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The Structure Of European Cities: East Versus West

Updated on October 24, 2013

Any large metropolitan city will contain a core of residential, industrial and service functions. The spatial location of these functions - the structure of the city - will be determined by the decisions both of those who perform and those who use these functions. These decisions will be based on two key mechanisms, the market and the plan, which will operate, in different proportions, in every city’s development. This hub will address to what extent the relative dominance of the plan in Eastern Europe and the market in Western Europe has affected the structure of urban areas in these two regions.

The West European City

Attempts to delineate the structure of the West European city usually involve applying and extending the classic zonal and sectoral patterns of Burgess and Hoyt to the particular European setting. Mann produced a model based on work in three northern English cities where the relative location of industry and middle-class housing was determined by the prevailing wind direction. Middle-class housing and commuting ‘villages’ are generally located such that industrial fumes do not blow over these properties: in Britain this means that they are to be found in the south and west of the city. Robson studied several British cities and concluded that both sectoral and concentric zonal patterns could be detected, with house age concentrically organised and socio-economic groups structured sectorally. If these concepts of cities having a concentric and/ or sectoral structure do in part survive being transplanted from the American models of Burgess and Hoyt, there are perhaps two important differences between the typical
American and West European city:

  1. the city core in European cities retains the function of a high status residential area to a greater degree than in American cities, particularly in cities with a rich history where prestige is gained from living in historic areas.
  2. the inner city areas of European cities are more mixed than in America with a
    combination of economic and residential functions and a more concentrated industrial
    zone between the inner city and the suburbs. Burgess’ gradation of CBD - zone in
    transition - lower class housing - middle class housing, a simplification in any city, is even less applicable where economic and industrial functions are thoroughly intermingled with housing.

Some typical East European housing estates.
Some typical East European housing estates.

The East European City

Socialist thinking on the city

The essential principle behind socialist ideas on the structure of cities was that the organisation of functions and land uses be tightly planned with the aim of maximising the quality of life of the urban population. Developments and indeed the whole layout of the city would be justified not on their profitability through rents and loan repayments, but in terms of whether people were provided with a fuller set of public services - housing, public transport, hospitals - and so enjoyed a higher standard of living. In addition to upgrading and equalising the provision of public services, socialist planners also sought to limit excess urban sprawl and reduce commuting. The extent of land given over to open space and amenities such as children’s playgrounds was also to be expanded. The effect of these policies was to make cities polynuclear with a network of self-contained and well-serviced urban centres. Each residential district would consist of a series of multi-storey blocks, in theory supposed to foster a sense of community, and with most basic services easily accessible.

The East European housing estate

An example of a typical housing estate from the socialist period in East Europe can be illustrated with a case from Warsaw, Poland. Earlier patterns of residential development are quite different with housing built before World War II forming continuous footages to the road. In contrast, new estates from the 1960s are taller, separated from each other by open space and play areas, and insulated from major roads by belts of trees and neighbourhood service roads. Much of this housing was depressingly uniform, with standardised buildings built of prefabricated materials and with an onus on quantity and not quality. By the 1970s, estates were built with a more varied layout and design, at a cost of having to accommodate a greater density of occupants. The building of these residential neighbourhoods was by far the most significant impact of the socialist period on the landscape of East European cities. Typically, housing densities do not decline from city centre to periphery, as assumed by Burgess, but will often increase with the transition from the older inner city to the ‘high rise’ periphery. Though the overall population density may appear to decline, this reflects the decreasing frequency of the new residential estates with distance from the centre. In marked contrast to Western cities, the East European city have no suburbs, only high rise tower blocks stretching out to the edge of the urban area.

The centre of Prague.
The centre of Prague.

New Centres

Another important dimension to the EastEuropean city was the development of a new
city centre. Where the old city had been destroyed in World War II - for example Berlin and Warsaw - it could be rebuilt on planned lines; alternatively an entirely new site would be used as the new focus of political and administrative control, as was the case in Katowice, Poland. These new or rebuilt city centres would include large squares and thoroughfares to cater for large processions and symbolic gatherings of loyal citizens. New monuments, museums and memorials remind citizens of significant revolutionary events. These cultural and political functions occupy the central sites which in the West would be taken by retail and commercial functions - shopping and other services are provided on the housing estates. Overseas visitors would usually only see these grand city centres and never the more drab residential districts. Such city centres were geared more to putting across the socialist version of history to both local and overseas peoples than to serving the local population.

Conclusions: the convergence of planning ideas

The East European city is characterised by the style and number of residential estates and by the use of a new or rebuild centre for purposes of social control. These features owe more to political expediency than a coherent fulfillment of socialist theories. The demise of socialism has inevitably prompted a lessening of the grip of the planners and the renewed role of private investment in structuring East European cities. In effect, East European planning is resembling ever more West European planning and the East European city is becoming closer in its geography to the West European city. East European cities are already experiencing a differentiation of (private) rents rather than the essentially equal pricing of state housing. Along the same lines, suburbanisation is occurring, as those that can afford it, prefer to live in more spacious surroundings out of town. Planning in East European cities is becoming more specifically urban again as power is decentralised from the central government to the relevant local authorities. The spectrum of European cities is narrowing.

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