The Cult of Liveability

New SPÖ campaign
Newish mayor Michael Ludwig – Vienna is what we make it.

Vienna has topped the life quality rankings since such rankings came into existence (and since I moved to Vienna). But in 2018, for the first time, it was voted as the most liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit (sister organisation of The Economist magazine) unseating previous title holder, Melbourne. With this rumble-in-the-urban jungle concluded it means Vienna, for the time being anyway, is now as the undisputed city liveability champion of the world. All that is left to do now pile on the pounds, retire to the Florida beach house and declare bankruptcy in two years (you joke).

It is my feeling that the reaction to such surveys in the number one city usually provokes casual indifference. Interestingly, there is rarely celebration and any reports in the media are generally forgotten the next day. I can only explain this due to a native-Viennese (or Austrian) tendency to avoid triumphalism and a passionate desire never to show off. Indeed, ebullient proclamations on such matters are as likely to be heard as someone in the EU commission suddenly claiming that the UK’s Brexit strategy has been a model of coherence, lucidity and rationality.

Admittedly, not everything is perfect (the Brexit withdrawal shitshow notwithstanding) but however the organisations of Mercer or The Economist rank cities, it can’t be a coincidence that Vienna is always placed consistently near the top. This can only mean they must be doing something right (depending, of course, on how you contextualise “right”). But if the Viennese resolutely refuse to blow their own trumpet for fear of social ostracism, or worse, being confused with a German, how do they channel their emotional energies concerning their immutable relationship with the city they call home?

One possible answer might lay in being unfriendly. According to the highly dubious sounding “Expat City Ranking”, Vienna seemingly struggles when it comes to the affability of its hard-pressed citizens (the survey ranks Vienna 65 from 72 cities in terms of “friendliness”). This will come as no surprise to anyone in Austria from outside the capital but it has ruffled a few feathers amongst those welcoming chaps down at the Vienna Business Agency. Having said that, this is a considerable improvement on last year when Vienna was ranked second to last (behind Paris) so things are looking up, if not the corners of mouths.

The other possible reason might rest with the partiality to have a bit of a moan. At first this attitude seems rather odd, especially to friendly expat outsiders and, I admit, initially me. I mean what would the people of the number one city have to complain about, the whinging bastards? But this general mood of your archetypal Viennese should not worry anyone. Whichever way the “good life” is defined, the surly citizens of Christmas-market-central would never compromise their principles of self-deprecation and in turn unexpectedly shout about the life quality of Vienna from their well-maintained, wonderfully insulated rooftops. Boasting is social suicide and a sign of insecurity. Better to play things down, show indifference, grumble about the weather, parking, the superb public transport, those daft e-scooters, and most importantly be unsociable anywhere near a highly-paid pampered expatriate.

In any case, the announcement that Vienna was now the undeniable world-champion pretty much passed me by at the time, because I was on holiday with my usual news blackout. But one reaction did seep through. Writing in The Guardian newspaper shortly afterwards, referring to her experience of London (ranked 48 by The Economist), Nigerian writer Chinbundu Onuzo observed:

“A few months ago, I stepped out one morning and saw a coil of animal poo on the doorstep. My mother and I spent a long time trying to figure out what sort of animal had done the deed. We decided, in the end, that a fox was the culprit. But it could also have been a racist. The incident has occurred twice but as we’ve got rid of the evidence both times, we’ll never know.”

Onuzo’s point was that she never once found faeces in front of her house whilst living for 14 years in Lagos and Lagos is judged one of the 10 least liveable cities in the world. Indeed, as she goes on, in its ranking of the best cities in the world to live, the statisticians of the Economist Intelligence Unit didn’t take into account “the likeliness to find a turd on your front doorstep”. Whichever way you look at it, or step in it, she makes a very perspicuous point.

But her general thrust, aside from the basics like safety, education and healthcare, such rankings are highly subjective, especially when it comes to culture, the environment and interpersonal relations with other citizens. Yet when I read the part about an animal crapping outside her front door, or a human animal leaving shit outside her door (what I have now termed “poo-gate”) the symbolism of this – albeit in a figurative sense – resonated greatly. Because I had more or less made the same point to a man with the ear of the Mayor a few months prior.

