As witnessed by the recent wave of protests organised by environmental movements around the world, climate change is perceived by a growing number of people as an urgent issue that policy-makers should hasten to solve. However, neither international organisations—such as the UN and the EU—nor most national governments seem to be highly committed to fight climate change. Surely, nation-states have taken part in international declarations (such as the Paris Agreement that followed the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris in 2015) and designed policy strategies (e.g., the EU 2050 long-term strategy), but the translation from declaration to practice is a long way to go.
While national and supra-national levels of authority do not seem to be overly concerned about the state of the environment, many cities have strived to act more concretely to limit the negative impacts of climate change. Although often held responsible for global warming and climate change, many European cities are committed to tackle environmental issues, by implementing strategies to mitigate its effects on the urban environment [1
]. Cities constitute site of ecological experimentation [2
], a “frontier space” where ecological innovation takes place [1
] (p. 2). Indeed, many European cities have engaged with green experimentation, both in terms of governance and policy instruments, to address environmental degradation [2
This does not entirely come as a surprise, as it will be mostly cities—especially densely populated metropolises—that bear the costs of climate change: increased temperatures in cities and extreme weather phenomena will have worrying consequences on urban populations. For instance, the 2003 European heatwave killed approximately 70,000 people [4
]. In particular, marginalised or elderly people’s health will be predominantly affected by urban heat waves and urban heat islands [5
]. Given this gloomy scenario, many metropolises, especially capital and secondary cities, have implemented radical measures to expand green spaces, incentivise smart mobility, or reduce energy and resource consumption [6
Among those virtuous cities, Vienna has been widely recognised as a model of urban sustainability, crowned as one of the most liveable, greenest and smartest cities worldwide by several rankings [8
]. The Austrian capital earned such a reputation thanks to its urban policies sustaining a high-density and mixed-use urban form, efficient public transportation system, incentives to active mobility, eco-friendly affordable housing, and high-quality public green spaces. Despite being highly committed to incorporating the ecological as well as the social dimension into its urban development strategy, Vienna has undergone a deep transition over the course of the last 30 years (1989–2019), progressively orienting its urban policy towards economic criteria, and privileging techno-managerial solutions to climate change.
Nonetheless, systematic empirical analyses of relevant shifts in climate policies at the urban level and their implications for Vienna have so far remained scarce. Furthermore, while European capitals such as Berlin, London, and Paris have been extensively studied, research on Vienna’s climate policy and adaptation strategies lacks visibility in urban studies at the international level. To address the paucity of research on Vienna’s climate policy and its trajectory, this article seeks to answer three main questions: How did Vienna become a world-renowned green city? What policies and strategies have been implemented to make Vienna such a virtuous example? How have the multi-level governmental arrangements influenced Vienna’s environmental policy-making and performances?
To answer these questions, our analysis pursues two objectives. On the one hand, it looks for potential critical junctures, that is, points in time where environmental policy-making and the underlying political discourse changed. On the other hand, and in line with the purpose of this Special Issue, we examine the synchronisation or de-synchronisation of the inter- and cross-level relations within which the city is embedded, by identifying the policies and laws introduced in the field of climate policy by the various levels of government. As such, the analytical focus of our article is on the municipal level, conceptualised as entangled in a wider context forged by the multiple interactions among supra-local levels.
To theoretically frame our enquiry, we draw on the urban political ecology (UPE) scholarship, which provides a sophisticated and critical lens through which to interpret the changes in the City’s political discourse. Nevertheless, UPE is not well suited to unpack the multi-tier interactions and dynamics: while placing emphasis on the concept of scale, the UPE scholarship ignores the multilevel interplay characterising the policy-making process in EU countries. Therefore, to shift the analytical focus from the scale to the level, we borrow the terminology of the multi-level governance (MLG) literature. By combining the analytical depth of UPE with the administrative parlance of the MLG framework, we are able to grapple with the mechanisms regulating the interactions among the different governing levels.
