Learning about Urban and Environmental Sustainability Innovation in Austria

Bridges vol. 41, October 2014 / Feature

By Carissa Schively Slotterback

Austria offers a wealth of insights and innovations on sustainability practices. So it is not surprising that, in May 2014, 11 students from the University of Minnesota welcomed the opportunity to visit some of Austria’s most innovative projects as part of a 12-day study abroad program and meet key experts in environmental sustainability. The program explored applications of sustainability across a wide range of sectors including urban development, energy, transportation, waste, water, and agriculture. Students visited Vienna, Linz, Salzburg, and Graz, as well as the smaller communities of Bruck an der Leitha and Köstendorf.

The students, representing diverse disciplines including urban and regional planning, civil engineering, architecture, biology, English, urban studies, public affairs, and bioproducts and biosystems engineering, pursued the study abroad program as a complement to their individual educational programs. Each was drawn to the sustainability topical focus, as well as to the opportunity to explore cutting-edge applications outside the US. The program was led by Dr. Carissa Slotterback, professor of urban planning at the University of Minnesota and an expert in sustainability planning and implementation. As a 2012 participant in the George C. Marshall Visit to Austria “Smart Cities and Urban Technologies” Program, facilitated by the Austrian Embassy and Austrian Trade Commission, Slotterback organized the program to inspire and provide community-scale sustainability innovations in Austria. She developed the study abroad trip as a new learning opportunity for students at the University of Minnesota.

The program began in Vienna with a visit to the Aspern Urban Lakeside project. Students had the opportunity to see one of the largest urban development projects in Europe. Constructed on a former airfield, the urban lakeside will eventually be home to 20,000 new residents, with residential, commercial, office, recreation, school, and transportation facilities to be constructed over the next 15 years. The project is located at a new underground (U2) rail station, which offers efficient access to the city center. With large portions of the project currently under construction, students could see the immense scale of this development project, and could learn about key design and technological details by meeting with members of the development team and touring new energy-plus student housing on the site.

Sustainable transportation was particularly emphasized in Vienna, with students using the extensive rail transit system for most of their travel. In addition, students met with representatives from the Wiener Linien to learn about transit innovations and with the head of Vienna’s Citybike Wien, the city’s successful bike-sharing program. A visit to the Wohnhausanlage (WHA) Bike City housing project also highlighted sustainable architecture, social housing, and a mobility concept that integrates bicycle access and interior bicycle storage.

Vienna’s innovations in sustainability were also highlighted through visits with smart city and sustainable building technology researchers at the Austrian Institute of Technology. Vienna’s applications of sustainability were highlighted through TINA Vienna – the city’s internal consulting organization focusing on urban technologies and strategies. Staff at the Austrian Ministry of Science, Research, and Economy and the Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology offered valuable insights into Austria’s innovation culture and opportunities for students to further their educational experiences in Austria.

Energy was another focus of the study abroad program. A visit to Bruck an der Leitha, near Austria’s eastern border with Slovakia, highlighted community-scale energy production from wind and biomass, which is producing local jobs and district energy for community residents and businesses. Students were treated to an unexpected tour of a wind turbine, with many of them climbing the 60-meter spiral staircase to the top of the turbine to view the wind farm and surrounding agricultural landscape. Köstendorf, a community near Salzburg of just over 2,500 people, showcased further energy innovation at the community scale. This Smart Grids Model Community – Smart Grids Modellgemeinde Köstendorf – project is part of the Salzburg Modellregion Salzburg, funded in part by the Austrian Climate and Energy Fund. A local smart grid has been installed in Köstendorf with solar power generation, ecomobility, district energy, in-home smart metering, and other features. The Rosa Zukunft and Stadtwerk Lehen projects in Salzburg offered further insights into cutting-edge sustainable building and urban development technologies. Staff members from the Salzburg Institute for Regional Planning and Housing and the City of presented these projects with a focus on their connections to broader energy and climate change policy and investments in Austria and the European Union.

Finally, energy-efficient housing connected to broader sustainability concepts in mobility, water, waste, environmental restoration, and social concerns (e.g., public spaces, child care, schools) was illustrated through the solarCity project in Linz. This urban development plan, completed approximately 10 years ago with housing for about 4,000 residents, was built to relieve significant housing demand in this industrial employment center, currently evolving into a technology and arts hub. The program also included the Grüne Mitte Köstendorf – “green middle” – project that will include 800 apartments on the site of a former railroad yard. In addition to incorporating sustainable energy, mobility, and social concepts, a notable aspect of this project is the construction of a 14,000 square meter central green space that will connect to residential buildings through hanging gardens, providing a social space and amenities for residents.

The students took history- and architecture-focused tours in Vienna, Salzburg, and Graz. They also gained a glimpse of Austria’s sustainable agriculture system with a visit to 90-hectare Adamah Organic Farm outside Vienna, where they met the farm’s owner and learned about local organic food production, the distribution of produce directly to Viennese residents and restaurants, and broader issues of global food production, labor, and distribution.

