London needs to punch up both culturally and civically argues Dan Synge
This isn’t just a case of the post-holiday blues, but returning from a weekend in Vienna, it hit me how clean and efficient everything seemed compared to my own city.
Firstly, you notice the pavements which are spotless sometimes even milky in appearance. Then there is the noise, or rather the absence of it, which allows you to experience more reassuring city interactions like church bells, the ding-dinging of a tram or snatches of a cello coming from an upstairs window.
When it comes to the locals, it is a clear they are a thoroughly cultured and civilised lot too. I couldn’t help but notice that directly outside our MuseumsQuartier hotel there were half a dozen young or middle-aged people stationed on park benches reading real books. In our local park they would be smoking weed or playing Candy Crush on their smartphone. No-one was eating fast food or performing an obnoxious in-ears monologue. The well-tended grass around them was like the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Their children, meanwhile, played imaginative screen-free games alongside a Baroque fountain in the warm sunshine. The scene was so refreshingly charming I felt like Dirk Bogarde in Death In Venice.
I didn’t have the heart to tell my German breakfast companion, a rural dweller unused to the big city, that just outside my own front door it is normal to stumble upon shattered glass shards, upended Lime bikes and to hear the constant screeching of emergency vehicles. Nor did I mention the vandalised bus stop, the fly-tipped garden and the obtrusive LTN's that bring things ever closer to a standstill here. London has lost the plot.
Back to Vienna, it comes as no surprise therefore to discover it was voted the world’s 'most liveable city' in 2022 by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), beating notoriously well-run cities such as Copenhagen and Zurich. Criteria such as healthcare, culture, education and infrastructure were applied to 173 urban centres worldwide with Vienna scoring an overall rating of 95.1 out of 100.
"It really feels like a green, clean city...one that hasn’t been artificially imposed upon its citizens"
Its transport system alone scored an impressive 100, due largely to its cheap and efficient metro, tram and bus network which is rarely overcrowded and doesn’t even enforce formal ticket checks due to the honesty of its users. And because the pedestrian streets and cycle ways are so pleasingly designed, the effect on urban car use is devastating. This certainly seemed to be the case in the taxi to and from the airport which took just 20 minutes to cover the 20 km journey.
When it comes to housing, Vienna leads the way in providing affordable quality homes with three out of five Viennese living in state funded accommodation. Even the term ‘social housing’ is used in a non-pejorative sense. It seems the professional classes are simply not as obsessed as we are about property ownership, a biproduct of which is often to drive up local house prices.
Violent crime and anti-social behaviour are rare too. “Due to Austria’s low crime rate, walking around alone during the day is extremely safe, as is walking around at night,” says Michelle Topham founder of website Oh My Vienna. Not bad for a city with a population of roughly two million which is comparable to that of Liverpool or Greater Leeds.
Of course, what really strikes you as you discover Vienna on foot or by bicycle are all the picture-perfect parks and green spaces. With the gentle river Danube running through the city and rolling forested hills spread out to the west, it really feels like a green, clean city, and one that hasn’t been artificially imposed upon its citizens.
But arguably none of the above factors count as much as a concept that doesn’t even exist in my own country: lebenskunst. A compound noun derived from the words ‘leben’ (life) and ‘kunst’ (art), it is roughly translated as having the ability to live your life as a work of art, whatever your economic or social circumstances. This is not to be confused with our own version, ‘lifestyle’, which is linked more closely to status and mass consumption.
Lebenskunst has been championed by many thinkers and writers over over the years, notably Goethe, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde and Thomas Mann. Like them, if you surrounded yourself with beautiful things or aspire to live well through art, music, books or meaningful friendships you will become a lebenskunstler (master in the art of living).
The Viennese have an unfair advantage in that they are surrounded by art and beauty on an everyday basis. Cobbled streets and wide tree-lined boulevards will lead you to over a hundred museums and art galleries as well as scores of concert halls befitting the hometown of Mozart and Schubert. Meanwhile the city’s landmark buildings offer a taste of the neo-classical, the Modernist and the contemporary. Dazzling urban vistas can be spied from both fin de siècle Ferris wheels and craggy medieval towers.
They, for instance, have a landscaped former Baroque palace, The Belvedere, dedicated to their finest painters Gustave Klimt and Egon Schiele. We, on the other hand, hide away paintings by our most eminent artists and instead focus on work that creates modish political narratives. They live harmoniously among art nouveau masterpieces and Hapsburg monuments. We are forced to inhabit those cold post-industrial shells Tate Modern and the O2 circus tent.
It no longer applies to flying into Barcelona or Prague these days – too many stag dos to contend with – but when you visit a city like Vienna you have no option but to raise your game and punch up both culturally and socially. I saw examples of this in the Staatsoper (opera house) one Sunday morning, when a sizeable crowd flocked to the Ringstrasse to hear pieces by Antonin Dvorak and Astor Piazzolla performed by the Vienna Philharmonic in one of their low-ceilinged, heavily chandeliered salons. An entrance ticket cost just 13 Euros.
Not only was the music richly textured and just a little bit exotic, but beautifully dressed music lovers of all ages and nationalities queued patiently in the stifling air then formed an orderly line all over again in the interval for helpings of thick black coffee and delicious chocolate tartes.
Like the sign in my local library aimed at younger readers that once read ‘Bukz’, be careful what you wish for by setting the bar too low.