From a methodological standpoint, we draw on a process tracing method relying on evidence gathered through the analysis of regulatory and administrative documents and grey literature. This method helps unravel the evolution of Vienna’s green agenda and the magnitude of the impact of the interventions from the different levels of government. To validate the document analysis, eight interviews with local and national officials working in municipal and federal departments devoted to environmental protection (broadly understood as a realm involving policies on transport, air pollution, and green spaces) were undertaken. The findings cast light on the multi-level coordination dynamics and their outcomes in the realm of climate policy and adaptation strategies. As a result, our article will contribute to better understand at which territorial levels environmental policies are regulated and how the different levels interact. In particular, our findings show how the City of Vienna tried to push its own green agenda, by enacting legislation and elaborating policy strategies and urban development plans to boost the ‘environmentalness’ of the municipality. While the City has necessarily incorporated laws and guidelines from upper-level authorities, it has shown the willingness to go beyond top-down prescriptions. As such, this article seeks to show how, to fully understand local climate policy-making, it is crucial to disentangle the manifold interactions among different actors and the various governing levels.
This article is organised as follows. After this introduction, in Section 2
, we will lay out our theoretical framework. In Section 3
, we will illustrate the methodology and in Section 4
, the results will be reported. In Section 5
, the data will be discussed and concluding reflections outlined.
2. Theoretical Framework
As anticipated, to analyse the evolution of Vienna’s climate policy, our analytical framework hinges on two accounts: UPE and MLG. The reliance on the UPE account is driven by two main reasons. First, we want to emphasise the relevance of cities in socioecological processes, being primary sites where the effects of environmental issues and related policies are more evident. Indeed, as it has been observed, urban studies, and urban sociology in particular, have ignored nature and its liaison with urban processes [12
]. Second, we consider climate policy, and environmental policy at large, as a crucial yet contested policy field, where the urgency to protect the environment clashes against the dominant discourse of economic growth. Therefore, the UPE scholarship enables to critically approach the economic and political changes Vienna underwent in the last thirty years in the realm of climate policy, shedding light on the potential changes in the policy repertoire and the underlying political discourse.
As Sayre [13
] (p. 512) argues, UPE “sets itself the task of understanding how […] socionatural processes are produced and how they interact with each other and with people, markets, built environments, and institutions.” Indeed, a key task of this theoretical stream is to uncover how natural resources are unequally distributed among social groups and how the environment is often instrumentally exploited by the elites to preserve their influence [14
]. More in detail, as Blaikie and Brookfield [15
] (p. 17) explained, “‘political ecology’ combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy. Together this encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself.” Building on Harvey’s [16
] argument that cities cannot be thought out as unsustainable, UPE theorises against the long-standing dichotomy between nature and cities [12
]. Rather than considering cities as artificial, “unnatural” [16
] (p. 186 in 14: p. 908), and thus responsible for the degradation of nature, UPE scholars reinstate nature in the urban environment, seeing the latter as the by-product of “socially mediated natural processes” [14
] (p. 908). As such, UPE hinges on the economic and social processes that construct the urban environment and unevenly allocate resources across social groups.
As its name suggests, the political dimension plays a crucial role in UPE enquiry, evident in the unjust distribution of natural resources, which mirrors socio-economic inequalities deeply entrenched in society [12
]. Politics is considered as a causal factor of socio-ecological processes, both in terms of power dynamics and discourses that shape the urban environment [19
]. Indeed, contributions embracing UPE have been devoted to disentangle the “power relations” playing out in and shaping the urban environment [21
] (p. 502).
