Mercer has ranked Vienna as the city that offers the highest quality of living in 2010. In your humble blogger’s opinion, this list is useless at best, and misleading at worst. Having just gotten back from a trip from London, to say that London ranks at 39, Berlin at 17, Toronto at 16, Amsterdam at 13, versus Vienna at 1, sounds pretty unlikely to me.
By Mercer’s own fluffy standards, it is hard to say that any countries in the top 50 is better than the next when it comes to basic household ownership of appliances, or the availability of basic public transportation, or the availability of meet and vegetables.
I would guess that the reason why North American cities tend to rank rather poorly on those quality of living indexes is most likely due to the urban sprawl, relatively weaker public transportation system, increased chance of congestion and pollution due to higher ownership of cars, lower concentration of older and more prestigious art and cultural installations, and perhaps less care when it comes to more environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing urban infrastructure and architecture.
Here are some observations from my casual encounter with Vienna:
– It does not feel as safe as most other western European cities. That’s not to say that is is dangerous, but seeing homeless-ish people and young thugs with muzzled pit bulls along with a high level of police presence around subways does little to paint a picture of peace and tranquility.
– There are visible signs of greater income inequality than what I’ve encountered elsewhere. With the possible exception of Berlin, I have seen little outward appearance of income inequality in western Europe, other than Vienna. People tend to be more shoddily dressed, and looked less healthy. But of course the latter could be attributable to its meat-heavy diet.
– Vienna is not a particularly clean city. Lots of people have called London dirty. London is not dirty compared to Vienna.
– Vienna is not a well-maintained city. Next to a city like Amsterdam, you can say it is positively run down. The subway system doesn’t look like it’s been updated in years, has no turnpikes, although it does work.
– Vienna is not a modern city. I use the word modern to designate consumer and service industries that’s up to par, which in cities like London or Amsterdam, exist side-by-side with architectural remnants of centuries past. Walking around Vienna, many shops look like they are props from an 80s movie, including bars that are supposedly trendy and shopping areas that are supposedly carrying the most cutting-edge products. They do not. Across the border in Germany, everything’s more shiny and better-presented.
– Vienna is vast. And vastness is not something you associate with European quaintness, nor does it work to improve anyone’s standard of living if there’s no alternative to relatively rundown transportation system. I was there in late October, and have no memory of a single cyclist, nor do I recollect seeing fleets of taxis. So in that respect, it is little different than life in any North American cities. Of course, there’s the upside of a dozen classical concerts a day in the city, but you can get that in many German cities too.
– Vienna is cold. In late October, Vienna was much colder than most of Germany, and the coldness was further amplified by its vastness aforementioned above. The wind makes everything that much colder when you are squeezed in between giant structures, or simply standing on a plain with nothing around you.
True, none of these factors will make a city less livable by itself. But combined together, and knowing Mercer’s affinity for picking quaint cities with livability factors that drive Zurich and Copenhagen high up the list, i.e. availability of public and alternative transportation, public and outdoor recreation facilities, children and family friendliness, I find it shocking that Vienna can make it into the top 50.
So my mom doesn’t believe me and insists I visit the city in summer instead of winter. I tell her that I saw two Germany cities – Regensburg and Darmstadt, during the same trip, and both were everything that Vienna was not – clean, safe, cozy and modern. I also tell her that I saw a guy pee in bright daylight outside the State Opera House. She still does not believe me.
I will go back someday and check again. I hope I’m wrong. Am I? What’s your experience and impression of Vienna? Is one’s experience as a resident in Vienna so different than that of a tourist?