In more ways than can be recounted here, the Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened attention on the spatiality and risks of urban density. The pandemic and corresponding physical distancing measures have brought urban parks and other forms of open space into the spotlight as sites of physical and mental respite, if not rejuvination. The unequal distribution and (in)accessibility of such spaces to those who need them most adds yet more evidential heft to the ledger of social inequity. Parks and greenspaces function as a kind of modern urban infrastructure, supporting both social, physical, and ecological processes. But unlike other, technogenic systems of urban modernity, such as heat, sewer systems, or 5G-internet, parks are unusual in their relatively stationary character, their relatively bounded extent, and their aesthetic and spatial prominence within cities. Also unlike other forms of infrastructure that are, famously, only noticed when they fail, urban greenspace is often both object and arena of conspicuous leisure.
Within the field of landscape architecture, long-established ambitions of designing urban parks and gardens to afford improved health, leisure, and culture have been joined, since the late twentieth century, by increased attention to the capacity of urban greenspace to do other work in the world. At postindustrial brownfield sites, for instance, vegetation is planted or left to grow on its own as a means of remediating both the substance and perception of industrial byproducts, while greenroofs and vegetated swales mitigate both stormwater runoff and urban “heat island” effects throughout residential and commercial areas. These practices have deep historical roots. Long before there was phytoremediation—or the use of living plants to clean up contaminated soil, water, and air—of postindustrial sites, urban authorities, public health specialists, and affiliated design professionals across the globe have pursued the “greening” of towns, including industrial centers.“Industrial enterprises were theorized by Soviet urbanists as “city-shaping elements,” and allotted substantial swathes of urban territory.”
In the case of the Soviet Union, the history of urban greenspace is typically told as a primarily political and aesthetic narrative of Central Parks of Culture and Leisure, overly-broad boulevards and monumental ensembles, and the eventual rise of landscapes of national commemeration (historic preservation, war memorials, and Victory Parks). In general, the Soviet Union prioritized industrial production over other urban land-uses. Industrial enterprises were theorized by Soviet urbanists as “city-shaping elements,” and allotted substantial swathes of urban territory. When, in the post-Stalinist mass housing campaign, Soviet cities were transformed by increasingly large concrete prefabricated apartment blocks, it could be said that factories doubly influenced the iconic spatiality and the materiality of Soviet urbanism.
This characteristic pattern of urban morphology, referred to in one representative US textbook as “grim totalitarian cities dominated by wide roads and high blocks, set far apart”1Tom Turner, Landscape Planning and Environmental Impact Design, 2nd ed., The Natural and Built Environment Series (London: UCL Press, 1998), 391. The entrenched association of socialist materiality with greyness and technogenic substances like concrete and iron has been unsettled by recent scholarship, for instance by anthropologist Krisztina Fehérváry. Environmental historians of the USSR such as Andy Bruno, Stephen Brain and Johanna Conterio have, meanwhile, unearthed multiple dimensions of Soviet environmental subjectivities and interest in the curative properties of nature. is typically interpreted as the combination of ideology with limited material resources, reflecting both the urgency of the housing shortage in the postwar Soviet Union and the disregard of Soviet authorities for human-scale comforts. (The drab uniformity of these mass-produced housing districts is perhaps most widely known from the humorous animated prologue to the 1975 romantic comedy The Irony of Fate, directed by Eldar Ryazanov.) Less attention has been paid to the health and hygiene concerns motivating such norms as the required 50 meters between buildings and streets—a sanitary buffer that contributed directly to the unpleasant winter pedestrian experience for which these cities are infamous.
In looking at the material and spatial evolution of Soviet cities as built environments subject to the theorization and iterative interventions of design-planning specialists, I ask how understanding the Soviet relationship to plants and greenery as infrastructure helps us understand the development of Soviet cities in form and meaning. The wideness of those roads, the set far-apartness of the blocks—these were landscape interventions. Abundant urban greenspace—or, at minimum, the space intended for greening—was an iconic feature of Soviet urbanism, proving resilient across political and aesthetic rifts that otherwise transformed Soviet built environments and professional cohorts. The greening and beautification (i.e., improvement, development) of these everyday sites within cities was, at least in principle, of core importance to Soviet notions of urban socialist modernity and quality of daily life.
Planting the “Garden-Factory”
Although vegetation and spatial interventions have been used for centuries to mitigate (industrial) hazards and improve urban environments, Soviet efforts were distinguished by their context of urban planning without private land ownership, and a self-conscious and highly politicized emphasis on visibly distinguishing Soviet urban modernity from capitalist “Western” equivalents.