Turning to post-structuralism, the UPE scholarship has drawn attention toward the notion of governance, taking a critical stance towards the “apolitical” and “naïve” nature of the related literature [22
] (p. 2). In particular, UPE scholars point out the underlying normativity of the “good governance” concept, which conceals an attempt to favour technical solutions overlooking social inequalities, as well as the illusion that the inclusion of actors other than the state in policy-making would equate with a more horizontal type of government [22
] (p. 2, converted commas in original). Given the prominent role of politics in constructing socio-economic inequalities and their link with nature, some authors have examined the “techno-managerial” turn in environmental policy, which reifies cities as “physical containers”, as “built environments” [23
] (p. 49). In such a view, environmental policy-making is “post-political”, based on scientific criteria and bound to achieve seemingly objective targets [20
]. In relation to the governance of cities’ transition towards climate change policy and climate mitigation, this means, as Barak [23
] (p. 48) reminds us, to critically look at cities and their “problem solving” attitudes towards climate change and climate mitigation. In effect, local authorities have invested in infrastructural works, green space, waste sorting, low-carbon public transport systems, seen as effective solutions to tackle the drawbacks of climate change [23
]. However, to become green cities requires more than technical and managerial strategies, which, although important, often presume that environmental considerations are not tied in with social and political relations [23
]. Indeed, the reliance on techno-fixes—that is, energy efficient low-carbon technologies—overestimates their emission neutrality, which always requires energy and material resources to be produced and to function [24
]. Furthermore, “a techno-managerial approach often rests on the misleading assumption that we all understand environmental problems (and their causes) in the same manner, and that we all agree on how to solve them” [23
] (p. 48). Ultimately, such technological solutions to climate change have been prompted by “a global urban intellectual and professional technocracy” pursuing a “’smart’ socio-ecological urbanity”, which, through efficient and sustainable buildings and governance, will leave the capitalist urban system untouched [25
] (p. 610).
Following the UPE’s precepts, our analysis will factor in Vienna’s ‘problem solving’ attitudes in environmental policy-making, to understand whether it is value-laden, and thus political, or purely instrumental and post-political.
While focusing on the city as an analytical unit, UPE has paid heed to how globalising (or rather glocalising) forces are shaping the link between cities and nature [12
]. Notwithstanding, the UPE literature has been criticised for its inherent “methodological cityism”, whereby cities are conceived as the most salient loci for the study of socio-economic and political phenomena, which actually stretch beyond the urban boundaries [26
]. Indeed, climate change is an issue that affects multiple dimensions, from the individual to the global level. As such, while an analytical focus on cities permits to examine how socio-ecological processes actually play out, it is fundamental to factor in the intervention of upper-level authorities and non-state, non-public actors in policy-making.
In this respect, UPE scholars submit how cities are embedded in a multi-scalar system, where scales mutually influence each other. Although the concept of scale has been central to political ecology research, and has even spurred “a political ecology of scale”, it has been somehow played down [13
] (p. 505). The same holds true for UPE, where the multi-scalar arrangements and governance practices that shape environmental policy have been overlooked [27
]. In addition to the limited attention to scales, even more problematic is the little analytical importance given to the notion of level, subsumed in that of scale, but not explicitly analysed. While the concepts of power and power relations lie at the core of UPE research, the analysis of inter-level interactions appears to be on the background, thus neglecting an important component of socio-ecological governance. Notably, scale and level are not synonyms: while the former indicates “spatial, temporal, quantitative, or analytical dimensions used to measure and study any phenomenon”, the latter defines “units of analysis that are located at the same position on a scale” [28
] (p. 218). Moreover, the depiction of inter-scalar arrangements made by UPE scholars is outdated. The view of “simultaneous ‘nested’ yet hierarchical […] relationship between spatial scales” [14
] (p. 913) has been superseded by the multi-level governance account, contending that the different tiers of governments are not encapsulated in one another as “Russian dolls” [29
] (p. 1), but are “interconnected” [30
] (p. 346).
