The Danube Canal: Vienna’s Riviera
Straddled by high rises and stylish cafés, the Danube Canal is becoming a powerful commercial hub. But new planning rules are set to protect the quay’s public purpose
At night, the Marienbrücke’s concrete face is cast in an ultra-marine light. Symbolising "Mary’s cloak", the illumined bridge seems intent on transcending its own post-war design for a shimmering, post-modern future. Crossing the Danube Canal, it leads to an emerging cluster of high rises on the Leopoldstadt embankment. There, swirling colours burst from the glass-box bar on the top level of the Sofitel Hotel, and a massive LED screen atop the Media Tower advertises the political glam-mag News. Under the bridge, patches of the canal side are covered in sand, with beach bars mixing drinks for a fashionable clientele.
Like other European capitals, Vienna seems to have discovered the economic value locked in its industrial-era, inner-city waterfront. Across the continent, derelict docklands are being converted into high-end residential areas and hubs of the new economy.
The public–private spectrum
Yet approaches differ. With London’s creation of the Canary Wharf financial district in the 1990s, a section of the Thames embankment became private property, giving owners the right to restrict access with the use of security firms. In Belgrade, the Sava embankment has become the place to go on a Saturday night, with barges-turned-nightclubs catering to all ages, while the surrounding parkland has withered. In Paris, by contrast, the quays of the Seine are still mostly reserved for pedestrians, who encounter only light commercial outlets such as book stalls and ice cream trolleys.
Similarly, the Danube Canal’s quayside promenade is a public thoroughfare owned by the city government. As the mid-2000s saw a rush of private tenants setting up waterside bars and restaurants, the City responded with a "Master Plan for the Danube Canal". Emphasising the need for "consumption-free areas", the 2009 document effectively put an end to commercial expansion along the quay. In the plan’s zoning, only two patches – between Salztorbrücke and Schwedenbrücke – remain designated for future development.
"We want to stabilise the existing commercial usage, not crazily extend it," says Bernhard Engleder, head of the City’s Danube Canal Coordination. Yet the existing ventures along the 13 kilometre canal make up only "about 10% of the stretch in the 1st District," Engleder estimates.
In direct reversal of the private enclosure of London’s waterfront, the Danube Canal is being ring-fenced for the public. On the basis of the 2009 master plan, the City recently commissioned an architecture firm to define planning rules applicable to all developments along the canal, with the aim of ensuring universal access to the recreational area.
Rules of the game
The conflicting demands on the Danube Canal emerge in the daylight: a graffiti sprayed onto the quay wall beside a stylish café caricatures a property developer in a suit and trainers. "Next to this graffiti we’ll set up our new hipster lounge!" his speech bubble reads. A little upstream, some young men are practicing rock climbing on the rough-hewn sandstone of the embankment, designed by Otto Wagner in 1896.
Gabu Heindl and Susan Kraupp, the lead architects working on the "planning guidelines" (Gestaltungsleitlinien) for the Danube Canal, want to ensure the space remains open to such creative uses. "Unlike building plans whose basis is volume, ours is a non-building plan, based on unbuilt space," explains Kraupp. The architects are defining "rules of the game" for both public and private developments along the canal. For instance, built structures will have to keep a minimum distance from public stairwells and the water edge, as well as observing a height limit so the canal remains visible from the street level above. "The rules should ensure that people can experience the linear waterway," says Heindl.
"If the rules become binding, the plan will mean a lot," Heindl notes. When current leases expire, tenants may eventually have to adjust their premises to comply. Yet for the city administration, negotiations are only just starting. "We will look at what Gabu Heindl proposes," says Engleder. But the architects are optimistic. Aiming to submit their draft in the autumn, Heindl and Kraupp are about to start talks with the heads of the seven districts straddling the canal; as they pay for its upkeep, they are key players in the planning process. "Planning is always also mediation," says Heindl. "Planners who only make drawings fail."
Supply and demand
As with all urban planning projects, however, the question is whom else to include in the decision-making. Quayside tenants complain that, while the authorities keep them informed of new developments, they don’t ask them for their active input. "They should always ask the businesses," says Haya Molcho, the owner of Tel Aviv Beach, a popular bar that opened on the Leopoldstadt embankment in 2009. "The city is married to us, in a sense. And I also ask my husband for his opinion," she reasons.
Molcho is skeptical about the city’s attempt to restrict commercial development from the top down. Instead, people should be allowed to vote with their feet, she says. "As long as there’s demand, new businesses are an enrichment." Accordingly, Molcho thinks a balance between commercial and open space would have emerged on its own, without the city’s 2009 zoning master plan. "Restaurants would go bankrupt on the shady embankment anyway."
Yet, to canal coordinator Engleder, that is another reason to limit commercial space in advance. When businesses fail, their lease on the land may still continue for years. "We often have the problem that a tenant allows his lot to fall into disrepair, and we can’t just say ‘that’s got to go’," he explains. The issue literally flared up in January, when a disused "party boat" moored by the Salztorbrücke went up in flames. "The owner had gone bankrupt," Engleder confirms. Four months later, the burnt-out hull remains untouched. The city hopes that an investor will eventually take over the lease and re-develop the spot.
Room for possibility
The new planning guidelines’ ultimate aim is to render the Danube Canal more accessible and attractive for public use. This, however, will require not only "unbuilt space", but also improved built infrastructure. Notably, this includes the placement of public benches, drinking fountains, and lifts to the street level at regular intervals. "Here, the city has a great debt: even Otto Wagner recommended more ramps and lifts to connect the lower and the upper quays." In other words, the canal’s disabled access falls short even of late 19th century ideas.
More innovatively, the 2009 master plan calls for the creation of "possibility areas" where members of the public can stage temporary events. The upcoming planning guidelines will identify adequate locations, and recommend that they be supplied with water and electricity.
Yet funding for the new public infrastructure is still an open question: Heindl and Kraupp informally call that part of their guidelines a Wunschplan– an "ideal plan". They hope that in their upcoming marathon of meetings, district and city officials will come up with funding synergies. "This isn’t a project with millions of euros attached," notes Heindl. "That’s exactly why privatisation is on the march, because the public purse can no longer afford to maintain public spaces."
But the architect is unwilling to give in. Creative design can keep costs down, while still enhancing an area’s look and feel. "There’s an idea to stop mowing the grass in some sections. High grass has a tremendous aesthetic flair."
Vienna’s Riviera, then, may soon have its meadows as well.
A walking tour of the Danube Canal with urbanists Peter Payer and Judith Eiblmayr will take place on 11 May, 16:00 (German). Registration: email@example.com
For more on sights along the Danube Canal, see restaurant reviews of Motto am Fluss and Holy Moly!, a review of Die Grelle Forelle, as well as impressions from our "Notes From Nature" columns from Feb 2010, Jul/Aug 2010, and May 2011. The Vienna Tourist Board provides further information here.