Just How Green is Wien?

Vienna epitomizes environmental friendlines - but does the city live up to its reputation?

News | Ingrid Salazar | July / August 2009

In times of financial crisis, stimulus spending, recessions and global panic, Mother Earth tends to feel left out. So when World Environment Day (WED) rolled around this past Jun. 5 to the theme of "Your Planet Needs You - UNite to Combat Climate Change," it was an opportune moment to bring pressing environmental issues to the front pages of newspapers worldwide.

For Vienna it was also a time to reflect on its own eco-conscience: In the shadow of a nation which is falling behind in meeting its Kyoto objectives – Austria has been lacking committed and effective statewide policies for climate change and energy - the capital city has nonetheless proven to be a role-model of green. Yet Vienna still faces the challenge to, as Ban-Ki Moon said in his WED message, "make a transition to a new era of greener, cleaner development."

Vienna is often described as environmentally friendly, a model for cities around the world. After all, two of the criteria that earned Vienna the coveted first place in Mercer’s study of overall quality of life were public transportation and environmental quality. But what does the Viennese face of environmental friendliness look like?

"I am really impressed," said Leon Blum, an MBA student visiting from New York. "There is so much green space, so many parks and tree-lined streets. The public transportation here is so easy to navigate. Everything is so clean, efficient and fast."  He was referring to the subways and trams, not to the pace of life. Then, of course, compared to New York, all is relative.

Still, Vienna’s transportation system is proving effective. According to a study by the Austrian automobile club (VCÖ), Austrians are by far the EU’s most ardent users of public transportation, with Vienna easily in the lead, with 35 per cent of all transport on the public system, seven per cent above the EU average.

Vienna’s network of trams is one of the largest in the world. While many European cities switched from trams to buses in the 1970s and 1980s, bringing with it an increase in exhaust, noise and congestion, Vienna tramlines have been in constant operation since the first horse-drawn trams made their appearance in 1865.

More recent, this June Vienna has been chosen along with Munich to test-drive the new MAN hybrid buses, zero-emission fuel-saving vehicles that are the new hype and new future of public transport. This follows a tradition of clean energy in Vienna’s buses. In 1977 all new buses were equipped with liquid petroleum engines, which produce up to 60 per cent less carbon monoxide and up to 90 per cent less particulates than diesel, and are also cheaper.

However, like any urban area, Vienna’s population is growing, as is the number of cars, one of the city’s biggest contributors to CO2 emissions. It is a problem faced by almost all urban areas and the focus of the environmental debate.

"Around 100,000 commuters enter Vienna daily from the countryside, causing a lot of congestion," comments Rüdiger Maresch, the environment spokesman of the Viennese Greens, the Vienna green party. "We would like to have a system similar to the Stockholm Congestion Charge," referring to the controversial traffic congestion and environmental tax imposed on the majority of vehicles in Stockholm which resulted in the reduction of private traffic by 22 per cent.

Such an initiative, while unpopular with conservative and right-wing parties, who consider it an unwieldy burden on industry, could help Vienna meet their goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020.

This is an ambitious figure in a city already doing a lot in terms of ensuring clean air and waste management.

Blessed by a fortunate geographical location, Vienna has an abundance of green area, alpine fresh drinking water and a very good air quality. It has also been with foresight by the government that the city of Vienna has been able to ensure these luxuries to its inhabitants and visitors alike.

Vienna lies between two distinct European landscapes: the Alpine region and the Pannonian lowland. In 1905, the Austrian Senate realized the importance of protecting urban greenspace and agreed to conserve the woods around Vienna. Over the next hundred years, the Vienna Woods (Wienerwald) joined with the Vienna Meadow Belt to become the protected "Green Belt for Vienna," the lungs of the city.

Just beyond these woods and meadows, in the Lower Austrian-Styrian Alps, begins the journey of the Vienna water supply. The springs and woods around these springs are also safeguarded for Vienna by the Vienna Constitution.

Within the Vienna Green Belt, approximately 30 per cent of the total area is under nature protection - the Lainz Animal Reserve, Prater Park and the Danube Lowlands being the best known.  An additional 20 per cent of Vienna is covered by parks and gardens, making half of the city green, literally.

Still, it is argued that a lot of the green space is overused or just for show. Modeled after the New York initiative "Green Thumb," the Green Party is pushing the concept of "Guerilla Gardening," which would allow the use of certain public spaces for planting flowers and vegetables for private use. "Guerilla Gardening would help regain public space for the people", emphasized Maresch.

Undisputed is Vienna’s position as an international leader in efficient waste management. There are three waste incineration plants in Vienna, the most famous of which is the Spittelau Fernwärme, the unique building designed by the famous artist and architect Hundertwasser, an environmental activist himself. It has the lowest emission levels of any incinerator worldwide.

On average each Viennese produces 450 kg of waste per year. This waste is treated and burned, eliminating 90 per cent of the waste and creating heat for around 300,000 apartments and 6,000 industrial customers. It is an international model for a modern ecological recycling system. Cities around the world, most recently Naples, are using Vienna’s waste management system to improve their own systems, making them cleaner and more efficient.

Along with these bragging points also come points of concern.

"Our biggest worry at the moment is the Lobau Tunnel project," says Herwig Schuster, officer from Greenpeace Vienna. The Lobau Tunnel project, already years in the pipeline, is to create a transit route through the Lobau, a 22-square-meter area north of the Danube and west of Vienna, to connect the Baltic and Adriatic seas. According to Schuster, "It would seriously increase traffic in the Vienna area and disrupt the Donau-Auen National Park".

Also affecting the level of traffic will be the projected growth in population, currently at 1.7 million and expected to reach two million by 2038. Vienna will have to meet this urban challenge while adhering to their eco-friendly ways. Some housing projects such as the Bike City, a complex in the 2nd District which caters to the needs of cyclists, promotes the use of bicycles and creating eco-communities essential to environmental-friendly sustainability.

Just down the street from Bike City, a new low-energy and affordable housing project, "Living on the Park," or Wohnen am Park, is being constructed, subsidized by the Department for Housing and Urban Renewal Vienna.

Schuster and Maresch both point to such projects as successes for Vienna and each admit that Vienna is indeed green, which, coming from green crusaders fighting the perpetual battle to save Mother Earth, says something.

Still, for Vienna to reach the goal of a 20 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, the responsibility lies beyond good city planning, government programs and UN calls for environmental awareness.

The responsibility belongs also to all inhabitants to find their own green routine.

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