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Street Life: Vienna (Austria)
Design and Management of Public Space
Vienna, an historically evolved, Central European metropolis with currently 1.6 million inhabitants, is a city whose development can be traced back 2000 years.
Situated at the heart of Vienna, the 'Rathausplatz' (or City Hall Square), whose recreational use as a public open space will be described as a typical example in the text below, was given its present appearance in 1997 (planning work: Municipal Administration of the city of Vienna - Architect Luigi Blau).
Since 1999, events taking place in the square have been managed by 'Stadt Wien Marketing Service GmbH', a company wholly owned by the city of Vienna.
Context within the city
The above-mentioned historical evolution is still clearly visible in the urban structure and continues to shape its identity. Starting from the old 'Inner City' and its medieval core, the near explosive urban growth of the late 19th century has left an indelible mark on the cityscape.
At that time, the city walls dating back almost 1,000 years were demolished, and the Ringstrasse boulevard with its elegant buildings - including the City Hall and City Hall Square - were constructed; the Danube was canalised; public transport and technical infrastructure were established as basic prerequisites for the development of a modern metropolis.
Approximately a century later, in the 1970's, important steps towards modern-day urban development were undertaken. The construction of the Vienna Underground (starting in 1968) and the related clearing of key inner-city streetscapes of car traffic created a basis for the 'recovery of public space' for pedestrians.
Since 1974, fully 370 refurbishment and redesign projects of various dimensions - from pedestrian zones in main shopping streets to the redesign of squares in front of schools - extending over an area of approx. 3.200,000 m ² were implemented.
These areas take account of local requirements but also of the needs of a city of culture and tourism serving an international public.
With its overall surface of approximately 12,000 m², in the original concept for the Rathausplatz itself, which dates back to the construction of the Ringstrasse (circa 1880), the square was to extend between two important public buildings of Vienna's city centre, i.e. the City Hall and the Burgtheater, as a generous, urban public space and monumental axis flanked by the Rathauspark green zone.
In 1976, the square was partly cleared of traffic by building an underground car park. The subsequent competition was to draw up an overall design and plan; however, the project was not implemented for financial reasons. With the exception of a Christmas market and a few large-scale events, no appropriate use was developed for this open space at the time.
Only in the early 1990's, were plans resumed to close the traffic lane adjoining the square to cars and to make the entire square available to the citizens as an 'event zone'.
Street Life Urban Design
Housing an increasing number of functions on less and less space in an aesthetically appealing manner is the Gordian knot confronting urban planners. The solution cannot lie in uniform design but rather in a 'less is more' approach regarding both overall spatial design and street furniture:
• marked reduction of the number of individual elements and promotion of multiple uses;
• minimal design for the new street furniture, whose underlying concept should become visible less in the individual object than in the interaction of these elements, with the design in keeping with the identity of each single location
While never losing sight of production and maintenance costs, the use of materials and plants typical of, and corresponding to, the individual locations is a key prerequisite for meeting immaterial requirements.
Over the past few years, the city of Vienna has organised design competitions for street furniture (lighting fixtures, benches, phone booths, shelters, kiosks, ...). These competitions have resulted in high-quality prototypes for the most diverse areas of application, which are being implemented and constantly evolved. These principles were also applied in the redesign of the City Hall Square.
In the context of the 'Strategic Plan for Vienna', under the subheading 'Upgrading Public Space' a strategic project was initiated for the 're-interpretation of public space'.
This project evaluates a large number of individual thematic aspects as well as the existing potentials of public spaces in different municipal districts. Each functional requirement is assigned to the specific space available for the purpose; an additional quality criterion is the optimum networking of the individual spaces.
Taking account of the needs of the population, use-oriented design solutions are developed for the individual 'locations' in the different neighbourhoods. The 'paths' linking these locations, too, are to be given an attractive appearance, resulting in a network of squares and corridors for the urban neighbourhoods.
In the context of this project, the aspect of - both temporary and permanent - 'art in public space" will be given a key role. This is partly to generate new ideas for the temporary and permanent recreational use' of these spaces.
Event management and marketing
'Vienna is different' - this is the slogan of the Vienna Tourist Board. Vienna wants to be more exciting, multi-faceted, alive than other metropolises of comparable size. It was with good reason that the German weekly 'Focus' voted Vienna - after Vancouver and Zurich - the city with the highest quality of life worldwide.
A wide range of events and record visitor numbers at the 'Danube Island Party' and the 'Vienna New Year's Eve Walk' prove that the city is a vibrant centre of culture, music, sports, events, fun, film and architecture. The city of Vienna has exploited the new impulses that have enveloped the Austrian capital in recent years by hosting an increasing number of events. Thematic focuses have been created in all areas ranging from architecture to sports.
The Rathausplatz is a good example of the numerous event locations in Vienna. The design of the historical sequence of buildings and open spaces along the Ringstrasse between the City Hall and the Burgtheater has definitely evolved from the former, purely monumental axis into a public event zone.
Over the past few years, the Rathausplatz has successfully been transformed into an ideal place for organising all types of events.
However, the past had been beset with recurring problems regarding the infrastructure for these events (electricity, phone lines, sewerage, water, etc.). For this reason, the redesign had to cater for maximum flexibility in the supply of utilities in the future.
A special aspect of the refurbishment project was the kerbs of the sidewalks in the square area, which in the past had often proved unpleasant 'stumbling blocks' for visitors.
In the end, the actual visual change - a consequence of the above intentions - was due to a solution to this problem found by raising the square to the former pavement level and using a neutral asphalt covering for the surface of the square. The design aspects of the refurbishment project were dealt with by the planning departments of the Municipal Administration in co-operation with the architect Luigi Blau.
For both cost-related and functional reasons, the surface design chosen is as simple and discreet as possible, thereby corresponding to the requirements of the historical location and the functional needs from openness to multiple, comprehensive uses.
Except for a few weeks each year, the square is dedicated to a variety of events. The increasing visitor volumes show that it is a favourite of both the Viennese and foreign visitors (approx. 30,000 visitors at the Vienna Festival opening and about 18,000 daily visitors for the Film Festival).
The 'Ice Dream', the opening ceremony for the 'Vienna Festival', the 'Film Festival', the 'Christmas Market', the 'New Year's Eve Walk' as well as numerous sports events and exhibitions make up the programme for the recreational use of this newly created event zone.
Since 1999, the company 'Stadt Wien Marketing Service GmbH' established by the city of Vienna has been acting as the main organisational chain linking mega-happenings and small-scale events as well as networking individual organisers by means of intensified co-operation and advertising activities. In this, 'Stadt Wien Marketing Service' functions partly as organiser, partly as partner or simply as communication facilitator.
The context of 'Street Life: New design for public spaces' has provided a general overview of the particular situation of Vienna's open spaces. In Vienna, public space is indeed defined as a public asset under the law and in practice cannot be privatised and only partially rented.
In order to provide safe public spaces open to different urban structures and user needs, these must be designed in as neutral and robust a manner as possible. Private users (events, advertisements, café gardens, etc.) must be checked and channelled in a targeted fashion to achieve the right mix of 'commercialisation' and 'public freedom of use'.
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The Journal of Urbanism