in the variety of case studies, many outside mainstream research on socialism and post-socialism urbanisms, and in the fine-grained and informed discussions that the authors offer both to specialized and regular readers. In addition, the chapters abound in relevant data, which lead to a balanced assessment of the explored historical, geographical, and social processes that influenced or were impacted by socialist and post-socialist urbanisms. Moreover, some of the recurrent ideas coming out of the different chapters are the complexities of socialist “construction” and the ongoing metamorphosis of the urban environment and lifestyles under economic and cultural globalization.

[1] Thomas Borén and Michael Gentile, 2007, p. 95, cited in Lisa B. Welch Drummond and Douglas Young, Introduction: Socialist and Post-Socialist Urbanisms, in: Lisa B. Welch Drummond and Douglas Young (eds.), Socialist and Post-socialist Urbanisms. Critical Reflections from a Global Perspective, Toronto 2020, p. 11.
[2] Drummond and Young, Introduction, p. 4.
[3] Bo Larsson, From ABC to Post-Industrial Suburb: Living in a Vision, in: Lisa B. Welch Drummond and Douglas Young (eds.), Socialist and Post-socialist Urbanisms. Critical Reflections from a Global Perspective, Toronto 2020.
[4] Gabriel Fauveaud, Phnom Penh During and after Socialism: Permanence and Reshaping of the Urban Centrality, in: Lisa B. Welch Drummond and Douglas Young (eds.), Socialist and Post-socialist Urbanisms. Critical Reflections from a Global Perspective, Toronto 2020.
[5] Wladimir Sgibnev, Mapping Khujand: The Governance of Spatial Representation in Post-Socialist Tajikistan, in: Lisa B. Welch Drummond and Douglas Young (eds.), Socialist and Post-socialist Urbanisms. Critical Reflections from a Global Perspective, Toronto 2020.
[6] Douglas Young and Lisa B. Welch Drummond, Conclusion, in: Lisa B. Welch Drummond and Douglas Young (eds.), Socialist and Post-socialist Urbanisms. Critical Reflections from a Global Perspective, Toronto 2020, p. 301.
[7] Young and Drummond, Conclusion, p. 301.
[8] Young and Drummond, Conclusion, p. 308.

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