So from 1990-1992 I lived in the Soviet Union. My family were officially there as students, so we were placed into foreign student housing in Ainabulak-3. A brand new micro-district in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was indeed ugly and bleak. Oddly enough in contrast to US development practices they put in the roads last. It’s an interesting practice in a place that has very little rainfall (Almaty is desert). You don’t destroy your roads with construction traffic. So here’s the view out of our back window. The central area became essentially a cul-de-sac. There was a road that curved along one side of it and the central area was used for football and gardens. Essentially a neighborhood park. Of interest are the buildings you see in the near distance. Those are public service buildings. Schools in this case, if I’m remembering correctly.
Here’s the view of the front of the building. I’ve blurred my sister as she tends to not enjoy pictures of herself from this time period. Our building is on the right. The shorter buildings in the near foreground are more public service buildings. If memory serves a kindergarden and grocery strore. In between the six story building and the magazine is a minor arterial with bus service.
So why do I bring this up, other than to show off some pictures illustrating how ugly the Soviet Union often was? Because I was panning over google earth recently looking at the area, and saw the term “microdistrict”. So I looked that up and found this info:
Microdistrict, or microraion , is a residential complex—a primary structural element of the residential area construction in the Soviet Union and in some post-Soviet states. … According to the Construction Rules and Regulations of the Soviet Union, a typical microdistrict covered the area of 10–60 hectares (30–160 acres), up to but not exceeding 80 hectares (200 acres) in some cases, and comprised residential dwellings (usually multi-story apartment buildings) and public service buildings. As a general rule, major motor roads, greenways, and natural obstacles served as boundaries between microdistricts, allowing an overall reduction in city road construction and maintenance costs and emphasizing public transportation. Major motor roads or through streets were not to cross microdistricts’ territories. The entrances to a microdistrict’s territory were to be located no further than 300 meters (1000 ft) apart. Standards also regulated the accessibility of the public service buildings (excluding schools and pre-school facilities) by imposing a 500-meter (1,500–foot) limit as the farthest distance from any residential dwelling. One of the city-planners’ tasks was to ensure that the fewest number of public buildings was built to cover the microdistrict’s territory in accordance with the norms. Typical public service structures include secondary schools, pre-school establishments (usually combined kindergarten and nursery), grocery stores, personal service shops, cafeterias, clubs, playgrounds, and building maintenance offices, as well as a number of specialized shops. The exact number of buildings of each type depended on the distance requirement and the microdistrict’s population density and was determined by means of certain per capita standards.
I had no clue it was that planned, but it was very easy to walk. It was easy to get out of our cluster of buildings to a main road to catch a bus. While the store near us wasn’t that great, it was close, and schools were very close. Most of the vehicular traffic were taxicabs and it was easy for them to learn the district since they only had to learn how to get to a particular area and then the customer could direct them into the correct building segment or just drop them off on the main road, since it was a very quick walk into any given segment.
So before I go into what we could learn from this, here is the Google Maps view now.
I’m blown away by the amount of green now. As you can see from my pictures it was pretty lifeless.
It’s interesting to me, though when we think about cul-de-sacs and planning. We tend to think of cul-de-sacs as the enemy, but when you look at this area, pretty much everything is a cul-de-sac. I take away some pretty good planning ideas from this:
- Access to arterials. No residence or business should be more than ‘x’ distance from an arterial
- Access to public services. Every ‘x’ area should have space for schools, restaurants, grocery stores, and commercial.
- Buffer space. Every residential and business area should have a buffer from the main road, but should be a walkable distance to it.
While most people see the Soviets planned to a joke, there’s a lot of sense to what they are doing. And this should appeal to fiscal conservatives as well, because this sort of planning makes the best use of government provided resources like roads and public transit. It’s very SimCity, but it’s amazing how little of this sort of planning actually goes on.
It would be very interesting to me to see what strong central planning for infrastructure would create in an unzoned city like Houston.