The intensity of Soviet focus on industrialization was another factor increasing the importance of urban greening, contradictory as that might seem at first. In my research on how Soviet urbanists reacted to the opportunities and constraints of their professional and political tasks, I find that urban greening seemed to offer a way to mitigate the acute, ubiquitous industrial pollution that was otherwise beyond their control. (Note that these specialists in spatial or physical planning were distinct from the economic planners charged with setting industrial production targets.)
The notion of using greenery and open-space to combat urban health hazards has, of course, a long-established international lineage.2Examples of green factories and citiescapes include Tony Garnier’s 1917 Cité Industrielle, Le Corbusier’s L’Usine Verte proposal from 1945, and projects by Modernist landscape architects such as C. Th. Sørensen and Pietro Porcinai. The Soviet approach to industrial landscapes developed in part in reaction to these international projects even in periods when individuals’ circulation between socialist and capitalist spheres was limited. The industrialization of the USSR in the early 1930s occurred with significant participation by and awareness of US industrial specialists, including the architecture and engineering firm of Albert Kahn, best known as the architect of the Ford Motor Company. Following the 1932 consolidation of all architects and urbanists into the Union of Soviet Architects, formerly-welcomed US and German architecture-planning experts, including the Kahn firm, saw their status diminish. By 1936, most had left the USSR. What remained was a built legacy of factories and industrial settlements essential to fulfilling the Stalinist imperative of industrialization and modernization, yet tainted by its political-aesthetic associations to Western capitalism.
Soviet architects, such as Ivan Nikolaev, former Constructivist and subsequent leading figure in industrial architecture, sought to create a “Soviet face” for US-designed factories, including the Stalingrad and Cheliabinsk Tractor Factories and the Gor’kii Automobile Factory. Nikolaev and other Soviet specialists proposed to use trees, shrubs, flowers, and other forms of “greening” (ozelenenie) as both mechanism and marker of “building socialism” at industrial sites, as a means of transforming the lived world of socialism at the urban scale, and finally to mitigate the professional risks entailed by these factories’ transnational heritage.“The idea and practice of greening garnered multivalent support: for productivity, for workers’ mental and physical health, for environmental quality control, and for the sake of signalling Soviet commitment to the dignity of labor.”
The model sites at which this convergence of industrialism and environmentalism occurred were known as Zavod-sady or “Garden-Factories,” a hybrid term seemingly framed in direct parallel with the “Garden City” concept developed by Ebenezer Howard (in Russian, gorod-sad). At such sites, the idea and practice of greening garnered multivalent support: for productivity, for workers’ mental and physical health, for environmental quality control, and for the sake of signalling Soviet commitment to the dignity of labor. According to the norms and standards that guided Soviet urbanists, factory plantings were designed to carry out multiple functions at once: an allées of pear trees might be planted to act as a buffer zone of greenery to mitigate dust around and on the factory grounds, at the same time giving workers a place to recuperate during shift breaks, while the fruit of those trees would nourish the children in the factory créche. In contrast to Western projects, the Soviet “Garden-Factory” (zavod-sad) was distinguished by its relationship to the standardization and centralization of Soviet architecture and city-building, its naturalistic aesthetic and mass enrollment in installation and maintainance, and its evolution amidst Stalinist industrialization, political-ideological competition with the West, and widespread political violence.
Greening public health and greenwashing industrialization
Industrial greening was expected to function as a communal health and hygiene measure. While Russian health professionals focused on the sanitarium and other leisure environments, the intersection of health and greenery effected changes throughout the socialist built environment. The Soviet “Garden-Factory” model of industrial site design represents the bridge between these spheres. Lacking effective agency to constrain urban hazards more directly, for instance by compelling industries to install and operate mechanical filters, Soviet architect-planners turned to phyto-technology and other ecosystem services (to use the language of today’s brownfield remediation efforts). They promoted the spatial and vegetal measures available within their scope of expertise and authority.
Soviet norms and standards of urban development mandated that urban greenery and greenspace should be most plentiful in the towns and areas most affected by industrial hazards. At the site scale, Soviet urbanists planting most densely and designating the broadest greenbelts around those factories whose emissions were categorized as most hazardous. They placed trees—the “green friends” and Russian soul-double of patriotic propaganda—in harms’ way, seeking to protect cities’ human residents from those same harms.
Trees at factories were intended ideologically to communicate Stalinist “care for workers” and workers’ leisure, health and culture, and as such are textbook examples of greenwashing. Using Webb Keane’s concept of the bundling of material qualities, I argue that these industrial afforestation plans were also pragmatic interventions, intended to combat the biophysical hazards of Stalinist forced-pace industrialization to the extent available while simultaneously “beautifying” the overly sparse (i.e., Modernist) façades of US-built factories. This at a time when association with international bourgeois norms was in itself a health hazard for Soviet architects and urbanists.
