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Eastern Europe includes an amalgam of states with different histories, cultures, economies, and political structures—a fact that makes any attempt to generalize across the region difficult. The term Eastern Europe, as used in this section, applies primarily to the nations that were often referred to as the Satellite Nations or the Warsaw Bloc during the Cold War period and to the three Baltic nations. The former group was composed of Poland, East Germany (now reunited with the former West Germany), Czechoslovakia (now divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. This group came under Soviet domination in 1944 and 1945 as the Soviet armies pushed the Germans back in the end stages of World War II. The three Baltic nations are Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which had been forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and did not emerge as independent nations until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Soviet planning style was highly centralized. Public participation as we know it in the West was almost nonexistent for most of the Soviet period, though there was some citizen involvement in planning initiatives in the 1980s, when most communist regimes were weaker and, arguably, more liberal. Communist planners emphasized the needs of industry, which often came at the expense of the environment. Frequently, more land than necessary was reserved for industrial facilities. This was possible because communist economies functioned under command (rather than market) principles, and the state typically owned the majority of urban land. Thus there were no cost pressures or land ownership conflicts to resolve when designating land for large industrial uses. On the positive side, the command economy and state ownership of land allowed communist governments to provide their citizens with vast amounts of public space, including parks. The grand scale—of both industrial enterprises and public facilities—was in itself a virtue for party ideologues eager to prove communism's triumph. The most telling example was perhaps in Romania, where the late dictator, Ceausescu, was so megalomaniacal that he built the People's Palace in Bucharest as the second largest public building in the world, smaller than only the U.S. Pentagon. This communist legacy of spatial generosity creates both problems and opportunities today. While many East European cities with postindustrial economies struggle with the liability of vast derelict industrial sites, their citizens often enjoy better access to parks and public spaces than do residents of Western cities.

The communist model of housing provision was also distinct. The state considered itself obliged to provide a decent minimum of housing to all. This commitment translated into innumerable massive, state-built apartment blocks, which today form the outskirts of most large East European cities, from Prague to St. Petersburg. While such spatial grandeur certainly seemed to fit the Soviet taste, some pragmatic reasons also made it more or less imperative. Specifically, the policy of rapid industrialization that marked the Soviet period demanded that extraordinary numbers of rural residents move to cities. To fulfill their commitment to the new workers and prevent mass housing crises, communist regimes had little choice but to construct new housing as efficiently, quickly, and cheaply as possible, which meant building large, uniform apartment blocks with prefabricated panels. The fact that the majority of new housing development occurred in such a manner—as opposed to the more scattered, private sector-led fashion typical of free-market countries—led to one of the most fundamental differences between communist and many capitalist cities. While U.S. cities are typically surrounded by sprawling suburbs, communist cities were relatively compact and dense, and had an urban contour clearly defined by the last towers of the communist housing districts.

Massiveness was one hallmark of the Soviet planning style. This is a Soviet-era housing project in the former East Berlin.

Two other features distinguished communist from capitalist cities. First, because of the communist emphasis on industry, the production of commercial goods and service activities was neglected. As a result, communist cities had significantly fewer commercial spaces than capitalist cities— a difference that was strikingly visible to any visitor who compared East and West Berlin. Second, because of the lower purchasing power of communist citizens (which translated into lower car ownership, among other things), and because of the higher urban densities, communist cities functioned with very fully developed mass transit systems.

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