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Vienna Offers a Glimpse of the ‘Next Metropolis’

“Smart cities” is the urban buzz phrase of the last few years, and fans often turn to European cities for inspiration. From Amsterdam’s bike lanes to Copenhagen’s wind power, from Barcelona’s 22@ innovation district to Berlin’s dramatic redevelopment, European examples abound. But during a recent Austrian study tour, I quickly realized Europhiles shouldn’t forget another city on the cutting edge of the “smart city” movement: Vienna.

Everywhere you turn in Vienna, there is a clear commitment to building a smart and sustainable region, or what we call the “Next Metropolis.” The streets are filled with new bike lanes and modern tram cars, pushing the city to rely less on private automobile use. The picturesque buildings have been retrofitted, reducing energy consumption. And elected officials work tirelessly with the public on new investment proposals, generating broad support for public policy.

The Viennese model begins and ends with their carbon reduction goals. Austria agreed to the European Union’s target of 80 percent carbon emission reductions by 2050, as compared to 1990 levels. This aggressive target forces city agencies to work together and adopt supportive low carbon policies. The city aims to reduce private automobile usage and compensate by more than doubling the bicycle mode share. It means a surge in renewable energy investment, including everything from solar roofs to waste-to-energy plants. In each case, the national policy target forces local action.

The carbon imperative also affects the Viennese approach to place-making: To change energy consumption habits, people need sustainable places to live. For example, Vienna is embarking on the largest single urban development project in Europe, the aspern Urban Lakeside. The nearly 600 acre site will include transit connections to the city center and a local “Innovation Quarter” to attract innovative businesses. The city didn’t go it alone either, including major civic engagement in the planning process.

Finally, Vienna understands how data investments are the tools to unleash smarter decision-making. The city starts with critical data infrastructure, including an environmentally-friendly data center and mandating common data platforms between agencies. It then deploys localized instruments to deliver measurable data, ranging from centrally-monitored traffic signals to annual aerial photography and surveying. Taken in total, the city establishes measurable baselines and gauges progress towards performance targets.

The results are clear. Vienna’s energy consumption includes renewable and waste-to-energy generators reducing annual carbon emissions by 3.8 million tons. The transportation network supports more sustainable commuting, with over 70 percent of Viennese residents traveling by bicycle, transit, or walking. The data investments created a 3-D mapping database, enabling officials to measure exactly how many solar panels city roofs could support. These sorts of results and others help explain why Vienna is one of the top places to live on the planet.

So what can U.S.metropolitan areas learn from the Viennese story?

First, cities and states should stop waiting for the federal government and push ahead with their own carbon reduction targets. It’s not enough to just say you want to reduce carbon emissions--it only works if those goals become targets in law. California’s AB 32 law instituted reduction targets similar to Austria, and that state is now home to a hotbed of sustainable innovation. More cities and states should follow the Viennese and California examples.

Second, metropolitan leaders should use new carbon reduction targets as the impetus to build more transformative communities. Spurred by California’s reduction targets, San Francisco’s Hunters Point area is set to undergo a major redevelopment. Just like Vienna’s aspern development, the plan combines sustainable elements including an innovation hub, clean energy reliance, mixed-income housing, and multimodal connectivity to the greater metropolitan area. U.S. metropolitan areas need to use developments like Hunters Point and aspern as an inspiration.

Third, metropolitan areas must continue developing their data infrastructure to support 21st century decision-making. Large cities like New York and Philadelphia should continue to push forward on comprehensive data strategies--and those without plans should follow suit. Local policies should require new capital investments and upgrades to include data sensors, expanding our knowledgebase. Local policies should also include quantitative requirements, like cost-benefit analyses, to take advantage of the bigger data library. It’s not enough just to measure more--we must put data to use.

We stand at a critical time in our metropolitan areas’ future. Instead of following economic and physical development patterns of prior decades, we need to recalibrate for a new century and new challenges. Vienna’s innovative approaches should serve as a guide.