Published April 16, 2015
Among the many legacies of Soviet occupation across Central and Eastern Europe is the prevalence of “tower blocks,” or vast modernist housing estates mass-produced in the decades following World War II. Today, the infrastructure — estimated to house one-third to one-half of the population in this part of Europe — is aging and in disrepair. What’s more, little is known about how these units were planned and developed.
UB faculty member Daniel B. Hess will work to fill this knowledge gap and offer design and planning solutions for these Soviet-era estates through a prestigious research fellowship that will take him to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The fellowship for individual faculty research was awarded through the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions program to foster transnational and interdisciplinary research. Hess, associate professor of urban and regional planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, was awarded a fellowship in the “Global Fellowship” category, in which researchers from non-European Union institutions bring research projects to Europe’s most competitive universities.
The award, named for the French-Polish scientist who conducted pioneering work on radioactivity and twice won the Nobel Prize, involves a two-year academic stay with the Institute of Human Geography at the University of Tartu, the top university in Estonia.
Mass-produced to meet housing demand and rebuild war-torn cities, the developments typically feature pre-fabricated panel buildings, or “tower blocks,” set in open areas. While occupants represent a mix of income levels and most own their flats, few people have invested in their properties, a particular challenge during Soviet times, Hess says. The estates also are not efficiently located. Planned by Soviet administrators in Moscow, the complexes were more often sited based on proximity to factories — for the pre-fabricated units — than on rational urban planning principles, he adds.
These factors combine to present critical planning challenges for post-Socialist cities involving issues of quality of life, urban design, accessibility and public health, according to Hess. “Maintaining the social mix, quality of life and attractiveness of these vast housing estates is one of the greatest challenges facing post-Socialist cities,” he says. “Since they are not going away, we need to ask ‘how can we improve them?’”
Despite the centralization of the Soviet system, on-the-ground implementation was led by local architects and planners. Through extensive interview research, these aging design professionals will serve as a primary resource in Hess’s effort to document the history of socialist urban planning in the Baltic states. Hess’s research also will take him into the government archives of cities across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to examine original plans and policies.
In addition to historical analysis, Hess will produce a set of recommendations for the maintenance and redevelopment of these housing estates. “The goal is to get this information in the right hands and ultimately improve the properties,” he explains.
Hess’ scholarly and professional experience in urban planning is a great asset, since urban planning systems in the Baltic states — formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — are barely 25 years old.
Tiit Tammaru, professor and chair of the University of Tartu’s human geography and regional planning program, will serve as Hess’ research adviser. “The social and physical downgrading of modernist housing districts is one of the largest urban planning challenges facing cities in Eastern Europe,” Tammaru says. “Professor Hess’ work will contribute to key debates about the future of the most common residential spaces of Eastern European cities.”
The Curie fellowship is not the first time that Hess will be conducting urban planning research in Estonia. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholar Award in 2010-11 at the Tallinn University of Technology to study how urban planning practice has evolved since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. For the past five years, he has overseen UB’s study abroad program in Estonia and Latvia.
“Professor Hess’s receipt of the Curie award reflects his high exceptional scholarly achievement and the high caliber of our faculty’s research,” says Ernest Sternberg, professor and chair of UB’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning. “American planning researchers have rarely studied the pervasive effects of the Soviet occupation on the Eastern Europeans’ living conditions, so Professor Hess has been given a special opportunity,” Sternberg adds. “He will be able to investigate the consequences of this traumatic period and then collaborate with the Baltic states’ planners to propose directions for the future.”