Vanessa Lastrucci, Landscape Architect
There is grace in this apparently insignificant and rather ugly piece of footway, in a random street of inner Vienna. It is a cheap, simple detail, yet full of value: an engraving in the asphalt filled with black topping commemorates the place where Olly Schwarz lived between the wars.
The little engraving - a carpet decorated with typical eastern European embroidery patterns - bears the traces of time: its life-time, when it was laid and then deformed by the cycles of heat and cold and the multiple steps of people walking; and also Olly Schwarz’s life-time, reminding us of the darker days of European history.
This urban carpet is not alone: it is in the company of a number of brass studs, carved slabs and other tiny details we walked past in quiet residential streets of Vienna, marking the place of raids against Jewish people, and commemorating their memory. Little urban details shared with Berlin, and similar to those I’ve seen in New York (albeit dedicated to other purposes).
To me, what is special about it is its humble-ness. It does not have the grandeur and the stand-out qualities of a monument (I saw a rather moving pair on the same theme), but it is just as effective.
This piece of footway calls on your attention for detail, your sense of observation, your alertness to your surroundings. It requires you to consider where you are, and where you are going. And, in your going, it requires you to take a moment for pausing and for thought.
The power is in the number of these tiny objects, affording a walk through history for those who are careful enough to look down. It is a history experienced through the movement of drifting from street to street, impressed in the body of the city and unveiled by such details, that can tell so much about Vienna.
(Note: in writing this article I discovered that the carpet is indeed a piece of public art; commissioned from Iris Andraschek and realised in 2012. ‘Tell this people who I am’ is its title.)
Oli Davey, Co-Founder + Principal Design Engineer
The body of evidence in support of the many positive attributes of street trees is now significant and has indeed enabled the monetisation of these benefits, so that direct comparisons can be made with alternative forms of investment in our streets. I can readily find out, for example, that a single mature tree can absorb carbon at a rate of 21.6kg per year; and that a tree-lined street can lower particulate levels by 60%; and that a mature tree can capture 11,375 litres of rainwater a year; and that street trees can increase property prices by as much as 15%. In fact, it is estimated that, for every £1 spent on tree planting, £7 of expenditure is saved in other areas (for further information about the benefits of street trees I’ve found the following link a useful resource https://www.greenblue.com/gb/green-infrastructure/benefits-urban-trees/).
Whilst all of this data can be very helpful for those making the case for more street trees, especially at a time when capital budgets are tight – and maintenance budgets are even tighter, it can all start to sound a little too clinical. Don’t get me wrong: all of this empirical information is invaluable when it’s time to push back against a spot of value-engineering. However, Vienna proved to be a very welcome reminder of the simple yet joyful pleasure that a few street trees can engender.
With some rather austere architecture, an abundance of on-street parking and some functional catenary street lighting, many of Vienna’s residential streets can start to feel a little drab; even bleak. Add in the thirty-degree heat that we experienced on our trip, and many of the canyon-like streets can be pretty oppressive places to move through and spend time in.
However, throw in a few mature trees and suddenly otherwise identical, nondescript streets become elegant, welcoming avenues. I don’t doubt that they can also justify some fantastic cost-benefit ratios but, at a purely qualitative level, they simply result in attractive places to be. The reason that this was so striking to me in Vienna was the seemingly random selection of streets (and their residents) that get to enjoy these trees, or which miss-out.
Streets with otherwise identical cross-sections, often just one block apart, made for a stark reminder of the transformational effect that trees can have. And it is for this reason that I alone, amongst all my colleagues, have been allowed to show two photos (even if one is just inset).
So, thank you Vienna for providing a very welcome reminder of the everyday value of street trees that can sometimes get lost in all the number-crunching.
Rebecca Jones, Design Engineer
As a (very) new recruit to Urban Movement, this was my first StreetTour and, as I discovered, one of the primary benefits of travelling around a city with like-minded design folk is that when you stop to admire, say, unusual paving or signage they join in with enthusiasm rather than the somewhat exasperated looks I often get from travelling companions...
