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Vienna: The Most Livable City of the World

by Thomas Madreiter Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 at 11:01 AM

As early as the zero hour, about ten years ago, we developed the vision of the Smart City with the involvement of civil society. Citizens have said quite clearly: cars out, public transport and pedestrians in.

Cities of the future

Vienna city planner Thomas Madreiter: "Cars out, local traffic and pedestrians in".

Vienna is repeatedly voted the most livable city in the world. How do you manage that? Urban planning director Thomas Madreiter explains how he implements the wishes of the residents.

[This interview published on 11/10/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Thomas Madreiter (57) is head of the City Planning Department of the City of Vienna. A graduate in spatial planning, he began his career at the local university before moving to municipal administration in 1994. After holding several positions in the Vienna City Council, he has been primarily responsible for the urban planning implementation of the Vienna "Smart City" concept since 2013.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Madreiter, Vienna has been calling itself "Smart City" for several years now. What is so smart about it?

Madreiter: We recognized years ago that technical, ecological and economic changes always require a broad social base. For example, digitization cannot be seen as a mere challenge for information technology, but must be managed socially, involve citizens and allow them to participate.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean in concrete terms?

Madreiter: As early as the zero hour, about ten years ago, we developed the vision of the Smart City with the involvement of civil society. There were countless workshops with politicians, scientists, business people and, of course, the city's residents. They all dealt with the question: What kind of Vienna do we want to live in by 2050? This has produced far more radical approaches than we in the administration would ever have thought possible.

SPIEGEL: For example?

Madreiter: Let's take the public space. Citizens have said quite clearly: cars out, public transport and pedestrians in. But it's also clear that a lot of things don't work at all with this radicalism and speed. That's the big challenge: We have to be a Smart City for everyone, old and young, digital natives and people who still like to read the newspaper on paper. So with every innovation, I have to ask myself: Is it goal-oriented if we digitize everything we can without replacement?

The world is too complex for simple answers: More perspectives, more understanding, test now for 1,- €.

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SPIEGEL: Definitely not. But don't you leave out many chances?

Madreiter: I don't think so, because I don't see any contradiction here. But I have the feeling that in many cities that call themselves smart cities, the child is just being thrown out with the bath water. Of course, it's unacceptable that I still have to fill out municipal applications on paper in 2020. But what use is a fully digital office with an application system that is aimed at totally fit 23-year-old digital natives? No, I need a system that is geared to the weakest members of society and does not exclude them.

"Economist" ranking: Vienna is the most livable city in the world/

SPIEGEL: Movements like Fridays for Future would argue that we have little time for such middle ways in view of the huge challenges.

Madreiter: I would reject the word middle course. I believe that our path is the more dynamic and comprehensive one. We are also avoiding costs: for superfluous technical gadgets, but also social costs that arise when people feel left behind or ignored. We are trying to address the challenges in their full breadth.

More on the topic

Austria: The 1095-Euro Ticket by Emil Nefzger

The 1095-Euro-Ticket

Climate protection: Vienna plans to make solar systems mandatory for new residential buildings

Vienna plans mandatory solar systems for new residential buildings

Study on the housing market: "Vienna is not a role model" An interview by Robin Wille

"Vienna is not a model"

SPIEGEL: Let's go into detail. What do you think of these megatrends...?


Madreiter: A tremendous, albeit temporary challenge, which clearly showed us the importance of public spaces in the city. It will act as an accelerator: to implement digital systems where it makes sense. But also to create new recreational spaces. The crisis has clearly shown the need for this.

SPIEGEL: ...resilience, in other words resistance?

Madreiter: The current crisis shows very clearly that cities need to become more robust. Historically, we have always had to strike a balance between efficiency and resilience. The fact that efficiency alone does not make us happy is demonstrated in Vienna by the example of history, which shows why we now have excellent drinking water, straight from the Alps. Because city planners more than 100 years ago believed that Vienna would soon have four million inhabitants. That is what they designed the water network for. But we have remained only about two million. So today we benefit from an excellent infrastructure. This shows me that we have to work with reserves in order to be able to react to dynamic developments. What Corona is today, climate change will be tomorrow.

SPIEGEL: ...good catchword: global warming?

Madreiter: Probably the biggest challenge facing mankind in modern times. Cities like Vienna meet it in two dimensions: The first is climate protection, i.e. the reduction of CO₂ emissions. Vienna, for example, wants to be almost climate-neutral by 2050. This can only be achieved if, for example, the building sector and transport undergo significant changes. At the same time, we have to adapt already today. Cities are heating up, the Alpine region has experienced twice as much warming since the beginning of industrialization as is being observed globally. So we have to cool, cool, cool our cities. The beauty of this is that climate protection and climate adaptation are largely congruent.

SPIEGEL: ...traffic turnaround?

Madreiter: I prefer to say mobility turnaround. It is in full swing in many cities. The population is much further along than we in the administration would like to see. We have been conducting comprehensive social science research in Vienna for 20 years, both with and on the urban population. The last survey revealed that 90 percent of the Viennese state that they no longer need a private car. Yet many people still have their own car. This tells me that the turnaround in transportation need not be an eternally polarizing issue. People are already undergoing a far-reaching change, which the administration must now adequately accompany and implement.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean in concrete terms?

Madreiter: We have to create the conditions that will enable people to no longer regard owning a car as necessary. We have to rebuild the city so that people can walk around easily, so that children can get to school by bike, and so that people can get to work by subway, streetcar or bus. People no longer want to spend a relevant part of their salary on a means of transport that they no longer use. So the smart question is: Can we provide people with the mobility they need in their particular situation? When I get that far, cities suddenly look very different. Fewer parking spaces, more open spaces for people, more money for culture, gastronomy, tourism.

SPIEGEL: Vienna's public transport system is already considered exemplary. Yet I still see cars in the city.

Madreiter: I do indeed claim that the next 20 years will bring a major change here. We have to learn to distinguish between car ownership and car use. All the signals are pointing in that direction. But the city should not accompany this with a moral index finger, not with educational imperatives, but with good service: for example, the 365-euro annual ticket that we have introduced.

"Fewer parking spaces, more open spaces for people, more money for culture, gastronomy, tourism"

SPIEGEL: In Germany, the one-euro day ticket is viewed critically by many transportation companies, for example because the costs and benefits are not in proportion.

Madreiter: In Vienna it has made a big difference. The flat rate has changed something in people's minds. Suddenly, using public transportation is worthwhile - and it pays off more with every trip. We now have more season ticket holders than cars in the city. But there is much more to the traffic turnaround: a super network, strict parking space management, high costs for cars - and tangible urban restructuring. About seven years ago we rebuilt Mariahilfer Strasse, the largest shopping street in Vienna. The discussion was extremely polarized, we only just managed to get a majority in the referendum for the conversion to a pedestrian zone. Today, practically nobody wants to return to the old status quo.

SPIEGEL: So radical solutions after all?

Madreiter: We asked the citizens in advance, otherwise we wouldn't have done it. But it is also clear that all these changes make life more worth living for the individual. We always discuss corona, climate and traffic from the perspective of renunciation. But all our measures increase the happiness of life, as the surveys show quite clearly. We have to put the focus on opportunities. With regard to each individual, but also to the economy. We have to get away from the dystopian tales of doom and, as a city, tell the narrative of opportunities much, much better.

Remark JK: The fact that Vienna is repeatedly voted the most liveable city in the world is probably also due to the fact that the city of Vienna, unlike in Germany, where the cities have sold their apartments to financial speculators, continues to build social housing on a large scale and thus does not let the speculators and rental sharks get a chance.

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