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Verdant Vienna, The Truly Smart City

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Vienna has been crowned the world’s best city to live in for the ninth consecutive year. With over half the city given to green space, Vienna offers a vision of the 21st century metropolis, balancing history, technology and nature.

As we move ever deeper into the digital era, the Smart City concept has gained traction, with major metropolises across the globe working on strategies to use technology and data to improve urban efficiency and quality of life. As with so many emerging trends, there is no single approach — each city government sets its own goals, methodologies and practices based on local challenges and culturally defined priorities.

Vienna is taking a particularly unique approach, and its efforts are clearly paying off. In March 2018, Mercer’s 20th annual Quality of Living survey ranked the Austrian capital number one out of 231 major cities, based on factors such as crime, healthcare, education, public services, recreation, housing and personal freedom.

Indeed, wandering around as a visitor, that sense of satisfaction is tangible. Iconic (and punctual) trams glide along vast boulevards lined with grand palaces. Contemporary art and architecture sits gracefully alongside the dominant classical aesthetics. Nature is omnipresent, offering a sense of openness even in crowded and densely populated areas.

So what’s the secret behind Vienna’s winning formula? “Of course we’re interested in new technology and innovation, but for us the citizen is at the centre,” says Pamela Mühlmann, senior expert at Vienna’s Smart City Agency. “If there is no value for the people of Vienna, then it’s not a Smart City initiative.”

While many cities take a technology-first strategy and work backwards from there, Vienna uses innovation as an enabler, to ensure and improve quality of life while conserving natural resources.

aspern Seestadt on the water

aspern Seestadt

Smart City Vienna

From mobility to education, energy to health, Vienna operates a vast range of projects that fall under the Smart City banner. One flagship initiative is Seestadt Aspern. A newly built, lakeside residential quarter situated on a former airfield, Aspern is a living laboratory. Built to house 20,000 people and create the same number of jobs, the site has been called “one of the most innovative and sustainable energy efficiency demonstration projects in Europe” thanks to both the scale of the project and use of integrated data.

“While construction is ongoing, we’re already doing social impact evaluation,” explains Mühlmann. She calls the process “co-creational,” meaning that the people who live there have a genuine say in the development of the area. Plus, because it’s being built from scratch, it’s much easier to integrate state-of-the-art technology, both within and between buildings, urban infrastructure and mobility services.

Elsewhere in Vienna, as part of the EU-funded Smarter Together scheme, an area of predominantly social housing is being refurbished with Smart City integration. The 21,000 inhabitants will benefit from improved energy efficiency and environmentally friendly mobility options, through the use of smart energy meters, solar panels, and electric car and bike sharing. Again, the focus is on engaging citizens throughout the process, making them active stakeholders rather than passive recipients. “We’re taking the opportunity to work with the people who live there, and making steps towards a different kind of mobility, through sharing culture,” says Mühlmann.

Aspern Smart City Research

Aspern Smart City Research. Photo credit: Walter Schaub Walzer

Green, sustainable, liveable

Another distinctive facet of Vienna’s approach is its focus on green spaces. The city doesn’t necessarily conjure images of nature, yet it’s surprisingly green, with over 50 percent of the total landmass made up of parks and natural environments. Science has shown that spending time in nature has benefits to both physical and mental health: It lowers heart rates, reduces stress, aids sleep, improves immune system function, and stimulates creative thinking.

“We have a lot of people living in a relatively small space,” says Mühlmann. “We want to make it possible for people to have high-quality green space close to their home, for recreation, for socialising, for wellbeing.”

Residents revel in Vienna’s natural offerings. Donauinsel, for example, is among the most popular weekend destinations; on a sunny Sunday the long, narrow river island on the Danube is bustling with people sunbathing, swimming, barbecuing or rollerblading their way along this natural wonder in the heart of the city.

“We are lucky to have big green spaces, which are so important to quality of life,” says Mühlmann. Like many cities, Vienna is growing, and facing constant demand for new housing. While this puts pressure on precious green space, natural areas also provide a solution to another of the the city’s contemporary challenges. “Vienna gets warm in summer, and as our cooling systems are not yet so developed, people have an even bigger need to get outside,” explains Mühlmann. “Demand for high-quality green space will only increase in the future, and as a Smart City we want to be prepared for that.”

Danube Auen National Park

Danube Auen National Park

What makes Vienna’s verdant offerings so exceptional is that an experience of nature is readily accessible to residents even from the city centre — from the vast forested highlands that make up Vienna Woods to the 700 hectares of wine-producing vineyards within the city limits.

Perhaps the most impressive of all is the spectacularly diverse Danube-Auen National Park. Covering almost 100 square kilometres, some of which fall inside Vienna, and stretching all the way to Bratislava to the east, the park is a floodplain of the River Danube, and one of the largest remaining wetlands environments in Central Europe. As Vienna clearly shows, being truly smart is about making the most of your natural assets.

The Danube-Auen National Park can be explored as part of an insider experience exclusive to InterContinental Vienna guests. Led by a local park ranger, the adventure tour includes a boat trip, hiking, and the chance to observe rare animals – including pond turtles, sea eagles and kingfishers.

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