The well-known Spittelau Waste Incineration facility was included in the program, allowing students not only to see the iconic architecture of the urban waste facility, but also to reflect on waste-to-energy systems that often encounter significant opposition in the US. Stormwater was the focus of a visit with staff from the Land Salzburg Water division, as they toured flood control projects that involved ecological restoration and urban stormwater management on the Salzach River.

The students also met with staff from Eco World Styria, which facilitates the Green Tech Valley collaboration of environmental technology innovation companies in the region near Graz, emphasizing the range of sustainability innovations emerging from Austrian companies. It was a firsthand lesson of the relationship between Austrian businesses and government that supports their development and promotion, facilitating the advancement of sustainable technology. During a meeting with the CEO and owner of Vienna-based Swimsol, the students learned about the collaboration with the Austrian government in developing a floating solar panel that can be used in energy-constrained locations.

With nearly two weeks of immersion in Austrian sustainability innovation, the students gained insight into how to advance sustainability in the US context, with the key takeaways being locally integrated systems, public investment, and long-term perspectives on sustainability. 

  • Integrated systems at the local level enhance potential for sustainability.

In the cities included in the study abroad program, local governments maintain control over key utilities and infrastructure, providing opportunities for sustainability approaches that cut across systems including transportation, energy, waste, and housing. Community-scale sustainability plans, as well as smart cities concepts that further emphasize the intersection of sustainability and technology, are more easily implemented when the local government can pursue innovation across city functions, services, and facilities. In the US, authority for transit systems, public housing, parks and recreation, energy, waste, and water, may be distributed across multiple public and private entities. The pursuit of coordinated planning, policy, infrastructure, and other initiatives can be constrained by disconnects across funding, interests, jurisdiction, and incentives. However, where this kind of coordination can occur, such as via negotiated agreements between a city and private energy utility or coordinated multimodal transportation planning that coordinates across communities and transit authorities, community- and regional-scale sustainable transportation systems can be advanced. 

  • Public investment to advance sustainability and climate change innovation.

The US has extremely limited state- and national-level policy and funding to advance sustainability and climate change innovation in communities and businesses. The Austrian Climate and Energy Fund, among other national-level funding programs and incentives, appears critical in advancing innovation in the communities visited as part of the study abroad program. EU funding programs have also funded demonstration projects and research. Furthermore, innovations in the private business and industrial sectors seem to benefit from significant support for research, development, and promotion of new technologies. In some cases, this support has created opportunities to integrate new Austrian technology into urban development and other kinds of urban projects. Partnerships among cities, private businesses, and universities and research institutions also help to advance innovation, producing cutting-edge research that can be quickly integrated into public and private initiatives. The European Energy Research Alliance’s Joint Program on Smart Cities is an example of collaboration among researchers and research institutions to advance tools and methods that will support smart city innovations in communities in Austria and other European countries. Smart cities approaches are just emerging in the US and would benefit from more substantial engagement of universities with communities and technology companies in the US and around the world.

  • Long-term perspective on sustainability.

A long-term perspective is inferred in most discussions of sustainability. The Austrian context offers particular insights into what it means to take a long-term perspective. Most Austrian cities were founded before the US existed. The center cities in Vienna, Salzburg, and Graz are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites, affirming historical and cultural significance tied to centuries of human development. The 10,000-year floodplain protection infrastructure project on the Danube River in Vienna illustrates a long-term perspective that accounts for the natural resource, recreational, and economic values that the river provides. In addition, the extensive protected greenbelt around Vienna limits impacts on the surrounding forests and agricultural lands and creates incentives for high density urban development supported by Vienna’s extensive transit system. In addition, Austria’s commitment to alternative energy production and significant energy demand reduction is tied to an awareness of uncertainties in global markets for fossil fuels and a national commitment to addressing climate change. The study abroad program included visits to small and very large cities that are actively working to reduce their energy consumption and carbon impact through planning, policy, and technology. Aligned with the EU’s Low Carbon Energy Roadmap, Austria is working to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. Planning authority at the federal level in the US has historically been very limited. Yet, a steadily increasing number of community-scale plans are addressing energy, climate change, and water – issues whose significance is expected to grow in coming years. As these community-scale efforts become more widespread, they have the potential to increase awareness among the public as well as governmental decision makers at all levels, enhancing the potential for pursuing plans, policies, and projects that advance an increasingly long-term perspective.

The success of this initial offering of the study abroad program has opened the doors to continuing efforts to educate on sustainability issues and gain insight from exploring international applications of sustainability. A second offering of the program is anticipated in May 2016. 

Carissa Schively Slotterback, Ph.D. is an associate professor and director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. For questions on this article, please contact her at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.