As a result, building on Cash et al.’s [31
] distinction of scales
, our analysis seeks to overcome the UPE’s limitation by combining the notions of scale and level. Indeed, our study encompasses two scales: the “temporal” and “jurisdictional” [31
]. Within the first scale, our unit of analysis is annual, inasmuch as we strived to identify those points in time over the 1989–2019 period when Vienna’s climate policy significantly changed. As for the latter scale, as will be discussed in the following sections, we examined all the levels involved: from the local to the international level—or “inter-governmental”, to borrow the term used by Cash et al. [31
]. This analytical approach will enable us to identify which actors at different levels are responsible for specific policies, and of which competencies they are endowed. As such, our analysis is at the same time “cross-scale” and “cross-level”, inasmuch as it will uncover the temporal evolution across multiple jurisdictional levels [31
Given the theoretical and analytical marginalisation of levels in UPE, we fill this gap by employing the constitutive concepts of the multi-level governance scholarship. Without rehearsing the broad debate on MLG, we want to underscore the main merit of this account, that is, its emphasis on the involvement of a plethora of deeply interconnected public and non-public actors in decision-making. This inter-connectedness constitutes the analytical linchpin of MLG, which will be employed in this article to complement the UPE approach.
The notion of MLG has been adopted in a variety of policy sectors, from cohesion policy to migration [32
]. MLG has also attracted academic attention in the study of environmental policy-making, where a wealth of contributions has examined the multi-tier governing of environmental issues [34
]. This sub-field of MLG literature stems from the assumption that environmental issues stretch across multiple levels, from individual to global, thus requiring the coordinated efforts of multiple actors and different governing levels. Despite the wide use of MLG in environmental policy analysis, we limit our borrowings to the multi-level and inter-linked conceptualisation of the EU polity, as we share those criticisms that define MLG more as a concept to analyse the cross-cutting governing arrangements in the EU, than a proper theory [35
]. In particular, the main import from the MLG literature is its emphasis on “various patterns of allocation of power” and the multi-actor and multi-level interaction informing decision-making [35
] (p. 272). In so doing, we endeavour to make UPE more interdisciplinary, by adding a political science twist to a primarily geographical analytical approach; likewise, we combine the critical bent of UPE with the institutional perspective of MLG. As will be discussed in the next section, from a methodological perspective, this implies the multi-level analysis of the drivers and outcomes of crucial shifts in political discourses and policy repertoire of the City of Vienna.
To empirically address our questions, we adopt process tracing
as a method to analyse the City of Vienna’s climate policy evolution. This method permits us to unravel the causal mechanisms by examining a phenomenon chronologically as a sequential series of events [43
]. By applying process tracing in a qualitative way, we include ‘time’ as a variable in the formation of causal mechanisms on the basis of temporal orders of events (such as policy reforms at different governance levels). A probabilistic conception of process tracing—as applied here—allows identifying those causal mechanisms that operate in a specific context, where the same mechanism does not necessarily produce the same outcome [44
] (p. 1152). Causal mechanisms, to use the words of Falleti and Lynch [44
] (p. 1147), “tell us how things happen: how actors relate (…), how policies and institutions either endure or change, how outcomes that are inefficient become hard to reverse”. Critical junctures are moments that allow for “more dramatic change” and where path-dependent processes are initiated [45
] (p. 341). Despite this notion of dramatic change, we orientate ourselves also towards the concepts of ‘drift’ and ‘layering’. Policy drifts are initiated by moments where external conditions shift, while layering refers to moments where new policies are added to existing ones [46
] (p. 15).
Process tracing was structured in three phases. First, we collected European, national and local policy documents and ordered them chronically and by the jurisdictional level in a qualitative data analysis software (Table 1
). First, local policy documents were analysed by applying thematic coding covering: (a) environmental values and problem-solving attitudes in the policy discourse including the formal allocation of power; (b) the problematization of ecological, social and economic challenges constructed in policy documents, and (c) instruments and evaluation. The analysis of the local policy discourse identified phases and critical junctures in Vienna’s environment policy-making. Second, drawing on the outcome of the policy document analysis, we coded inductively the interdependence of critical junctures to: (a) geo-political, economic events and local challenges; (b) ‘climate/environmental’ action and attitudes on upper-tier levels, and (c) changes of horizontal actors-relation to govern local ‘environmental’ policies. Third, preliminary results on interdependences, phases and critical junctures were complemented by eight validation semi-structured elite interviews with local and national policy-makers, representing the most important actors in the formulation of the climate policy (Table 2
). Data collection through interviews was concluded when saturation was reached. The interviews, conducted between June 2018 and October 2019 and fully transcribed, confirmed the identified events, problem-solving attitudes and interdependences.