In April I had a meeting with the head of our district to talk about traffic policy – primarily speeding traffic – on the street where I live and the surrounds. This was a culmination of various emails with the police through 2017 and a direct consequence of the traffic accident involving my mother-in-law in January of this year (I wrote about it in The Accidental Wiener). In truth this was quite a big deal for me. This was the first time in my life I had ever engaged with a politician directly. But it was part of a longer term strategy, set in motion by joining the SPÖ (Social Democratic Party) in the autumn of 2017, to try and address some local issues whilst strengthening links to the wider community.

This process was also partly driven by the Brexit vote and the elevation of the far-right Freedom Party as junior partners in the Austrian government in October 2017. In both cases I couldn’t vote (to vote in Austrian national elections one boringly needs citizenship) although both had a potentially important impact on my life in Austria. Yet even if you don’t believe in the transformative effect of democratic system, it brought into sharp focus of how far I was removed from even having the tiniest of contributions to the big questions of the day: the future relationship between my home country and the EU, the populist resurgence in Austria, whether I should risk a Hugo Punsch this year. And this vexed me. Which is why local politics suddenly became so important – I can vote in the district elections as an EU citizen – and was why I was sitting in the office of a short man in a badly-fitting suit, discussing the motorised-turds zooming past my door.

And so in that meeting we spoke about cars: speeding cars, badly parked cars, cars jumping red lights at the junction in front of the local primary school. But even in those opening few minutes (you could sense the direction of the debate simply by the smiles) it quickly became clear that any moves to change street architecture, reduce speed limits or consider measures to calm traffic were quickly dismissed. As the district chief pointed out, our part of the number one city was a transit zone, linking parts of Lower Austria to the east and centre of Vienna and it wouldn’t do to piss about with traffic flows (I told him I couldn’t care less about people deciding to go to work by car.) At best, all he could offer was a two-week test using a speed monitor to assess the traffic on our street. Data would then be collected and a report sent to the “Traffic Commission” who would decide how to act, if at all. Although, as I subsequently learned, this being nearly the summer, mostly not at all.

Part of joining the local SPÖ was a yearning to become involved. To engage about issues closer to home and, for my sanity, engender a feeling that I had a semblance of democratic clout. It was an easy decision because I more or less adhered to the ideology of democratic socialism although I have voted Green in the past. But equally it was about simple pragmatism. If I wanted to effect change and purse issues which were important to me and other members of the community, then I had to align myself with the party who had their fingers on the levers of power (for the foreseeable future). And so I saw it essentially as a trade off, a quid pro quo, a chance to glad-hand like minded souls. But I wanted something in return.

Although it went against my instinct, several people have told me over the years that if I want to achieve anything meaningful in the fabric of the Austrian establishment, then I have to join a party. And so this was my plan, to leverage this symbol of political kinship thinking it would, at worst, get a foot in the door (as it turned out it was more like my big toe) and I might have to hand out a leaflet or two. So I reminded the Bezirksvorsther that I was a party member and broadly supported what the SPÖ stood for both at a city level and nationally. That I appreciated the idea of a “smart city” (not knowing what it really meant), the expansion of the underground network, the free kindergartens, the social provision, the commitment to the environment and all the other splendid stuff that makes Vienna number one. But – and this was my point – all of these visionary allusions to big data and being “smarter together” are meaningless if cars are continuously speeding along your street where you kids walk to school each day, or someone is crapping on your doorstep, metaphorically or otherwise. Yes, because when I step outside and see another shitbird with his dick his hand and his foot on the pedal racing past at double the speed limit, all I can think about is, well at least they are extending the underground network to Hernals (no offence to the kind and generous people of Hernals).

Life quality is thus compromised whether you like it or not because all the other stuff is eventually taken for granted or temporarily packed away as you are sucked into a vortex of resignation and helplessness. Of course, one should pull back the camera and aim for perspective. But that door to the world is important. Because life quality, however you define it, starts right in front of it. And eventually, when the small things start to add up, when that cocktail of soured expectations starts to cement itself in your mind, then you either resign yourself to the cult of liveability or you push back.

(Note: results from the “speed” assessment machine, the conclusions of the police Chef Insepktor and the report, if I can call a couple of numbers a report, from the Traffic Commission, can be found somewhere here.)

© 2018 RJ Barratt