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UNESCO

Unesco puts Vienna’s historic centre on ‘in danger’ list

The historic centre of Vienna has been added to Unesco's list of sites in danger due to a high-rise project that the body says will undermine the area's value.

Unesco puts Vienna's historic centre on 'in danger' list
View of Vienna. Photo: Matthias Ripp/Flickr

The project, still in its developmental phase, is set to extend over an area of 6,500 square metres just south of the famous 19th century Stadtpark with bisects the Wien river.

The plans include a huge hotel, luxury apartments in a high-rise tower, fitness and sports facilities, a new conference venue and a 1,000 square-metre indoor skating rink.

Open-air areas accessible to the public are also planned, which the city said will represent an architectural “improvement” in the area, giving it an “attractive” and “modern” feel.

The project, set to break ground in 2019, will also “enhance Vienna as capital of music”, the city's ruling Social Democratic and Green party coalition said.

But the World Heritage Committee (WHC) took issue with the tower's height of 66.3 metres – downsized from the original 75 metres following protests.

The Committee, which is meeting in Poland, said the project “fails to comply fully with previous Committee decisions, notably concerning the height of new constructions, which will impact adversely the outstanding universal value of the site”.

Unesco has capped the height limit for a building in the city centre at 43 metres.

The coalition argued that other post-war buildings in the area are either taller or of similar height to the proposed tower.

City officials reacted to the Committee's decision by saying they were determined to keep the city centre as a recognized World Heritage site, which Unesco designated in 2001.

The city has until next February to convince the Committee not to drop the label.

Local residents who oppose the project also worry about losing the Unesco World Heritage designation, which they say would act as an open invitation to more high-rises.

The city said there were no other such projects in the works.

“The historic centre of Vienna is rich in architectural ensembles, including Baroque castles and gardens, as well as the late-19th century Ringstrasse lined with grand buildings, monuments and parks,” Unesco said of the site, adding that it “played an essential role as a leading European music centre”.

But it has also warned that the city's “continuing development requires a very sensitive approach” that needs to keep in mind what makes the property so valuable, “including its visual qualities, particularly regarding new high-rise constructions”.

By listing sites on the UN cultural organization's World Heritage in Danger list, Unesco seeks to mobilize the international community to protect them.

It lists two categories of dangers: either “ascertained” – specific and proven imminent threats – or “potential”, when property faces threats which could negatively affect its world heritage value.

Adding a site to the list allows the allocation of immediate World Heritage Fund assistance to the endangered property and alerts the international community in the hope it will join efforts to save the endangered sites.

TOURISM

EXPLAINED: Will Austria ban horse-drawn carriages?

Vienna's Fiaker - the horse-drawn carriages seen across the city's streets for centuries - are popular with tourists, but animal rights advocates say the practice is cruel, particularly as temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: Will Austria ban horse-drawn carriages?

The image of two horses carrying a carriage full of tourists mesmerised by beautiful Austrian sights is quite a common one, particularly in Vienna.

The Fiaker, which is the Austrian name (borrowed from French) for the set of two horses, plus a carriage and coachman, are quite popular and represent an important part of Viennese history.

The first license for a Fiaker was granted in the capital around 1700. They rose in popularity before the advent of cars in the 1900s.

“They are just as much a part of Vienna as St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Giant Ferris Wheel: the fiakers”, according to the Vienna Tourist Board.

READ ALSO: One day in Vienna: How to spend 24 hours in the Austrian capital

Now, though, the symbol for the capital has become the target of controversy. For years, animal rights groups have protested against the overworking of the animals, the stressful conditions for the horses on busy Viennese roads and the extreme heat they face in summer. 

What are the main issues raised?

For years now, several animal rights groups have protested against exploiting the animals for touristic purposes.

By Vienna regulations, the horses need to be out of the streets once temperatures reach 35C. Many groups ask for the limit to be at least 30C instead.

Additionally, the temperature base is measured at the stables, in the mostly shaded areas from where the animals leave every morning to work in Vienna’s first district, where the blazing sun and scorching pavements could make temperatures higher by several degrees.

READ ALSO: Why Vienna is a haven for wild animals – and where you can find them

Another issue raised by groups is that the fiaker no longer fits in a busy 21st-century capital – with its busy roads and loud cars. They claim that walking among the many vehicles and tourists of the first district is unnecessarily stressful for the horses.

A traditional Fiaker in the Viennese first district. (photo: Amanda Previdelli / The Local)

What do the fiaker associations say?

Many representatives of the organisations reiterate that the animals are well-cared for and used to the heat.

A spokeswoman for the carriage companies asks for a round table with politicians as debates heat up, ORF reported. The veterinarian Isabella Copar, who works for two Fiaker farms, says there is no basis for the 30C regulation.

“I don’t understand that politicians make a judgment on animal welfare, even though they have no idea about the animals”, she told the broadcaster.

READ ALSO: How to explore the Austrian mountains in the summer like a local

Copar mentions a 2008 study by the Veterinary school of the University of Vienna saying that after nearly 400 measurements on the animals, not a single case of “heat stress” was found.

As for the infamous cases when horses have collapsed in the streets of Vienna during particularly hot days, she states that the collapses are usually due to a horse disease.

It was never possible to establish a connection with the heat. “If this happens in the stable, no one is interested,” the veterinarian said.

What is next?

The latest news in the controversy is a major one. The Health Minister, who is also Animal Protection Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens), has stated he would “welcome” a debate about a Fiaker ban.

“You should think about it, really for animal welfare reasons, whether you should expose a horse to this stress.

According to the minister, there is a question also as to whether the use of the carriages fits in the context of a large city at all. “I think that’s a bit outdated”, he said.

READ ALSO: Austria bans ‘senseless’ killing of chicks with new animal welfare rules

There is a particular tug of war between the City and the Federal Government regarding whose responsibility it is to act on a possible ban or even tighten the rules.

Both authorities are set to talk about the issue in June. They are set to also speak with the Fiaker associations.

Vienna is unlikely to see a total ban as early as that. Still, a 30C temperature limit after which the horses would need to be sent back to stables could be heading to the capital.

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