Thanks to the process tracing method, we identified the critical junctures in Vienna’s ‘greening’ trajectory (Figure 1
). These moments coincide with the laws passed and the strategic plans published by international organisations, the EU, the Austrian government, and the City of Vienna, which had a strong impact on Vienna’s policy trajectory. In particular, we looked at whether and how upper-level legislative and policy interventions influenced the municipal policy agenda, and if the latter operated more or less autonomously following its own green agenda. To do so, we examined the synchronisation or de-synchronisation of the inter- and cross-level relations, and if these have changed over time. In the following sections, the findings are presented and discussed.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
In this article, Vienna’s climate policy evolution over the last thirty years has been examined. The analysis identified the critical junctures of such trajectory, characterised by stark shifts in the municipal political narrative and policy approach. Additionally, the article has investigated the structural institutional changes and the inter-level game that have shaped Vienna’s urban climate policy.
The findings show that the foundations of the municipality’s green mindset were laid in 1979—when the Department for Environmental protection was established. The City’s ecological ethos, which pivots around the notion of quality of life, was strengthened by the turn in Vienna’s urban planning towards social and environmental aspects in 1984. However, changes in the governance structure, with multiple levels and actors involved in the policy-making, coupled with geo-political and socio-demographic transformations, led to the reinterpretation of the ‘traditional’ environmental outlook through the adoption of an entrepreneurial and techno-managerial policy style. This shift to an “entrepreneurial city” has been documented by other authors [63
]. In particular, Astleithner and Hamedinger [64
] (p. 68) found how in the 1990s the social-democratic administration tried to mould Vienna on the “entrepreneurial city” model, bringing in the core elements of New Public Management, such as collaborations with private actors, greater descaling of competencies and performance assessment mechanisms. After the first climate policy evaluation results around 2007, the municipality adopted a stronger techno-managerial policy approach to address environmental problems, especially with regard to energy-efficiency and car traffic. By hailing the salvific capacity of technological fixes, Vienna’s “problem-solving attitude” [23
] (p. 48)—at least, in the realm of climate policy—has become post-political, with a growing reliance on experts and measurable goals.
Nevertheless, the City’s persistent focus on environmental protection and its strong commitment to environmentally sensitive and health-oriented urban development since the 1980s suggest that Vienna’s environment-friendly profile does not appear to be a political strategy used to maintain influence—as some UPE scholars would have it [14
]. Actually, the relevance of environmental policy, which is also encapsulated in urban development, hints at how Vienna has been able to compound the nature/city antithetic dyad. Being the stronghold of the social-democratic Party for nearly a century, it is difficult to discern the influence exerted by different parties on the environmental discourse. However, the coalition formed by the social-democratic and conservative parties between 1996 and 2001 represents the general shift in the City’s environmental political discourse at the beginning of 2000, characterised by the introduction of the concept of sustainable development. Along with the environment, the social protection discourse has remained embedded in the City’s strategy—evident, for example, in the persistence of green communal policy and social housing. The corporatist model and Vienna’s path-dependent environmental and social mind-set became increasingly tied in with economic development strategies. This development led to the current Smart City Framework Strategy that bundles environmental strategies and programs, e.g., the Climate Protection Program and the Urban Development Plan, with economic strategies, such as the ‘Innovative Vienna 2020’ Strategy, which focus on research, technology and innovation. Hence, the “problem-solving” attitude of the City of Vienna couples a seemingly genuine environmental and social concern with economic opportunism. Indeed, the City, while remaining faithful to its long-standing social-democratic tradition of public intervention in crucial policy sectors, has embraced the capitalist logic of economic growth as the only viable option to subsidise public services. In line with the observation of Novy and Hammer [65
] (p. 213), it can be argued that the Viennese social-democratic regime has not remained intact over time; rather, it has shifted towards socially liberal principles, primarily “controlled modernization”, which privileges private over public economic activity.
