Learning from Vienna

Maintaining quality of life in spite of population growth

This blog has long argued that we have much to learn about livability from other cities. Indeed, that was the philosophy of blog co-founder Suzanne Lennard, who founded the International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference series with her husband Henry in 1985, and ran the conferences partly from Portland.  She felt that Portland had many lessons to share with (and to learn from) other cities like Vienna. In fact, the conference series alternated between locales in the US and European cities including Vienna.

As a recent article in CityLab recounts, Vienna has taken steps to counter the myriad destructive impacts of real estate dynamics and global capital flows, which Portland has seemed so unable to comprehend, let alone counter.  Indeed, a simplistic “build baby build” mentality has prevailed in Portland.  Some seem to believe in the silver-bullet strategy of deregulation and upzoning, and all will be well. As we have argued, this approach does little to address the challenges, and in some case actually makes them worse.  As an economic geographer from the London School of Economics put it (quoted in our last blog post):

“Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations…. Housing is an area where the law of unintended consequences is most powerful. The idea that upzoning will cause housing affordability to trickle down within our metropolis, while also setting up Los Angeles and San Francisco as the new golden land for people in less prosperous regions, is just a lot to promise—and it’s based on a narrative of housing as opportunity that is deeply flawed.”

Clearly Vienna has been more circumspect — with much better results to date.  The city maintains a strong supply of affordable housing distributed across the metropolitan area, not jammed into tall buildings in the core.  Much of it is “social housing” — housing created not as a speculative commodity but as a human right, with a variety of tools and funding mechanisms.  `And all of it is created as part of the seamless creation of livable neighborhoods that are healthy for all, especially children and families.

As Maria Vassilakou, the city’s former deputy mayor, put it in the CityLab article:

“A livable city is a city where people live because they want to, not because they have to… A city that is good for children is good for everybody.”

The City has maintained this livability, not by stiff-arming or demonizing residents, but by engaging them in a “win-win” civic planning process.  Where other cities (like Portland) have sought to marginalize existing grass-roots resident groups, Vienna has empowered them.  The City has supported and even strengthened bottom-up, neighborhood-level actions to improve livability, rather than imposing simplistic solutions top-down — whether through a city planning regime, a powerful real estate development entity, or a lobbying group of self-interested professionals (the combination of which we have referred to as an unhelpful “architectural-industrial complex”).

From the article:

In Vienna, one way that happens is with a community grant scheme that bestows hundreds of modest €4,000 grants for small neighborhood-level public-space improvement projects. “Once one of these initiatives gets implemented, it changes the perspective of the whole neighborhood,” Vassilakou said. “I think this works because this is not top-down. It’s the bottom-up kind of inspiration that can change the city.”

Read the full article here:  https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/10/most-livable-cities-vienna-social-housing-transit-mobility/600922/




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