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Experiments in socialist urbanism: From Red Vienna to Red Bologna

The wide open public squares in the Italian city of Bologna convey a long history of public participation. Linked by a complex web of narrow, portico-lined streets, their smooth marble paving stones mark centuries of civic activity.

Vienna, Austria’s capital, has a very different feel. It’s a city with obvious imperial pretensions, drawing immediate comparisons with Paris in its wide boulevards and extravagant baroque palaces – a far cry from Bologna’s condensed and intricate lay-out.


The visual contrast between these two cities conceals a vital shared history of socialist municipal control. The Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ) rose to power in Vienna’s first free elections in 1919, controlling Viennese urban policy until the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. In Bologna the Italian Communist Party (PCI) held the mayoralty of the city from 1945 until the dissolution of the party in 1993. The legacies of both periods of radical municipal government have earned these cities the nickname “red”.

The approaches of both the SPÖ and the PCI constituted a challenge to the narrow and short-term focus of the free market. In Vienna a more equitable city was fostered through the building of grand, integrated social housing complexes; while in Bologna a dwindling public realm was revived through democratisation of urban policy. At a time when cities worldwide are beholden to market forces – with the associated decline in democratic accountability, and grossly widening disparities between the richest and poorest – there is much to learn from these histories.

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“Rotes Wien”

Winarsky-Hof.

Only recently industrialised, Vienna after the First World War was a city of extreme inequality. In the late 19th century, Czech peasants from neighbouring Bohemia came to the city in their thousands in pursuit of work in the era’s massive reconstruction projects. By the time of the Social Democrat’s election victory in 1919, a handful of landlords had grown rich off the back of housing these new arrivals in the city’s expanding slums.

The first priority of the newly-elected mayor, Jakob Reumann, was to break these landlords’ grip over rents by providing housing directly, through a system of progressive taxation. But the housing complexes built under the SPÖ were more than just homes: they were social worlds, replete with kindergartens, shops, health care, libraries, laundries, lecture halls, theatres and parks. These provisions represented an ambitious attempt to empower the citizenry by offering them both material security and opportunities for self improvement.

Jutta Schwarz, who grew up in a social house in the outskirts of Vienna in the 1950s, was herself the granddaughter of Czech migrants. When her grandparents first arrived, she says, they lived in a cramped apartment shared between five people, without electricity. They faced such poverty that her grandparents had to rent out their bed during the day for a night-worker to sleep in. Herwegh-Hof, the housing complex on the so-called Proletarian Ringroad which her grandparents moved into in the 1920s, transformed her family’s existence for generations.

Herwegh-Hof. 

She recalls her grandmother’s regular reminders of how much their material situation had improved. “Every month my grandmother used to say, like a kind of mantra, ‘What an enormous amount of freedom we have gained’.” It says something of how quickly things changed that Jutta admitted finding it harder to appreciate these gains.

By this time, Vienna’s revolutionary moment of working class empowerment through material security had passed, with the post-war period bringing new problems of community participation and democratic accountability across Europe. In another context, Red Bologna emerged as a response to these changing conditions.

“Bologna la Rossa”

In 1968 Bologna’s Communist government took executive action to protect the city’s central square, the Piazza Maggiore, after it had gradually begun to be used as an informal car park.

Piazza Maggiore in 1968.

This decision encapsulates how socialism’s role had shifted in the fifty years since Vienna’s “Red” moment. Postwar redevelopment of industrialised cities advanced the interests of individual consumption at the increasing expense of public space. Progressives now shifted their concerns towards a creeping social alienation, epitomised in the atomising effects of the automobile.

The revival of a once bustling city square, through the introduction of fare-free buses in the city’s centre, is only one of countless interventions that put public involvement in political decision making at the centre of the PCI’s postwar project in Bologna.

Reflecting a conscious shift in the PCI away from the centralised model of its Soviet counterpart, and indeed that of Red Vienna, the process of “decentramento” in Bologna involved extending power to neighbourhood councils. These councils had the power to make demands of the legislature in such areas as education, health care, traffic policy, culture and the built environment (with particular concern for conservation of the city’s ancient architectural heritage).

Piazza Maggiore today.

Stefano Bonaga, a political philosophy professor at the University of Bologna, summed up the spirit of the time with a play on the famous slogan of the American Revolution: “In Bologna, our demand was no representation without participation.” Prominently involved in Bolognese politics since his youth, Stefano reflected that the main aim of Red Bologna was empowerment: “It’s the responsibility of politics to give political dignity to the citizens.”

This sentiment neatly sums up the thread that runs through both periods. Socialist municipal control was called upon at different times to alleviate different problems. Yet both calls constituted a demand for collective empowerment against the dehumanising effects of a city life driven solely by the free market. It’s a demand which resonates to this day.

Charlie Clemoes has an in urban studies from UCL and is on the editorial staff of Failed Architecture.

Jake Soule is studying for a PhD at Duke University

All images courtesy of the authors.
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