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Vienna’s Ringstrasse: A Street That’s Grand but Not Human

The famous road in Austria’s capital is a masterpiece of monumental design. But it’s no model for American planners to emulate.

Vienna's Ringstrasse. Franz Joseph I, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, began creating the Ringstrasse in the 1850s, and work continued for four decades.
The Ringstrasse is a road that forms a half-circle around the oldest parts of Vienna, with buildings, parks and sculptures and the Danube River closing the half-circle on the other side.

Almost since its construction began in 1857, it has been praised for its beauty and charm, and held up as a model for other cities. It still is. So naturally, I was excited to finally see it during a recent trip to Austria.

It was undeniably impressive. There were enormous palaces, churches and theaters set in long blocks on lawns and plazas. I trudged between them, a pilgrim making his way between temples. The whole place radiated the power of the Habsburgs, the imperial family that ruled Austria and neighboring lands for 700 years, until World War I ended their reign and empire.

But something was wrong. The street itself, and even more the areas around it, were too big, too distant from each other. They helped create a city that was nice to look at but difficult to walk through or feel comfortable in.

The Ringstrasse makes Vienna a monumental city. And I find it hard to enjoy monumental cities, unless, like Paris or London, they are accompanied by a finely grained network of streets and buildings that produce rich urban life. I envisioned a Parisian-style street with apartment buildings hosting the famous Viennese cafes where intellectuals congregated. That’s not what the Ringstrasse is.

You can see this tension between the monumental and the human scale in cities all over the world, including some in the United States. But before I go into that, I should say a bit more about how the Ringstrasse was created.

The street was built on the site of what had been a mighty wall and its accompanying “ramparts,” the sloped grassy area that allowed defenders to see and shoot down on attackers. But walls became less useful as more powerful weaponry was invented. Cities all over Europe, including Vienna, Barcelona, Paris and Prague, tore down their walls in the 19th century and found other uses for the valuable land. Vienna under Emperor Franz Joseph I began creating the Ringstrasse in the 1850s, and work continued for four decades.

The Ringstrasse can be separated into three concentric half circles. The innermost half circle is the street itself, built where the wall was. Alongside the street are the lawns, plazas and buildings placed on what used to be the ramparts. And then there is an outermost street, labeled in some sections as the “museum street.” It has been dedicated to cars and looks and performs more like a suburban highway. Some basic traffic-calming techniques would do wonders here.

The palaces, now mostly museums, are amazing. Foremost among them is the Kunsthistorisches Museum, built in 1891 to house the art of the Habsburg family. But there’s a difference between admiring a building and enjoying the city it helps to form.

It’s not just the palaces and religious buildings that are too large and isolated. The city’s “rathaus,” (the German word for city hall), is part of the Ringstrasse. It sits on a huge lawn and looks more like a palace or church than a place for citizens to complain about their taxes.

This tension between being a monumental city, a ceremonial city, on the one hand, and a city to live in, walk in and mingle in, on the other, has existed for centuries. More than 100 years ago, the architect Daniel Burnham was specifically inspired by the Ringstrasse as he made plans for Chicago, San Francisco and other American cities. Burnham’s 1904 plan for San Francisco would have replaced the intimate tangle of Telegraph Hill and North Beach with monumental blocks and buildings. We are fortunate that it didn’t happen. The portion of Burnham’s vision realized in Chicago features a collection of roadways and parks that are all too wide and too large.

Washington, D.C., does a good job giving tourists a place to remember. It’s famous for Pierre L’Enfant’s plan of radiating streets and circles. Walking between the U.S. Capitol and the Smithsonian on the National Mall is reminiscent of walking down the Ringstrasse. There are giant buildings set on big lawns with too much concrete and too many empty spaces.

In the 20th century, Le Corbusier and his modernist vision of towers in a park followed Burnham and monumentality. Again, all too damn big. It would take until the 1960s, and the work of Jane Jacobs, to cite smaller-scale streets as an ideal, not an afterthought.

This dilemma of monumentality vs. human scale may never be solved, because it’s largely about taste. I like a city that has room for and encourages serendipity, the chance encounter. A monumental city has less place for that, even though it may have a large amount of open space. To some, that is an acceptable trade-off.

I am influenced right now by living in Prague. Vienna and Prague are sisters of a sort because both were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before 1620, Prague was the capital. It has plenty of palaces and opera houses. But for the most part they are at human scale, built right up to streets and squares. One feels a part of Prague, not separate from it as in Vienna.

To be sure, I wouldn’t reject all of Vienna based on my reaction to the Ringstrasse. For one thing, the street isn’t all it once was. During World War II, American bombers rained destruction on the Austrian capital. Pictures from a century ago show a more elegant, human-scale Ringstrasse than the one that exists now. The street used to function differently.

But overall, I would advise American cities not to use Vienna’s Ringstrasse as a model for anything, unless they are very clear about just what they are copying. And Vienna ought to work on humanizing its famous ring road.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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