Emboldened by this, I noticed on several occasions that, at signalised crossings, not only were we not waiting for a green man, we weren’t even sharing our wait with the familiar, singular red man. This is because many of the signal aspects didn’t depict the usual solo person but, rather, a romantic pair– such as the two red women (complete with lovehearts!) seen in the photo. This detail in the red signal aspect was of particular interest to me, and reflects a bit of a difference between Vienna and standard practice in the UK. Where we may have variations in the green signal aspect (such as the LGBTQ+ symbols seen in London and Manchester during previous Pride months), typically the red signal is the red man for crossings, or solid red aspect at ordinary traffic lights. This is seen as key by the Department for Transport for clarity over when it is and isn’t safe to proceed, and consequently often means that getting a different symbol for the red aspect can be very difficult.
It’s no secret that it took several years for the DfT to approve the red cycle-shaped signal aspect in the UK, so to see this pushed so much further in Vienna was an interesting sight. That’s not to say that the Vienna signals were without issue – on some shared crossings it was difficult to see if the red signal depicted just pedestrians or pedestrians and cyclists, so perhaps more careful design is required to ensure clarity at a distance! It also goes without saying that the actual need for signals should be reconsidered, as there did seem to be an awful lot of overly-complicated crossings in Vienna, but perhaps that’s a story for another blog post…
Issues aside, it was heartening to see creativity in street design extend to signals, something that might typically be seen as quite a dull bit of the landscape – but why should fun in design be only limited to paving or planting? Furthermore, when we explore more creative options, then other benefits come to light. For example, the pictured LGBTQ+ inclusive signal aspects were only supposed to be temporary when installed in 2015, but they were retained and now form part of the city’s charm, bringing not only interest and fun to the street, but also fostering a sense of inclusivity. It may only be a small part of the landscape, but when we think about how to help everyone feel welcome in our cities, such little touches as this can make a real difference.
Ian Hingley, Principal Landscape Architect
This quote is from the opening monologue of the 1949 Carol Reed film The Third Man, the screenplay of which Graham Greene adapted from his own novel.
It continues with “…Bombed about a bit”, turning what seems like a dismissal of the city into something less negative: it was the damage inflicted during the war that was no worse here than anywhere else the narrator had been. That seems to make sense to me, because UNESCO doesn’t usually give World Heritage Site status (as it has to Vienna’s historic centre) to places that merely aren’t worse than others. The city also seems to make the top ten in most ‘Quality of Life’ lists.
The centre of Vienna feels remarkably intact, although the occasional cluster of modern glass-fronted office blocks face the World Heritage Site across a sheet of water and numerous lanes of traffic. The best these buildings can do is reflect their surroundings, as they have nothing of worth to say for themselves. They have tried a little bit: if you look closely enough at my photo, there’s a tiny green wall of an apology in the shadows.
Was the gap created for these office blocks a mindless act of vandalism, using the excuse of collateral damage, or was the site formerly of strategic military importance? There could be a much more innocent explanation, of course, as I’m just guessing. If the blame needs to lie with other than the WW2 Allied powers, do we then look to the developers? Or the Architect? Or the planners? And on whose authority did this happen? The City Council’s, most likely: but since when did they know best about such matters?
It was probably in the 1960s or 70s that the city planners (particularly those with a transport bias) first became the officially-sanctioned vandals. Hacking out space for four lanes of one-way traffic that forms Donaustrasse (Danube Street); separating the city from the waterfront. And there’s a matching four-lane one-way highway on the other side of the water, of course. Part of the city’s famous Ringstrasse. Just in case you wanted to drive at speed in the other direction, too.
The water itself is the Donaukanal (Danube Canal), a straightened and walled spur of the river, initially modified in 1598. It swallowed up the gently sloping banks that can be seen in old paintings, but they didn’t have vandalism back then; not like we think of it now, anyhow.