The unexpected consequences of Soviet urban green design
Over the long term, greening and greenery evolved in a relation of mutual influence with the iconic building types of Soviet urbanism. The factories of Stalin’s interwar industrialization campaign, discussed above, were followed by postwar civic ensembles and other spaces of national reconstruction where tree-lined central city streets and “areas of general use” intended to provide the battered populace with cultured living environs. After Stalin’s death in 1953, as industrial production increasingly shifted from metallic to chemical modes, the focus of specialists in urban greening turned to redesigning residential blocks to increase airflow and distance residents from busy traffic arteries. These parameters shaped post-Stalinist Soviet embrace of neo-Modernist superblocks and mikroraion (microdistrict) housing districts, including the “oversized and undermaintained” areas of interstitial greenspace that symbolize socialist urbanism to this day. Despite its previous association with Stalinist ensembles and urban embellishment, greening was not declared an “excess” to be eliminated, but continued to influence the development of Soviet urbanist theory and praxis.
Urban greenspace was durably envisioned as an infrastructure of socialist modernity, comparable to the more typically anthropogenic infrastructures of transit, heating, pipelines, and communications. However, there were consequences of trees’ specifically biotic failure to thrive in the public realm that was so generously proportioned by hygiene- and sanitation-oriented planning norms. As the Khrushchev era (1953–1964) drew to a close, specialists and community activists pointed out that urban industrial conditions were contributing to the mass die-off of the trees planted with such rhetoric and official encouragement throughout the Soviet Union. This critique lead directly to a key inflection point in the history of a Soviet mass environmental movement.
To fully gauge the importance of urban greening to Soviet society and urbanism in the post-Stalin era, recall the morphology of the mikroraion. Greening these superblocks went far beyond the linear allés of street trees that dominated Stalinist boulevards. Soviet architect-planners’ postwar agenda for the “expanded apartment” included between-building spaces as an inalienable element of ideal socialist living conditions, a counterbalance to the minimal dimensions of the single-family or “separate” apartment that they hoped would replace the communal apartment. This new direction in Soviet urbanism meant that the scope of urban greening increased quantitatively as well as qualitatively in significance, as “green city, garden city” urbanism became a reference point in Cold War competition with the West to provide better, more modern living conditions.
At the height of the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, architect-planners envisioned a distinctively state-socialist form of society-nature relations in which cities were “immersed” and “dissolved” in vegetation. Thanks to the urban planning design norms and standards that mandated the extensive, naturalistic, and popularly-maintained afforestation of Soviet cities, the trees were also visible, popularly accessible instruments to register industrial pollution. Research on the costs to human health of industrial emissions was not published in the Soviet Union before its final years. The mass mortality of urban trees due to industrial emissions was, however, a public topic.
In a context where data on human mortality was tightly controlled, trees and their health offered an index of the Soviet social contract. Eventually, the moral, personal, and political connection to nature and “green friends” that the authorities had worked so hard to inculcate in the population became a platform for mass political mobilization and protest.3John J. Czaplicka, Blair A. Ruble, and Lauren Crabtree, Composing Urban History and the Constitution of Civic Identities (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2003), 4. The association of Siberian environmental activism with Soviet destabilization in the perestroika era is also discussed in David Gillespie, “A Paradise Lost? Siberia and Its Writers, 1960 to 1990,” in Between Heaven and Hell: The Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture, ed. Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993); Paul R. Josephson, An Environmental History of Russia, Studies in Environment and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). The mediating capacity of urban greening served to fuse populist, professional, and political aspirations, just as the best elements of city and nature were supposed to fuse under socialism.“Can these achievements be separated from the immense costs to urban environmental quality, not to mention to democratic civic rights and population health, of Soviet urbanism?”
After working so hard to bundle together urban plans, politics, and participation, there was so little that the authorities could do to unbundle their creation—even when the environmental movement of citizen tree defenders threatened the stability of the regime. The Soviet system of urban and landscape improvement approached urgent, widespread issues such as the remediation of former and active industrial sites or the amelioration of urban microclimates, using large-scale, low-cost measures of what would today be termed ecosystem services, and did so with mass popular engagement. Can these achievements be separated from the immense costs to urban environmental quality, not to mention to democratic civic rights and population health, of Soviet urbanism? In order to better understand current transnational challenges of urgent concern, researchers and practitioners of the built environment must take seriously the distinctive mix of pragmatics, professionalism, and politics that was Soviet urban greening.
Banner image: Moscow ‘Kalibr’ Instrumentation Factory and greened territory, 1941/ Ostankino District administration website.