25th Oct 2016


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.

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  • 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 and Cities Magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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