The left-over space between the road and the canal isn’t quite big enough to sell and is lower, and so still a little bit vulnerable to flooding. So, they let the hipsters in with their deck chairs, organic beers and aerosol paints.
I felt nothing in particular, good or bad, about Vienna. At least the canal-side graffiti helps to brighten the place up a bit. A bit of the right kind of vandalism.
Brian Deegan, Principal Design Engineer
Vienna is doing something obviously beneficial, on a mass scale, that we in the UK are struggling to bring into standard practice. Throughout the summer, at least (and possibly throughout the year), chunks of on-street parking on practically every other street in the centre are given over to parklets. While many cities now have parklets here and there, to see them present en masse across an entire city centre was quite something to behold. We didn’t have to hunt them down like an obscure piece of tactical urbanism: they were everywhere. Many were under private ownership and maintained by the various cafes, restaurants and businesses they were outside – and why wouldn’t they be? In a walkable and liveable city, tying up at least 10 square metres for the exclusive use of a car seems stupid when it could seat, say, a hundred paying customers a day.
It was so refreshing to see footways kept clear of the tables and chairs that can create clutter as life spreads onto the sunny streets. Each parklet was unique and brought character to streets that would otherwise have been fronted by a sterile row of cars. In a few instances, rows of echelon parking enabled wider-than-usual parklets that responded by having a parallelogram shape.
The Austrians still seem to love their cars, but rationally seem also to have decided that there’s no need to retain all the available street space in the city centre to store them. I just helped Stockport install a joint parklet and pocket park in their town centre and this has given people a reason to visit that area – to dwell and play – and I hope it will be a light-bulb moment for Greater Manchester as a whole. Many of the arguments against parklets in the UK centre around the misconception that they will attract antisocial behaviour, but if we don’t create spaces where people can be civilised then how can we expect civilisation to prosper? I hope other towns and cities in the UK start to see the benefits from the few examples we have – and from those that cities like Vienna have – because this temporary, yet elegant, solution offers a small glimpse of what a city society can look like if it reduces its dependence on, and the dominance of, cars.
Connie Dales, Creative Assistant
Something that struck me on last Friday’s cycle around Vienna, other than the intense heat and my poor clothing choices, was the culture in and around the river. Coming up from the southeast of the city, the first hint that the Danube is a hub of activity was the sighting of a number of people water-skiing around a circuit, using a contraption a bit like a snow-ski lift: a setup that I’ve only ever seen once before, in a relatively rural spot in the South of France.
As we continued cycling, we encountered groups upon groups of people sat by the water, having a swim or a barbecue. My two repeating thoughts at the time were, “Wouldn’t mind a swim myself in this heat” and “You could not pay me to do that in the Thames”. We kept on, the sound of loud distant music suggesting – gasp – even morefun still to come. And, boy, was there! Leaving the outskirts of the city behind us, we reached what I can only assume is locally referred to as The Official Water-based Party Zone of Vienna. That it’s right next to a pretty impressive 4-in-1 bridge (rail, cycle and road – plus walking, of course) only added to the excitement. While we sat enjoying an ice cream break, we could see in the water – alongside the (wait for it) floating trampoline park - groups of friends jumping off jetties, families enjoying an afternoon in the company of inflatable flamingos, and one old man paddle-boarding in lime green speedos.
But the hubbub didn’t stop there. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it had only just started there. For, on the other side of the river (accessible by a floating bridge – get in), we reached the Party Zone proper, where the annual Danube Island Festival was in full swing. You could just about move for people of all ages walking between stages and bars. The free festival, ‘perhaps Europe’s biggest outdoor music event’ so I’m told by eurofestivals.co.uk, was bustling and varied – both with regards to the demographic and selection of things to do. The soundtrack of our day’s bike travels had gone from the earlier cars on main roads, via the gentle hum of insects and mini-beasts along leafy paths, to a cover of Jorja Smith’s ‘Teenage Fantasy’ being loudly broadcast through industrial speakers at an island party.
