By Dardis McNamee
Additional research by Margarita Randl
In one of the signature projects of former Deputy Mayor Maria Vassilakou, the City of Vienna has created five “Begegnungszonen” (Encounter Zones) as a tool for calming traffic and making the city more livable, while encouraging people to use public transportation. In particular, the pilot project in the Mariahilferstraße, completed in 2015, is widely regarded as a success story, leading to greater acceptance towards similar zones in other districts. These “Encounter Zones” also reduce emissions and create more public green spaces, while generally improving quality of life.
The idea of mixed-use streets is an old one in European cities, clear from old photographs and movies filmed in Vienna, Paris or Rome through the 1950s. Pedestrians shared the roadways with horse-drawn vehicles and streetcars, wagons and pushcarts; as automobiles joined the mix they only gradually pushed the others aside. In many Italian cities to this day, there are no raised sidewalks. So the Begegnungszonen are – as much as anything – a return to the uses for which these cities were designed.
More recently, Vienna has taken inspiration from Switzerland, where a successful Flanierzone (strolling zone) around the Burgdorf Bahnhof in 1996 seeded a broader rethinkíng of urban design. In 2013, Austrian cities and towns were given the option to create Begegnungszonen – to transform streets into a space for joint use by both motorized traffic and pedestrians that rely on individual responsibility. In general, traffic speed is reduced to 20km/h, making the area safe for the pedestrians while still allowing traffic fluency. Here all participants are equal, thus ending the dominance of the automobile.
Below are some prominent ones:
The popular shopping avenue is separated into two Begegnungszonen with a pedestrian area in-between, where you can walk along the traffic lanes as an occasional vehicle creeps slowly past. You half to look hard to find a parking spot in the neighboring streets – parking is generally prohibited along the Mariahilferstraße. But then, most people use the U3 metro line or the 13A cross-town bus.
Leading north off the Mariahilferstraße is Neubaugasse, still a work in progress extending the famous shopping area to include a lower key, more eccentric mix of boutiques and eateries. Landscaped leisure areas, each a mini-green oasis, include plantings, benches and drinking fountains; when finished, the entire area will be wheelchair accessible.
Further up the Mariahilferstrasse on the other side, one of the most recent completed projects is Otto–Bauer–Gasse, which opened on Nov 18. It now offers space for strolling and lingering, with landscaping, benches and space for outdoor café seating, expected to burst into bloom with the coming of spring.
Leading up from Schwedenplatz to Stephansplatz, Rotenturmstraße has proved a shining example of a Begegnungszone ever since its conversion last fall. Along each side of the central, shared traffic lane are four-meter-wide, curbless sidewalks paved with wide stones for Schanigärten, outside café tables, all with benches and trees inviting you to stay and people watch.
A stroll to Café Central now leads along a barrier-free Herrengasse, connecting Michaelerplatz with Freyung. Initiated and predominantly financed privately through a cooperation of building owners and the city, the project was also supported by local shopkeepers specializing in Austrian products and crafts.