21 February 2023

“They have to get rid of the cars.”

For one passerby in Vienna’s Gumpendorfer Straße, interviewed on local TV station WTV, the key to solving the street’s problems is clear.

Lined with cafés, bars, cinemas, and shops, Gumpendorfer Straße cuts a jagged course east to west through the lively sixth district, an area known for its shopping & nightlife. Yet with a ratio of 404 parking spaces to just seven trees along its 2.4 km (1.5 mile) route, it’s not exactly green.

It’s also among the noisier streets in the district, with heavy traffic and major bus routes traversing a typically narrow Viennese road. Navigating its slender pavements on foot can be tricky, especially with a baby stroller or in a wheelchair.

That may all be about to change – with the help of thousands of local experts. “The people who live in Gumpendorfer Straße, who work there, go to school there, or spend their free time there, are our experts. Nobody knows the street better than them. That’s why we want to get them involved as our planning partners, encouraging them to take part in the participation process”, explains Markus Rumelhart, the chairman of the district council.

Local Inspiration for Urban Transformation

The district administration is using a mix of online and offline participation methods to collect input from residents, assisted by the local firm PlanSinn, who helped administer Austria’s national Climate Assembly. An online consultation platform went live in January, and will run until the end of February. The rest of 2023 will see a series of street interviews, information stands, and workshops dedicated to gathering input from locals, followed by feedback loops on the proposals.

If local residents need some inspiration for possible changes, they need not look far. For around a third of its length, Gumpendorfer Straße runs parallel to Mariahilfestraße, the site of one of the most audacious and successful changes in the city’s recent history.

The busy shopping street was revamped in 2015 creating large-scale pedestrianised zones, as well as a so-called “meeting zone”: an area accessible only to certain vehicles, and where pedestrians are given priority over traffic. The planning stage for the changes included regular citizens’ consultations.

Though the decision was controversial at the time, with objections from motorist groups and local businesses, the street is now a thriving meeting place, with more than 50,000 pedestrians passing along it on the average weekday. The Vienna Chamber of Commerce and Industry, originally vehemently opposed to the changes, has since reversed its position, calling for similar projects to be implemented in other areas of the city.

Planning with a Blank Sheet of Paper

Asked by Democracy Technologies about the potential for changes similar to those in Mariahilfestraße, Otto Steinbach, a spokesman for the district administration, emphasised that there are no specific plans, and that the idea is to allow the public to decide on what changes should be made: the starting point is a “blank sheet of paper.” There is only one condition for the renovation of Gumpendorfer Straße: That one bus line will continue to run along the street in both directions – a restriction that is still compatible with significant restrictions on traffic.

He added that nothing is being ruled out at this stage. Asked about budgetary constraints, he replied: “We don’t yet know how much funding will be allocated by the City of Vienna. But I think that – as we saw in the case of Mariahilfestraße – if people have a strong desire for a particular change, we will do everything within our power to ensure the financial resources to make that change.”

Who Gets to Participate in the Process? 

One of the most controversial questions facing anyone administering a participation process in urban planning concerns who should be consulted. Many participatory budgets and other planning processes restrict voting to those who reside in the immediate area – overlooking the fact that urban centres are by no means only used by people who live in them. 

For the redevelopment of Gumpendorfer Straße, the net is being cast far wider. Steinbach explains:

“Our target audience for the participation process is anyone who lives here (in the sixth district), but also anyone who goes to school here, works here, or spends time here. It’s a very big group, by no means reducible to people who live on Gumpendorferstraße. It is a major street, and (interest in it) goes well beyond the district boundaries.” 

While residents will get a chance to be heard, their input will be given no special priority over others who want to give their feedback – whether they work in the area, drop their kids off to school there, or simply pass through on a regular basis.

Gumpendorfer Straße. Copyright: Daniel Dutkowksi

Small Steps Towards Systematic Participation in Vienna?

Steinbach emphasises that the sixth district has been using participation processes for projects of all sizes for over a decade, and believes that other districts would profit from a similar approach. Nonetheless, the City of Vienna has no specific requirements for participation methods to be used in projects like the Gumpendorfer Straße renovations. For the most part, it has been down to individual districts to organise their own projects on their own initiative. 

Vienna’s current coalition government, consisting of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the liberal-centrist NEOS, have not remained silent on the issue. Their joint programme explicitly calls for more direct democracy and citizens’ participation, as well as pledging to exploit the potential of digital technologies to include as many people as possible in participatory processes. 

The recent launch of a dedicated participation platform based on CitizenLab suggests a step in the direction of more systematic participation – though with a total of 3035 registered users throughout the city, there is still work to be done. The city also runs a Climate Team project, a process for gathering ideas on how to reduce the impact of climate change in the city now entering its second year, hinting at what the future might bring. 

As for Gumpendorfer Straße, its future remains open, for now at least: construction on the project, whatever it may end up entailing, is not scheduled to begin before 2025.

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