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Vienna: We are 'too many to fail'

Mark Scherner appeals for an urban bailout - for vulnerable city-dwellers, for the life of our social and cultural institutions, for our Right to the City - after this crisis, too, passes.

I am the student assistant for an international master's degree called 4Cities, while the programme is based in Vienna. The 12th cohort of 4Cities Master students came to Vienna at the end of February. Preparing the semester, we saw the number of Covid-19 infections rise. First in China and later in Italy. In the quiet before the storm, walking through Vienna’s inner district on a sunny Monday, we introduced the 39 students from all around the world to the city, watching the elderly reading newspapers in coffeehouses, students sitting in parks and at the Danube Canal on one of the first sunny days of the year. And, of course, we showed them the houses of high culture in Vienna: the theaters, the opera, concert halls, museums, libraries, and the many art house cinemas.

Arguing about livability of cities with 4Cities students, this tour of Vienna at a glance should make a point: see, all the oversupply of high culture? What do you think, does that contribute to livability? Besides the talking points of low rents, green areas, and public transport which pop up in the discussion of the most livable cities around the world, the whole concept of livability would normally be discussed and criticized over the semester.

Now, all around Europe, livability is reduced to our homes. And trips to the city to learn on site are canceled for an indefinite period. For a Master´s program that teaches urbanism by experiencing it, that is a first.

In times of pandemic, Austria took hard measures trying to stop the spreading Coronavirus. As in other European countries citizens are not allowed to go outside anymore except in cases of emergency, for basic food, pharmaceuticals, or for helping others. One small exception is doing sport alone. As of Thursday 12th March, last week, gatherings of max. 100 people are allowed, until the beginning of April. On Sunday 15th March gatherings were forbidden at all by the newly implemented 'Corona laws'. The conservative government in Austria reacts fast and with authority. Even those criticizing the government for its takes on migration, labor, and tax policies, feel somehow calm because of the early response to the health crisis. Compared to Italy we are still at the start of the situation. Therefore, currently, governmental decrees on public life pile atop one another.

The houses of so-called high culture tried to implement the rules to stay open as long as possible. At first, theaters live-streamed their acts, movie screenings were reduced to audiences of 99 visitors. Now, Tuesday morning, everything is closed except for suppliers of essential good. From Monday 16th March one can be fined for going out without need, for going to the park or meeting in groups of over five people. Here we will see the poorest struggle, who use the public realm as their living room. This should be tackled. Some flats are made such that it would be impossible to stay at home long term. We need the city. Yet empty cities, canceled concert halls, and closed parks are the new norm.

Most people understand the strong measures: Imagine you can participate in rescuing the world. All you have to do is stay at home.

We all have a potential patients among friends and family. But the city without people, museums without tourists, halls without audiences, markets without consumerism; they fall apart. Salvatore Settis in 2014 wrote the pamphlet If Venice Dies about the Lagoon City drowning in masses of tourists, replacing its citizens and public life. Unfortunately, consumerism and tourism have overtaken public life in some of Europe's other inner-cities, too.

Photo by Stefan Olah for Gartenbaukino Vienna

And yet now it seems like cities die not because of the overdose but because of cold turkey. And all the waiters in bars, tour guides in museums and many other employees without long-term contracts have to fear for next month’s rent. The city needs us. Our cities are not just concrete or results of urban planning and urban design. They are not just offering opportunities to consume. In a crisis like this we see that the city is addicted to citizens and the other way around. All the halls, rooms, and public spaces need our constant visits, our life on the streets, our spontaneous gatherings, the density of our society – the constant flow of people. Without us on the streets they become dusty museums. Or better: empty toy-train scenery. At least it seems like that when we scroll through the live ticker of local newspapers showing us photos and videos of the famous sights and populated squares of our city, empty.

'This is an emptiness of solidarity. But once this crisis is over, we should reframe the right to the city as the city’s need for us – and enjoy the public, enjoy culture.'

This is an emptiness of solidarity. But once this crisis is over, we should reframe the right to the city as the city’s need for us – and enjoy the public, enjoy culture.

A great lecture for the time until then might be Foundational Economics: The Infrastructure of Everyday Life (2018) by the Foundational Economy Collective. Even though public health is the biggest goal at the moment, and staying at home in solidarity should be everyone's individual contribution, we shall not forget that the economic implications for many will be very hard. In Vienna, we see Austria’s social welfare regime taking some first steps: job cancelations should be avoided by short-term work; the local electricity and heat supplier will not turn off your light when you cannot balance your account; and tenants in municipal and some cooperative housing will not be evicted if they cannot pay their upcoming rent. In crises we learn how much the community of solidarity matters. Let us remind ourselves of that after this crisis, and not return to the pre-Corona normal. In 2007 banks were rescued because they were “too big to fail”, and too relevant for the economic system. In 2020, we must adopt this phrase: We are “too many to fail” - for the city, for society, for our culture.

This story was shared by Mark Scherner, student of urban research and urban planning and the 4CITIES Master's in Urban Studi student assistant at the University of Vienna.

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