Viennese vision | Monocle

thumbnail text

To reach our meeting place, former deputy mayor of Vienna Maria Vassilakou must cross the Mariahilferstrasse, which she helped to transform from a congested road into a pedestrianised boulevard. The campaign turned her into a national superstar and ensured her re-election in 2015. “Some things become an integral part of a city’s everyday life and cannot be undone,” she says of her legacy, which also includes the introduction in 2012 of a €365 annual public-transport ticket, the redevelopment of Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof and more cycle lanes.

Vassilakou’s work won her many admirers but her exit from office wasn’t an altogether amicable one. In 2019, divisions within her party, the Greens, caused in part by Vassilakou’s backing for a disputed property project, forced her to resign. Though she didn’t face legal action, she felt that it was time to go. “People perceived me as an agent of change,” she says. “I wanted to continue doing what I love but somewhere else.” So she set up a consultancy, Vienna Solutions, to export the Austrian capital’s successes abroad. Today, Vassilakou barely spends more than a day or two at home. After our interview, she will fly to Reykjavík for a project to develop brownfield sites.

But her heart is in Vienna, to which she moved as an 18-year- old from Athens. “You need to start with an idea but you will never change anything alone,” she says. “Everyone likes to focus on me but none of my projects would have been possible without a dedicated team and the tens of thousands of Viennese who supported us.” 

Growing pains


Busan, on South Korea’s southeastern tip, has played an important part in the country’s modern history. It was the last city standing when North Korea’s tanks swooped through the peninsula in 1950, hosting refugees who later enriched its economic and cultural life. As South Korea’s main container port – and one of the world’s largest – Busan has experienced explosive growth as the logistical hub for the country’s economic rise over the past few decades. And with Seoul suffering from a number of affordability issues, including a housing shortage, Busan’s mayor, Park Heong-joon, is trying to attract youth and talent to his hometown. 

Park is engaged in a formidable fight, tackling an issue that some might call second-city syndrome. Young people and investment are increasingly sucked into the world’s largest cities, leaving a greying population behind in smaller ones. Park, who is bidding to host the World Expo in Busan in 2030, says that levelling the playing field between regions is pivotal for a country’s success – and that his mission cannot wait. “Once upon a time we used to accept that the theory of selection and concentration was best in terms of economies of scale,” Park tells monocle. “But now everybody is trying to go to Seoul for everything – and talent follows them.” 

Park claims that his country’s paltry birth rate – the world’s lowest at 0.84 children per woman – is also attributable to the massive economic pre-eminence of its capital city. A hyper-competitive society that pushes people to chase a single version of success in Seoul is leaving those who don’t achieve it unhappy and in financial hardship, meaning that they are less likely to want to start a family, he says. 

Park’s measure of a city’s quality of life is how well it can support the development of individual potential. To achieve that for his birthplace, his plans are numerous and ambitious. There are infrastructure upgrades in the works such as a new international airport that Park says will be accessible in 15 minutes from the city centre thanks to a hydrogen-powered bullet train. More creative plans include the construction of fully self-sustainable floating communities, co-sponsored by the UN-Habitat, and a new opera house. Park hopes that both will elicit a chorus of approval from citizens. 

Getting on track


Better late than never is perhaps not the best epithet for a new train service but, after an 11-year wait, Honolulu’s light-rail system is finally on the move. The first phase of the network is set to depart in July and will run from the rapidly growing suburb of East Kapolei to the Aloha Stadium along nine new stations. 

Elevated above the typically gridlocked streets of Hawaii’s capital, the system is the US’s first driverless train network and, when completed in 2031, will span the city and connect it to the airport.

The last time that Honolulu had any kind of rolling stock was in 1957, when the last of its trolley buses were finally unhooked from their wires. Today it is a slog to access: the densely populated conurbation currently only has public buses to ferry commuters around. The new network has had its opponents over the years – not to mention allegations of mismanagement and a budget that has ballooned – but getting this sunny city on the rails is long overdue. There’s also dedicated space inside every train car to stash your surfboard.

military –––  usA
Naval gazing

The US Navy’s increasing focus on the Pacific has prompted its first announcement of a new hospital ship in 35 years, USNS Bethesda. The 110-metre-long catamaran will be fitted with three operating theatres and everything that might be found in a non-floating hospital, including mental health services and obstetrics. 

Such a vessel will, obviously, be an important resource in the event of conflict but a designated hospital ship, distinguished by all-white livery with a giant red cross, can also be a significant soft-power asset that allows the country whose flag it carries to look good while doing good. The US Navy’s current hospital ships, the hulking 1,000-bed craft USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy – both originally built as oil tankers – are regularly deployed as a benign American presence (and provided some reassurance on the home front in the early stages of the pandemic, docked in New York and Los Angeles respectively). China has sent its hospital ship Daishan Dao on humanitarian missions to several theatres where Beijing has more hard-headed economic and strategic interests. 

Bethesda appears to be a considerable advance,” Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute, tells monocle. “It can operate in shallower waters than predecessor vessels and is much faster. There is an emphasis on speed and ability to operate in austere conditions.” 

A conflict requiring the services of a ship such as Bethesda is not a certainty. A natural disaster whose victims would benefit from its presence is.

andrew mueller on...
Summit cities

The 2023 Nato summit will be held in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on 11 and 12 July. Monocle Radio’s The Foreign Desk will be there and you’ll be able to hear the fruits of our labours on 15 July. There are two reasons why Vilnius is a sound choice of location. One is what Vilnius is: a delightful city. The other is where Vilnius is: a 40-minute drive from the border with Russia’s client state Belarus to the east, two and a half hours by road from the border with Russia’s Baltic exclave Kaliningrad to the west, about the same distance from the strategic pinch point of the Suwalki Gap. Vilnius is on Nato’s front line: the symbolism of the alliance meeting here, of all places, is not subtle.

Preparations for taking The Foreign Desk to Vilnius prompted some thinking about what makes a city a great location for a summit – and what doesn’t. We’ve acquired a bit of expertise in this subject. Over the past year and a bit, some combination of myself and the producers of The Foreign Desk – Emma Searle, Christy O’Grady – have done two Bratislava Globsecs, one Warsaw Security Forum, one Munich Security Conference, one Delphi Economic Forum and last summer’s Nato summit in Madrid.

What we have concluded brings us to a third reason why Vilnius should prove an excellent summit host, which is that the smaller the destination city and the more annoying it is to get to, the better. Vilnius is home to just half a million or so, and is tough to reach without using the kind of airlines that make you wish you had walked.

Munich, Madrid and Warsaw are, obviously, well- connected and therefore convenient. But they’re also easy for attendees to whip in and out of in an afternoon, or to vanish into, where other guests (and importuning journalists) can’t find them. On the opposite end of the scale, Globsec is mostly confined to one riverside hotel, facilitating informal information-sharing and guest-booking: a few of the voices you’ll hear in The Foreign Desk’s Globsec episodes are people we ran into in the coffee queue. And Delphi is tiny and up a big hill about two hours from Athens airport. Everybody is stuck there, so everybody has to speak to everybody else. It is quite difficult not to find yourself sitting next to a prime minister at dinner.

There are reasons why the most productive of the Cold War summits between the US and the USSR was the one that took place in Reykjavík in 1986. Not only had President Ronald Reagan and General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev travelled a long way to be there; there wasn’t much else to do once they had arrived.

Andrew Mueller hosts ‘The Foreign Desk’ on Monocle Radio. Listen live at every Saturday at midday London time or download as a podcast.

Share on:






Go back: Contents

Global views: Long reads


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Globalist