Back in the USSR: 15-minute cities have unleashed a wave of conspiracy theories, but the concept is borrowed from a Soviet idea
2023 already has a flourishing conspiracy theory involving a covert plan to close citizens off in their districts and take away their freedoms. There are, as always, believers and skeptics. The latest controversy revolves around the “15-minute cities” debate, and it’s spreading across social networks and in the media. Still, experts point out that the idea itself is not an entirely new one. Similar projects have been explored by urbanists from different countries during the 20th century, and the concept was used by Soviet architects as well.
15-minute cities scare
The theory itself is actually not scary at all. It was proposed by Carlos Moreno, a professor at Sorbonne University, in 2016. According to Moreno, the large distances of modern cities take too much of people’s time. So, it would be very useful if everyone could obtain everything they need within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.
When officials in England's Oxford decided to implement their version of the concept, things got out of hand. The idea was to install traffic filters – cameras that can read car license plate numbers – to monitor traffic. Those without resident permits or a certain exemption would be fined. The reason behind the initiative, according to authorities, was to facilitate the functioning of the bus network and reduce traffic jams. However, residents didn’t welcome the idea. Some even imagined that the filters would become physical barriers and that locals would be confined to their districts. The debate became so heated that, according to Oxford City Council, “staff and councillors… have been subjected to abuse.”
Reports about the Oxford plan went viral. The story even reached Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson, who wrote on Twitter, “The idea that neighborhoods should be walkable is lovely.” But he added, “The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you’re ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea.” Closer to home, British Conservative MP Nick Fletcher, meanwhile, asked the House of Commons to address the “international socialist concept” designed to “take away personal freedoms.”
For Kirill Puzanov, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Urban and Regional Development in Mosow’s Higher School of Economics University, the outrage of Oxford citizens seems very logical. “If you take away a car from a driver, they would be protesting, and it would be a typical reaction for any city,” he told RT. “There’s nothing new in the 15-minute concept. Something similar always existed, together with the concept of ‘monofunctional districts’ – here we live, there we work, and another one serves for leisure.”
A city inside Moscow
In the Soviet Union, such a place for living, including all possible infrastructure, was constructed for the government elites in the center of Moscow. It was an outstanding project of its time, and the plan itself looks astonishing even today. The fate of the project was terrible though – due to political reasons.
In 1918, the Bolshevik government decided to move the capital from Petrograd (currently St. Petersburg) to Moscow. The latter seemed a safer place for the new authorities. So, not only the top officials, but scores of state servicemen had to find a place to live. It is believed that the number of officials in Moscow increased to 281,000 people.
The new capital had been devastated by the revolution. There were not enough available places to house such a huge apparatus. Initially, the government officials lived in the Kremlin itself, as well as in several major Moscow hotels, palaces and mansions. However, it was obvious that people needed apartments to live in permanently. At the same time, the capital needed its hotels for tourists.
In 1927, Soviet authorities decided to construct a special house for the government not far from the Kremlin. The project was developed by Boris Iofan, an Odessa-born architect who had studied in Rome. The construction started in 1928 and though planned for two years it actually lasted four. It also cost four times more money than was initially allocated.
Iofan’s creation was not just an apartment block, it was an autonomous complex featuring a maximum level of comfort. Inhabitants had nothing to care about. All 505 luxury apartments had hot water, central heating and a telephone. They had wooden floors with painted ceilings, and the apartments were already furnished. The complex included a cafe, a grocery store, a laundry, a kindergarten, a barbershop, a sports gym, a library, a medical facility, a hall for concerts and a cinema. By 1932, over 2,700 people inhabited the incredible building. The apartments were designated for top officials, military chiefs, scientists, writers and famous figures.
The House of Preliminary Detention
The complex had several official names, but commonly, it’s known as the “House on the Embankment”. Its name is attributed to a book by Soviet writer Yuri Trifonov, who lived there. His father Valentin Trifonov was a Red Army veteran, who played a significant role in the revolution. In 1938, Valentin Trifonov was arrested and executed. His grim fate was shared by hundreds of inhabitants of the House on the Embankment. Some 800 of them became victims of Joseph Stalin’s repressions. The sense of horror surrounding the complex was so strong that locals called it the “House of Preliminary Detention”.