It was a perfectly lively and invigorating scene to pass through, and a joyous end to both our day of cycling and the trip as a whole. Fantastic work, Vienna
There are some cities you walk around, and they seem to give off an air of cool, an understated calm, a feeling of being effortless and even witty. Other cities take themselves very seriously, and as you walk around you feel like there are a lot of rules floating around and you know where you stand. There are, of course, cities that fall in between these two poles, but these huge changes in the character of cities and how they handle different situations, is what makes traveling to different cities so necessary - and so magnificent - and this is at the root of why we take the whole company away at least every year, to experience a different place, see different styles, and learn.
Vienna to me, whilst being a very prim and proper city architecturally, seemed to have the confidence not to be too rigid in the way it presented itself - or more importantly governed behaviour. I have a long-held view, that if we want to influence people’s behaviour - which we need to do for all sorts of reasons including climate change, the inactivity crisis, urban growth, and social exclusion - then the way to do this is by making what is best for the city, society, and people the most enjoyable thing (read more about this here).
In short, Vienna feels very human. It doesn’t give off the feeling that it is a serious machine with rules governing every movement. Instead, it offers gentle nudges – some that are witty and that are serious invitations – that say it’s ok to relax, enjoy yourself, and be human. Whether it’s encouraging people to cycle through main squares (relying on the fact that people on the whole seem inherently courteous); giving children somewhere to park up their scooters on the street outside school like their parents park their bikes; or giving people the odd trampoline in the street so they can bounce to work - the way the city treats people influences behaviour and delivers a relaxed and sociable atmosphere.
The photo that really summed this up to me is shown above. This was one of many examples of this information presented this way, and let’s face it, it is sort of bonkers, right? But think about it some more, as I did, and I started to think that actually, it is so very human. It’s hot out, right? 35 degrees, and you're pushing a double-buggy along the street, up a hill. As a city, why wouldn’t you let people know there are steps up ahead - rather than make people walk there and then have to walk back and around in the midday sun?! It’s just a very human thing to do, and I think there is room for a lot more of the human dimension in cities.
I’ve many more examples of the little things in Vienna that add up to making a big difference: watch out for them in a future post.
Amy Priestley, Urban Designer
Cycling infrastructure that women, groups of friends, families, young children and older people feel comfortable using needs to provide the greatest sense of safety and separation from traffic to be attractive and enjoyable.
At weekends, traffic levels in cities are often greater than might be expected, because those who would usually walk, cycle or take public transport to work find that getting about is now a family, social or group choice, rather than a personal one, with other needs to consider. For this reason and others, encouraging families to cycle for utility is vital to a successful active travel strategy, yet it’s rarely discussed or explored in policy.
Our recent StreetTour to Vienna showed the benefits of attractive walking and cycling infrastructure, and how this can be integrated into city streets. By providing generous walking and cycling spaces, alongside trees, street planting and greenspaces, Vienna’s streets are enviable places to walk and cycle as a group with family and friends (or even colleagues!)
Vienna’s characteristically broad streets, historic parks and waterfronts provided great examples of comfortable, relaxed and attractive environments that feel safe for a wide range of people. In places, strategic roads feel more like traffic-free green promenades.
Vienna’s Ringstrasse is a grand avenue circling the historical city core. The street was once the medieval city walls which, in 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph I ordered to be torn down and replaced by a grand boulevard. Today, the Ring boasts perhaps some of the most generous walking and cycling spaces a city can offer, and multiple, continuous rows of mature trees.
Traffic-free riverside paths and routes through parks are also to be admired, such as Hauptallee, a 4.5km dead straight and lit route that runs between Praterstern and the Lusthaus in the east of the city. According to wien.info, this historic route is lined by over 2,500 trees.
Back home, although many city streets are constrained in width, opportunities to create walking and cycling avenues have existed, do exist and could exist in the future.
