Monday

17th Dec 2018

Magazine

Vienna: A reluctant cosmopolis

  • Big government is Vienna's ethos, and a major reason the city ranks so high on so many “quality of life” surveys. (Photo: Bob Usher)

Two-year-old Florence rides in her pushchair past kindergartens, schools and playgrounds, all paid for by Vienna's city government. She zig-zags through streets lined with grand apartment blocks, many of which are government owned. Finally she arrives at her child minder, paid for by the city administration.

Big government is Vienna's ethos, and a major reason that Austria's capital ranks so highly on so many "quality of life" surveys.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • If the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) takes power in the coming years, the vision of making Vienna more international could be challenging. (Photo: FPO)

"Vienna has a long tradition - 200 or 300 years - of having a strong public sector," the city's urban planning director Thomas Madreiter tells EUobserver.

"In the US, the people might think: 'I have a problem, I'll find a solution, I'll fix it.' The tradition in Vienna was more: 'I have a problem, I'll take it to the city administration and ask them to find a solution.'"

In Austria, local governments have genuine power - Vienna's city administration is one of the world's biggest landlords. It enforces a rent cap and, as private landlords have to compete, rents are kept low across the board. Not surprisingly, Vienna gets top marks for affordable housing in life-quality indexes.

The city administration, bolstered by high taxes, is also able to fund efficient and cheap public transport and healthcare, and help ensure crime rates are low - all of which are measured by the surveys.

The Quality of Living survey by consulting firm Mercer has placed Vienna at the top for the past seven years. The Liveability Ranking Overview from think-tank Economist Intelligence Unit puts Vienna in second place behind Melbourne.

Rich in culture and money

These surveys are designed to advise multinationals on the levels of compensation they should offer their staff. Using them to evaluate a city is like appreciating a tune by looking at the sheet music.

Nevertheless, the surveys can be self-fulfilling. Vienna's finance chief boasts about the indexes in her annual report. Expats frequently refer to the "amazing quality of life" even if they are struggling to find work or facing other hardships.

Vienna's tourism director Norbert Kettner is also not shy of using the surveys: "It's another anchor for us. Even people who don't really know much about Vienna, they know about these quality of life surveys."

He lists an impressive range of other "anchors" - Vienna is the biggest university town in the German-speaking world, one of Europe's fastest-growing cities, one of its youngest, and the only capital city with productive vineyards.

He does not even resort to Vienna's staples - the palaces, coffee shops, operas, nearby ski slopes, forests, mountains, rivers or anyone by the name Strauss.

That said, culture is certainly one of the main reasons for Vienna's international fame and fortune.

Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, director of the Museum of Applied Arts, explains that Vienna has a disproportionately high level of culture because of its history as an imperial centre serving tens of millions of people. "In the US you would need to be a city of 6 million to offer a comparable quality of cultural life," he says.

It also helps that the city is rich. It benefited hugely from the fall of the Iron Curtain and the accession of eastern European states to the EU.

Sabine Ohler of the Vienna Business Agency says Vienna re-established itself as a hub between east and west, and much investment followed. Now, more than 200 international firms and organisations like the United Nations have offices in Vienna, and the service sector is by far the most important for its economy.

Historical melting pot

The administration, economics and culture of Vienna appear to map a perfect city. But Vienna is not a utopia.

Just like in any other city, petty gripes can sometimes drown out the big picture. Your correspondent is not consoled by life-quality surveys when, day after day, people refuse to help lift Florence's pushchair up or down the precipitous steps of the city's old-fashioned trams.

More seriously, there is resentment over increasing immigration - the city of 1.8 million people has added 250,000 residents in the past 15 years, most of them immigrants.

The far-right Freedom Party (FPO) won more than 30 percent of the vote in last year's city council election, doubling its share in the space of a decade.

Vienna is not like London, Paris, Amsterdam or Brussels, which have large communities from former colonies in Africa and Asia and a myriad of small businesses bearing the names of their foreign owners. Apart from the large Turkish community clustered in the west of the city, foreigners are not such a visible presence. Expats often complain that Viennese are largely uninterested in hearing from outsiders.

"Many people have not recognised that it is a multicultural, cosmopolitan city," points out tourism chief Norbert Kettner. "This is ridiculous. The city has always been a melting point. About 150 years ago, only half the city spoke German."

Both Kettner and planning director Thomas Madreiter are advocates for immigration. They say they want Vienna to become more international. "Not only in demographics, which it is already, but also in the mindset, which it isn't always," says Kettner.

If the FPO takes power in the coming years, Kettner's vision will surely have holes punched in it. Vienna may also slip down the rankings in the quality of life surveys, particularly in the "political stability" category. If that stage is reached, though, Viennese people may have other things to worry about.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Regions & Cities Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of our Regions & Cities magazine.

Magazine

Brussels 2030

The EU capital has had an awful year. Looking forward, the city needs to urgently make itself a better place for people to live in and visit, starting with its notorious problems with congestion, pollution and bureaucracy.

Magazine

Back to the Future by Hyperloop

Cars that run on petrol or diesel are meant to be a rarity by the year 2050. Progress is slow. But some Nordic cities have radical visions of how a "Hyperloop" could change that.

Magazine

A world without waste

A garbage crisis in Naples, Italy, gave birth to the "zero waste" movement, but is the rest of Europe brave enough to change the way it thinks about trash?

Magazine

A deep dive into the EU regional funds

While the regional funds account for a full third of the EU budget, they are somewhat under-reported. EUobserver's latest edition of the Regions & Cities magazine looks at the EU's cohesion policy.

Magazine

A deep dive into the EU regional funds

While the regional funds account for a full third of the EU budget, they are somewhat under-reported. EUobserver's latest edition of the Regions & Cities magazine looks at the EU's cohesion policy.

Magazine

The EU Agencies Race

In this edition of EUobserver's Regions & Cities magazine, we take a closer look at some of the EU agencies, exploring how their location matters and the benefits for cities and regions to host them.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. EU gives Switzerland another six months for a deal
  2. Fiscal discipline rules in eurozone are devastating
  3. EU capitals see weekend of tear gas and water cannon
  4. Bulgarian 'EU passports' whistleblower wants justice
  5. No more Brexit talks, despite May's pleas
  6. EU leaders stuck on asylum reform
  7. Orban and other PMs spread fake news, says Juncker
  8. Fishing quota and no-deal Brexit preparation This WEEK

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us