Vienna, Austria stands apart from other cities I have written about in a number of ways:

  • It’s the first–although probably not the last–I’ve noted that existed well before being envisioned as a city of the future.
  • It’s one of the most successful cities in the world. It is widely recognized both for its exceptional quality of life and, more recently, as one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.

However, such a community still faces problems. The Smart City Wien (literally, Smart City Vienna) initiative, created in 2011, lays out the issues of the modern city and Vienna’s commitment to solving them.

To understand where Vienna’s plans come from we must consider the historic nature of the Austrian capital. The banks of the Danube River have been inhabited since 500 BCE and the city has been home to a Roman fort, an Irish monastery, and the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. This history has led to a sort of de facto urban design. The original walled city forms the central 1stDistrict, Innere Stadt, from which a series of districts spiral outward in a hub-and-spoke fashion that reflects Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City designs more directly than many actual garden cities ever did.

Heavily Modified Vienna Map
Vienna’s administrative districts, with the hub-and-spoke nature emphasized. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, author’s addition in red

It’s debatable whether this historic design has created conditions for an ideal city, but Vienna’s history has certainly influenced quality of life. Dr. Alenka Poplin, professor of Community and Regional Planning at Iowa State University and a former Vienna resident, considers the city’s walkability and historic preservation to be key pieces of its livability today: “They say high-quality because one can walk to the fitness center, to the kindergarten,  to the school. One has everything in the little environment there… The other aspect is visual impressions and sense… One sees beautiful buildings. One can sense there is history” behind them. Historic buildings, gardens, and museums are scattered throughout the city in a density that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

Belvedere Palace
Belvedere Palace, originally built as a summer home for Prince Eugene of Savoy, is now open to the public and home to the Belvedere Museum and Gardens. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 The ease of transport and central Vienna’s historic nature are results not just of its ancient past, but also the work of policy makers and planners throughout the centuries. Austria and Vienna underwent a mass industrialization between 1850 and 1914, and construction accelerated in what would be termed the Gründerzeit period. This movement resulted in dramatic improvements to Vienna’s infrastructure and development of many cultural centers (Smart City Wien Framework, 104). The Vienna State Opera and the ring road surrounding the Innere Stadt were built during this period.

Several other traits placed Vienna on the path to smartness. Half of its territory is green space (He et. al. 2015). A quarter of housing is publicly supported, as the city government believes all residents are entitled to a good life. The public transit is among the world’s best, featuring trams, subways, zero-emission buses, and a network of city bikes all backed by intelligent transportation systems and aimed at minimizing car usage. Vienna is home to a large number of top-tier universities and other research institutions, which add €2.3 billion ($2.6 billion) to the economy each year. Most of these benefits resulted from choices and natural advantages across centuries rather than any specific strategy, and modern policy makers do their best to maintain them.

However, even a city with all these strengths faces the 21stcentury-problems many cities are confronting.

Vienna is, of course, dealing with climate change and cutting greenhouse gas emissions as it works to meet European Union targets. Even newer buildings in a city as old as this are not up to modern efficiency standards, and it is a delicate balance between rehabilitating them and maintaining their history.

Immigration continues to increase and urban sprawl places green space at risk. Smart City Wien also notes “the excellent status quo of Vienna actually renders further improvements somewhat more difficult.” It’s hard to get better when you’re already doing so well.

Smart City Wien Framework
The Smart City Wien logo represents the three interconnected goals of the project. Credit: Smart City Wien

In 2011 Vienna chose to face these challenges head on. Professor Poplin says of the city’s effort, “I don’t know anybody [else] who would have such a systematic smart cities framework.” Smart City Wien breaks the initiative into three ideals: quality of life, resource preservation, and innovation. How these goals relate is summarized in the framework mission statement:

It is thus the key goal for 2050 of Smart City Wien to offer optimum quality of life, combined with highest possible resource preservation, for all citizens. This can be achieved through comprehensive innovations.

Quality of life is, of course, already Vienna’s strong point. The goal here is maintenance and improvement. One interesting project in this area is Leila, a library of things that loans out everything from popcorn makers to sewing machines. Others include education improvements, more efficient health services, community spaces for various activities, and a number of digitization efforts put city services in everyone’s pockets.

Resource preservation is Vienna’s big push for improvement. Timber high-rises are being tested, the Citizens’ Solar project puts renewable energy in community hands, CO2recycling is under study, and one project aims to adapt concrete to local soil conditions.

Citizen Solar
A rooftop Citizens’ Solar plant, created with citizen investment. Wien Energie has built 24 such projects in four years, saving 7,800 tons of CO2 annually. Credit: Smart City Wien

Finally, innovation aims to provide the capital and technology the first two goals need. Poplin notes “all the new technologies, thinking about autonomous vehicles, thinking about renewable energy, where to put solar panels … how to transform the transportation system.”This thrust also includes economic policies and research laboratories. A key piece is Seestadt Aspern, a smart city-within-a-city under construction to test large-scale smart tech, similar to Masdar. I’ll write more about it later this month.

Poplin followed her comments about new technology by emphasizing, “sometimes less technology is more valuable. So where walkable is going back to where we can exercise… and the parks and bench system” is growing. Vienna has done an excellent job of drawing on its history and striking a balance between its low-tech, high quality past with the new technologies and ideas of the future. Everything leaders do draws on Vienna’s glowing history to push it forward into an even brighter future. Any city that wants to duplicate its success must first recognize the centuries of policy that have made it ripe for smart city excellence.

Special thanks to Dr. Alenka Poplin and her husband Stephen Poplin for their help with this piece. Dr. Poplin’s research concerns serious games for civic engagement, how emotions and places interact, and other smart-city-related concepts. You can learn more about her work here.

Further Reading:

Smart City Wien Framework Strategy

He, D., Orozco, J. S., Straus, M., Kovalenko, N., Remezkova, V., & Remezkova, B. V. (2015). Being a smart city : the case of Vienna and Seestadt Aspern, (June).

One thought on “Teaching an Old City New Tricks in Vienna

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