Did you know for example that Victoria Embankment in London, which today has a well-used cycle track, was once envisioned to be a linear riverside park or avenue? Another example is Albany Road which frames the northern side of Burgess Park in South London. However, although the street now features a segregated cycle track, it does little to integrate with or take advantage of the vast park immediately next to it.
Victoria Park in East London is an example of both a useful walking and cycling route for utility cycling, and an attractive and popular park for the local community and visitors. Recent proposals to introduce vehicle restrictions on streets surrounding Victoria Park and Mile End Park could be a great opportunity to blur the boundaries between street and park and create a walking and cycling avenue.
Other opportunities to reimagine city streets may also arise. As more cities awaken to the many problems created by large volumes of motor traffic, oversized urban motorways and ring roads could be repurposed as grand, and green walking and cycling boulevards. I think Vienna helps to show how this might look.
John Dales, Director.
In the same way that the United Kingdom doesn’t have a formally codified constitution, Urban Movement has a number of foundational principles that we haven’t written down. One of the most important of these is that we need to get out more! Which is to say, we need to experience streets in all sorts of towns and cities in order to inform our own design work.
To this end, we undertake regular StreetTours to towns and cities around the UK and across Europe. These are trips of one to three days in length where we all go (at the company’s cost and on company time) to see what other places are like and what other designers have done there. We walk the streets, ride cycles along them, sometimes speak to local practitioners or campaigners, and then argue about what we see in some café, bar or restaurant.
In my view, StreetTours are the best possible form of ‘continuing professional development’ for people who do what we do; and if it turns out that this form of business is also a pleasure, then so much the better!
It's obviously a real privilege to be able to do this, but it’s also a large part of what makes us who we are. In the past eight years, we’ve been able to have one- or two-day trips to 15 UK towns and cities, as well as numerous half-day outings to various parts of London. We’ve also had two- or three-day StreetTours to the following 11 European cities: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Paris, Aachen, Barcelona, Stockholm, Dublin, Seville, Munich and Vienna.
The Vienna trip was just last week, and over the next few days each of us at UM will post one photo from the city along with a short commentary about why they chose it. I hope you enjoy the reflections and insights they provide.
Connie Dales, Creative Assistant
Not being a parent myself, and not having the memory to remember my childhood response to urban infrastructure, it never occurred to me to think about how we raise children in our cities. I have, however, dabbled in childcare enough to know that practically everything is a threat to children, through adult eyes at least.
So why is the idea of Child-Friendly Cities such a fresh take? Childhood, after all, is one of very few things that literally all of humanity has in common. Since joining Urban Movement, this has become a major focal point of my research work. And it’s always heart-warming to come across a rags-to-riches tale of progressive city planning. So imagine my joy when I (figuratively) discovered the Albanian capital of Tirana and its mayor Erion Veliaj, who has masterminded arguably the most impressive urban transformation in recent years.
In his TEDx talk, Veliaj refers to 20thcentury Albania as ‘the North Korea of Europe’ and goes on to explain that, when he and his team were elected into office in 2015, they ‘inherited a city full of traffic, full of smog; a city of illegally occupied space, no place for children to play’. In spite of this starting position, and a complete lack of funding, they managed to commence a full-scale operation to ‘child-friendlify’ the city, relying on the good will of volunteers and of companies willing to contribute for free (the latter, I admit, would likely be more of an impossible dream were we to give it a go in London), and mobilising children and their enthusiasm. It was children who made their parents accompany them to a ‘no car’ sit-in in the city, and told them “no we need a bike, we need roller skates!” when they attempted car travel; it was children who happily (or so I’m told) volunteered alongside Veliaj to clean up litter in the streets; and it was children who were encouraged to take on the role of Household Recycling Rep, ruling with an iron fist when they caught family members disposing of plastic in the wrong bin.
I shan’t quote Whitney Houston, or the lyricist Linda Creed, but l think they may have hit the nail on the head. Maybe all we need to revolutionise the future of urban living is to have children on the forefront