Hess Wins Fellowship to Study Aging Socialist-Era Housing in Baltics

Marie Curie International Fellowship winner Daniel Hess leads his summer 2015 study abroad class on a tour of Mustamäe, a Soviet-era housing estate in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Evan Iacobucci

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 Soviet infrastructure; estimated to house one-third to one-half of the population in this part of Europe; is aging and in disrepair, with little known about the planning decisions behind it. 

Daniel B. Hess, PhD, associate professor of urban and regional planning, will spend the next two years developing design and planning solutions for these Soviet-era estates through a research fellowship that will take him to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Awarded by the European Commission, the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie International Fellowship includes a “Global Fellowship” category, in which researchers from non-European Union institutions bring research projects to Europe’s most competitive universities. Hess will be based at the Institute of Human Geography at the University of Tartu, Estonia’s top university. 

The Soviet housing complexes present critical planning challenges for post-Socialist cities related to 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?’”

Typically featuring pre-fabricated panel buildings or “tower blocks,” the units were mass produced to meet housing demand after the war but have seen relatively little investment since then. The estates are also 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, Hess adds.  

While these developments were planned centrally in Moscow, local architects and planners oversaw their implementation. To chronicle this largely undocumented planning history, Hess will interview those now-aging practitioners and dig into local government archives to examine original plans and policies. 

Tiit Tammaru, PhD, professor and chair of the University of Tartu’s human geography and regional planning program and Hess’s research advisor, says the future of these modernist housing districts is a major urban planning concern for the region: “Professor Hess’s work will contribute to key debates about the future of the most common residential spaces of Eastern European cities.”

This is by no means the first time Hess will conduct 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 Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. For the past five years, he has overseen UB’s annual study abroad program in Estonia and Latvia. This past summer’s program exposed students to layered urbanization, city planning under various regimes and neighborhood revitalization through the redevelopment of Soviet-era housing.