As with the multilevel interplay, our findings detect a lack of coordination and de-synchronised developments between the national/federal and local levels. With respect to climate protection, the coordination between municipal departments is mainly pursued by the Executive Office for the Coordination of Climate Protection, which mostly targets administration and public utility companies. The lack of coordination among levels appears to be a long-standing flaw of Vienna’s administrative functioning. In this respect, Astleithner and Hamedinger’s study [64
] (p. 69) shows that, in the early 2000s, the City of Vienna was already affected by a “tendency towards a lack of co-ordination and communication across departments”, the latter resembling “organizations within themselves, possessing their own corporate identity and self-understanding”. The findings of our study suggest that this tendency has weakened, with a greater reliance on interdepartmental cooperation and on networks of experts, especially with the initiation of the smart turn in 2011. However, the administrative architecture is still driven by a silo organisation, as witnessed by projects that, although often inter-departmental, are still subsidised by departmental funds. In this respect, the organisation of the City of Vienna is still vertically structured, with a top-down decision-making process and little involvement of non-public actors [64
]. Businesses and research institutions are part of the local governance arrangement, while civil society is not fully and properly engaged. As such, the governance of environmental and climate policy appears to be elitist: civil society is seen as the recipient of high-quality services rather than a crucial partner in policy-making.
Despite the inter-level cross-links have changed tremendously over the period considered, the vertical decision-making style still seems to be the norm [64
]. In effect, the wide use of laws and regulations at the national level indicates a rather top-down structure. Similarly, local action appears to be hindered by coordination issues between the regional, federal and municipal levels. Notwithstanding, our findings detect more ambitious commitments to climate targets and policies at municipal level than at the upper levels of authority. The case of Vienna, a city with a marked eco-friendly profile, reinforces the argument—recalled in the Introduction to this Special Issue—whereby cities are often forerunners in climate adaptation policy, whereas the transformative capacity of cities is likely to be restrained by vertical governing structures. Due to Vienna’s double role as a municipality and a federal state, the City has retained significant autonomy to pursue its own ecological path, implementing climate policy measures at its own speed. Nevertheless, cross-links with upper-tier levels accelerated Vienna’s path towards technological solutions. Our findings suggest, on the one hand, that the implementation of European Directives supported the city’s focus on technological fixes in the energy and housing sector. On the other hand, stronger links have been developed in relation to funds (especially research funding) from national and European levels due to fiscal consolidation policies. One example is the use of Smart City subsidies from the Climate and Energy Fund, employed by the City of Vienna to finance climate-friendly projects. However, the implementation of these projects tends to abide by the rules of the upper tiers of government, which in turn implies the acceptance of their focus on technological development and the marketisation of climate-friendly products.
Ultimately, this article has shown how Vienna’s green bent is the result of a more than 30-year policy trajectory, characterised by both path-dependency and significant transformations. These have shaped the City’s climate policy that, while leaning towards a techno-managerial (and post-political) policy style, still retains its green ‘spirit’. This has been made possible by the great deal of autonomy enjoyed by the City. Despite a difficult relation with the federal levels, its federal-state status has enabled Vienna to develop its own environmental-friendly profile, both internationally and within the urban boundaries. Since this article drew on a single case study, further research should undertake a comparative analysis of climate policy in multiple cities. This would enable us to shed light on whether they experienced similar/dissimilar critical junctures produced by converging/diverging political and policy drifts, and layering and cross-level interactions.