There was a vast number of staff working for the House, including security guards and porters. Agents of the NKVD (the country’s internal security service at the time) utilized these staff members to easily access the apartments and make arrests. The stories of the witnesses have since merged with city legends. The apartments had a special cargo elevator connected directly to the kitchen and it is said that the agents used the elevator to enter apartments and take their victims by surprise. Sometimes it was used to prevent a person from commiting suicide. There’s also a legend about a woman, who refused to open the door to the agents and promised to shoot anyone who would try to break in. It is said that she was permanently walled up inside.
Since 1997, the House on the Embankment has been considered a historical monument and is protected by the state. Despite the tragic pages in its history, the building remains a symbol of Soviet progress and industrial achievements.
Unfortunately, the history of the building has little to do with the original idea itself, which was to create a comfortable complex with infrastructure. Kirill Puzanov explains, “Take, for example, the main building of the Moscow State University: It was designed according to the same idea of a comfortable territory equipped with all the possible infrastructure. You can stay inside for years without leaving.”
The Moscow State University building – one of the famous ‘Seven Sisters’, or ‘Stalin’s High-rises’ – was aimed to symbolize Soviet quality education with all its achievements. Designed by the aforementioned Boris Iofan and architect Lev Rudnev, it was finished in 1953. Inside, there was everything that a student or a lecturer might have needed: A concert hall, a dining room, lecture halls and scientific units, and a library. Student housing and apartments for academic staff were also built.
Another two of the Seven Sisters were also designed as luxury apartment blocks for scientists, athletes, actors and famous Soviet citizens, and had all the necessary infrastructure on the ground floor.
Actually, the idea was not about creating special conditions for the elites – it was about facilitating solutions for Soviet citizens’ everyday problems, who could then better contribute to the construction of a “bright future” for their country. For example, the concept of “scientific cities,” which emerged to support certain research institutions was developed. The city of Obninsk is among them. Launched in 1954, it is where a nuclear power plant was connected to a power grid for the first time in the world. The same idea lies behind Dubna, which was officially inaugurated in 1956 together with the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research.
However, it is important to mention that some of those cities functioned in secrecy. These “closed” cities needed independent infrastructure because it was difficult to move quickly in and out of the city's territory.
Several Soviet architects envisioned a future where everyone would live in a district which resembles the current 15-minute city concept. From 1975-1982, such an “experimental” complex emerged in the southern part of Moscow. All the residential buildings were connected with underground roads. The car parks were also underground, with car washes constructed at the entrances. It was intended that the yards would be traffic-free, providing unhindered access for emergency vehicles. Shops and services including a laundry were located on the ground floors, which were all connected. Children could walk to school via huge corridors without needing to go outside. The complex also had a vacuum waste management network.
It was planned that such districts would emerge in different parts of the Soviet capital. Unfortunately, the construction was too complicated, and the idea was scrapped.
Comfort or restrictions?
It’s not a surprise that some ideas, which were completely forgotten in the past, occasionally resurface under different conditions. Recently, Covid-related lockdowns forced people to look around and evaluate the comfort of their living conditions. At the same time, the fear of unexpected movement restrictions is now deeply rooted in people’s minds.
The current online panic about 15-minute cities is related to a lack of awareness, says Associate Professor Ivan Mitin, from the HSE’s Faculty of Urban and Regional Development. In the modern world, contradictions are often used by politicians and the media for the sake of their own interests, while digital services are intensively surveilling citizens, he explains. So, people may be frightened by the initiatives, which affect their every-day life and which they don’t quite understand.
“It’s important to explain that the 15-minute cities concept should not be taken literally,” Mitin told RT. “The experience of the cities in Europe and Asia shows that it’s more about an intention to create multifunctional and comfortable city districts. Modern people are always on the run, they hurry home from work and back. They have no time to look closely at the district they live in, they think that there’s nothing interesting there and that entertainment can be found only downtown. The example of modern Moscow is quite demonstrative. It’s important to make people feel the uniqueness of their districts, so it will become their own desire to make the surrounding area as comfortable as possible.”
According to his colleague Kirill Puzanov, the only possible danger of the 15-minute cities is that they would become too comfortable. “In this case, people would prefer to always stay in their district, rarely getting outside,” he explains. “So, the big cities will lose their diversity, as they would split into plenty of small ones.”