Story at a glance

  • Vienna frequently ranks as the most livable city in the world, despite its quickly growing population.
  • The Austrian capital maintains its livability while adding 25,000 residents annually by investing in high-quality affordable housing.
  • More than half of the city’s residents live in public housing, where they put an average of just 27 percent of their monthly income towards rent.

Vienna has a lock on the top spot in two prominent rankings of the world’s most livable cities. Known for its abundant art and music, green space and monumental architecture, the capital of Austria got a nearly perfect score (99.1 out of 100) on the Economist’s livability scale. 

The ranking tries to quantify livability by awarding cities a numerical score in categories like stability, health care, culture, environment, education and infrastructure. 

These rankings cultivate an air of objectivity, but their set-up bakes in a particular worldview of what makes a livable city. Critics of the approach have noted that the rankings privilege mid-sized cities that aren’t densely populated.

Given the slant of these rankings towards low-density cities, Vienna’s status as a livability juggernaut is impressive because of how quickly it’s growing, Citylab reports. The city adds about 25,000 people to its 2 million residents every year, but it has avoided some of the housing issues that plague other swiftly growing areas. 

Vienna’s solution? Building affordable housing — to the tune of 13,000 new units every year. The public or social housing on offer in Vienna is lauded for its planning and design and is a far cry from its American counterpart. The popularity of social housing bears this out, with 62 percent of the city’s population opting to live in government owned or managed units, which are aimed equally at low and middle income residents. 

Strict land-use codes and serious government subsidies for these new units have allowed Vienna to grow while avoiding the unaffordable city centers and sprawling suburbs of places like Washington, D.C. in the U.S. But perhaps more significant than the details of Vienna’s policies are their guiding philosophy that housing is a human right. 

Around $700 million goes into building and renovating social housing each year, coming from income tax, corporate tax and a housing contribution made by all employed citizens. This funding allows Vienna to produce more housing per resident than comparable cities along with one of the lowest housing price-to-income ratios in Europe.

Social housing tenants in Vienna spent an average of 27 percent of their monthly income on rent. Meanwhile, in New York City the median rent is 58 percent of residents’ median income. 

Vienna’s success with government housing is magnified by its easy and affordable public transportation. Residents gain unlimited access to the city’s extensive system of subways, buses and trams for a flat annual fee of €365, which, if you haven’t worked it out already, breaks down to one euro a day. This allows 73 percent of the city’s transportation needs to be taken care of by modes other than private automobiles.  

Other cities like Vancouver are looking to Vienna as a model of affordable housing done right, but its progressive policies have not completely inoculated it against economic and social inequality.

Published on Nov 12, 2019