Saransh Sehgal is an independent journalist based in Vienna who writes about science, technology and society. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, IRIN and The Diplomat, among other publications.
A strong focus on green space plays a major role.
VIENNA, Austria — When the human resources consultancy Mercer publishes its annual quality-of-life rankings for cities around the world, Vienna’s place at the top is practically automatic.
The Austrian capital has ranked first on the list for seven years in a row. Mercer has consistently praised Vienna for being a safe city with good public services, transport and recreation facilities. In another survey, Monocle magazine also gives Vienna high marks. While Vienna dropped to third place on that list this year, the magazine hosted its annual Quality of Life conference here in April. The Economist’s latest “Liveability Ranking,” released last week, put Vienna second.
What’s Vienna’s secret? According to government and business leaders, it’s a mix of good long-term planning, an emphasis on citizen participation and a relentless focus on social equity. “Vienna keeps in touch with its traditions, but at the same time embraces advancement,” says Judith Sandberger of the Vienna Business Agency. “Vienna doesn’t stand for the ‘fast buck’.”
Every city has its challenges, of course, and Vienna is no exception. The city of 1.8 million faces growth pressures as it adds 30,000 new residents a year. Like many European cities, Vienna is struggling to integrate thousands of migrants and refugees that have arrived recently. And more people continue to drive cars than city officials would like.
Still, Vienna consistently overcomes these challenges to come out on or near the top. Here are three reasons why Vienna residents rate their quality of life so high — and lessons cities around the world can learn from it.
Housing and transport are affordable
One reason why cities such as London and New York fall down the list on quality-of-life rankings is their extremely high costs of living. By contrast, Vienna’s housing framework rests on the belief that providing housing is a basic human right — and local policies reflect this. The municipality owns more than a quarter of the city’s housing stock. About half of the population lives in subsidized apartments, and for everyone else there are strict controls on rent increases.
In Vienna, residents typically pay about a quarter of their household income on housing. By comparison, renters in London on average put 72 percent of their income toward housing.
As Vienna grows, the city builds more housing. In 2015 alone, 7,200 units were handed over to residents and 20,000 subsidized housing units were either under construction or getting ready to be built. Each year, Vienna spends €450 million in national funds and about €150 million in municipal funds on constructing new homes and refurbishing old ones.
Private developers are also enlisted in the affordable-housing cause. “Here, private developers who work together with city government to construct reasonable housing have to allow the government to rent about half the share of new flats to lower-income residents, while the developer has the right to lease the remaining share to moderate-income inhabitants,” explains Bojan-llija Schnabl, a senior researcher with the city housing department known locally as MA50. “This contributes to a social mixture that is healthy for any growing city.”
Not only is Vienna an affordable place to live but it’s a cheap place to get around. An annual pass to the city’s transit system costs just €1 a day for a yearly pass. The system is clean, safe, and goes practically everywhere. The city is also committed to investing in new rolling stock and extending the system. By 2025, Vienna aims to have 80 percent of all trips in the city made using eco-friendly modes of transport.
Green space galore
One of the most striking examples is the Vienna Woods, Central Europe’s largest contiguous area of deciduous forest. Encompassing seven city districts and almost 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of land, the Wienerwald is Vienna’s green lung. Designated a “biosphere reserve” by UNESCO, even the farthest reaches of the woods are accessible by public transport.
“The Viennese are actively involved in designing green spaces and their needs and demands are considered in new green projects,” says Florian Hutz of the city’s forestry and urban agriculture department, which manages about 25 percent of the city’s land area.
An example of this two-way process can be seen in a wetland known as the Lobau, which is a part of a national park located partially within the city borders. The city forestry agency regularly invites citizens to help in the protection of green spaces and their upkeep. In return, the department regularly organizes workshops that educate individuals about the flora and fauna of the area.
Planning for a sustainable and inclusive future
Even as Vienna grows, city leaders have pledged to reduce per-capita greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. To see how Vienna plans to do that, look no further than the new urban project Seestadt Aspern.
In the northeast of the city, an old airfield is being transformed into a modern, multi-functional neighborhood — and one of Europe’s largest urban development projects. By 2030, Seestadt Aspern is expected to accommodate 20,000 residents and a similar number of jobs, situated around an artificial lake. The neighborhood will be a 25-minute subway ride away from downtown Vienna and a 28-minute train trip to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava.
Seestadt Aspern is serving as a sandbox for developing innovative energy efficiency technologies for cities. Major partners such as Siemens and Wien Energie are focusing on the potential of buildings to monitor power consumption and produce energy to be fed back into the grid. Community-wide data will be collected both to run the systems more efficiently in real time but also to inform new advancements in these technologies.
Soon the first participants of this experiment will be the inhabitants of the 213 apartments in complex D12 of Aspern. Smart meters and home automation systems will give residents an unprecedented picture of their energy consumption and the means to control home power usage through their smartphones.
The backbone of this and other strategies is the city’s “Smart City Framework Initiative.” The document was the product of a years-long series of workshops, open talks and conferences to solicit citizens’ ideas about how to make a “smart city,” as well as to hear their concerns about privacy. The final document stresses the need to provide the best quality of life for all of the city’s residents, while minimizing the consumption of resources. On the first page it states: “Cities are smart if all people living in them have access to the same degree of participation.”
Brigit Ginzler of the Smart City Wien initiative says the framework is simply the latest manifestation of Vienna’s deep commitment to social inclusion. It’s based on “narrowing the socio-economic divide,” Ginzler says. “If you look at our Smart City Principle, most big cities mainly focus on two pillars — resources and innovation. But Vienna’s strategy comprises a third pillar focusing on social inclusion and public participation.”
Renate Brauner, Vienna’s vice mayor and executive city councilor for finance, economy and international affairs, also calls social inclusion key to Vienna’s success. “Social equity has been a primary focus of our policies for many decades,” she says. “People can feel safe and secure here because they are given the right chances, they like living here and are happy to contribute.”
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.