Sunday, 27 July 2014

Vienna - A City that Wants You

Vienna - Wien if you're In the German-speaking part of the world - is a spectacular city. It has more monuments, marble and more landmarks than most new countries have combined. Until the Berlin reunification, Vienna was the largest German speaking city in the world of nearly 2 million inhabitants. While it currently has nowhere near the level geo-political prominence in world affairs the city enjoyed in the 17th to 19th centuries, Vienna still impresses with an attitude of greatness; both past and present.

Coming from Munich is around three and a half hours by train, reaching up to 240km/h. Austrian trains are some of the best I have seen so far: clear English and German announcements, a digital map that shows where you are travelling in real-time, and a live speedometer (which is why I can provide the extra tid-bit of information). Smooth and spectacular all the way into Wien Westbahnhof, followed by a 20 minute walk to the old city.

10€ ($15 CAD) and five minutes after walking off the train I had 10GBs of data for my phone. The irony really hits that I am currently paying $75 CAD this past month for 1 GB of data in Canada that I have no way of using. The day of reckoning will come for the Canadian telecom companies and I would love to be there to see it through. Alas, I will not be leading the charge on that fight; I have urban planning and design to rant about.

Back on point: Vienna is spectacular. Here are a few sights you will see in a matter of  minutes from one of the many central plazas and public spaces:

~900 year old St. Stephens Cathedral in central Wien:


Hofburg Palace and the adjoining complex of incredible halls and government buildings:


This 10-metre tall Maria Theresia Statue:

Streets that look like this in every direction:

The kooky, mid-1980s designed Hundertwasser Haus:

The list goes on and on. Connecting all of this the Vienna U-Bahn, the subway system. Trains come all day and 24 hours on weekend nights at a frequency of every five or eight minutes on five lines. Nowhere in the city is more than five minute walk from a metro station and no place is really more than 20 - 30 minutes apart in total travel time using the metro. Signage is perfect, there are system maps on every conceivable surface in the trains, and lines are colour-coded and numbered to avoid any chance of confusion. I could not think of anything that would make the system easier to use. Believe me, I tried!

The train system was also unique in that it attempted to run schedules around what people actually do, as opposed to what would be easier for the transit operator to provide. For example, every Friday and Saturday night is 24-hour rapid transit service because it is the night that most people go out to the thousands of restaurants, clubs and venues crowding the streets of the inner city. There is no nightly transit service in most Canadian cities and many actually reduce the level of service of their transit system on the weekend, even though the demand from revellers and employees of the "night-economy" is at it's highest.

This same approach is used on public holidays where Vienna runs more trains not less. Again the assumption here is that lots of people are going out on the town to celebrate with family and friends and therefore they need a ride home. Vienna is happy to oblige. 

This is indicative of a broader trend in many European cities compared to Canada. There is an assumption that public services like transit and infrastructure are for everyone, not just some idealized version of what people are "supposed" to do. Back in Calgary, Calgary Transit has been successful at catering to the downtown workforce, but have been less successful at catering to the wider community that is not always business hours focused. Quality of transit service is also allowed to be worse for the general public in areas like reliability, wait-times and frequency. Vienna there is no such assumption. The idea is that everyone, in any part of the city, has the right to efficient mobility on public transit. It is not treated as a second-class service to car traffic. 

One more thing on transit: an express train from the airport is billed at taking 16 minutes from there to a central U-Bahn stop. 16 minutes. Ridiculous.

My favourite part of Vienna:
Museum Quarter is a spectacular chain of plazas and walkways that link between a few dozen - I know, only a few dozen? It's like they aren't even trying - museums and cultural institutions from art to dance to music to architecture and more.

A view of in the daytime looking at MUMOK, Vienna's grey, ultra-modern shrine to contemporary art:

The Museum Quarter is billed as one of the largest cultural facilities in the world. It is tied together with thousand of open seats and irregular blue-block street furniture - in the foreground of the picture above. Unlike Calgary, Amsterdam, Berlin and many others places, there is an incredible focus on creating public seating. It is everywhere you look and Wieners use it at all times of the day. Imagine seats lining the CPR underpasses between downtown Calgary and the Beltline neighbourhood. There are countless seats lining every park and path as well as on nearly all sidewalks and side streets. If there is ever a city that wants to encourage people to slow down and linger in it's public spaces, Vienna is it.

Calgary is certainly emulating designing public spaces in this way. The much-beloved Prince's Island Park is covered in benches and picnic sites, grassy knolls for Shakespeare in the Park performances, and rocks to sit and contemplate with the babble of the Bow in your ears. The newest edition to the city centre pathway network, the East Village River Walk builds on these ideas that Vienna does so well, offering benches and lookouts frequently with the high-quality level of design any great city deserves.

Most amazingly about Vienna's Museum Quarter is the shift in the atmosphere at night-time. It becomes one of the strangest and most interesting public spaces places I have ever seen. Starting around sunset, young and old Wieners come to the plazas to hang out. Many bring 24-packs (!) of beer and lounge all over the square. The lounging takes the form of  a lean on the wall, benches, street furniture, on the ground. Thousands of more people are hanging out in the cafés and bars of the museums even though the museums actually closed hours before.

The view of a reflecting pool in front of one of the museum-cafés:

MUMOK has free contemporary art films playing on a giant screen in one corner of the plaza. They give out wireless headphones to listen over the noise of the crowd: 

The most amazing thing about the Museum Quarter's night-life is this is for nothing. There are no festivals or youthful party bars nearby. People literally come here just to sit, chat, drink and have a good time. You'll never see the fences of beer gardens or patios, everyone simply walks around with their drink and their 24-pack (!) of beer and sit anywhere they want. You'll also see no alcohol-related problems and no police presence. It doesn't clear out until the early morning, approaching 3AM. 

Vienna is exemplary of how cities should build their public spaces. It might be one of the best in the world. Policies are put in place to encourage personal freedom and choice, not limiting freedom to use public space as if sitting in a plaza is a bad thing. No pouring out your drink if a policeman walks up, no anger or hostility of any kind. It is perfect.

I have more to show, but that's all for now - I haven't even described the public showing of famous Viennese opera films in front of the city hall; complete with food of all types and beer in the glass. An actual pint glass you can walk anywhere with in an enormous plaza of architectural marvels and thousands of people.

No plastic utensils here and high-priced food nonsense. Real food like the Kalbsbutter Schnitzel mit Erdäpfelpüree below (loosely translated as veal meatballs with a mashed potato purée):

Rathausplatz, where the films, food and beer is consumed:

In some parts of the world even indoor nightclubs and bars will refuse to give out glass-ware and utensils out of fear of violence, damage and broken glass.

Treat people like animals and they will act like them!

Vienna will do no such thing. It goes above and beyond other cities to prove that you are welcome here. Come and see it. Vienna is waiting for you.

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