In advance to the launch of the European Capital of Democracy, we spoke with Michael Ludwig, Mayor of Vienna, Austria about success factors for democratic cities, opportunities for democratic innovation and the importance of active citizen participation.    

Do cities have the power to defend democracy?

The principal factor in making a city successful is real cooperation and collaboration between political leaders, administration, social sector partners and civil society. The development of a city is therefore inseparable from its democratic nature. Democratic cities are successful cities because they strive for social balance and enable participation. In places where people live closely together, the way they live together is continuously debated and negotiated. A democratic city provides the framework for this and facilitates democratic exchange, participation and codetermination. 

Which current developments will have the strongest impact on the development of society? 

Population growth and digitalisation are key factors that will have a significant influence on democratic participation and the way in which people live together. Cities will continue to grow. According to the UN, by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Thus, it is essential that we safeguard cohesion and the participation of all inhabitants of rapidly growing cities.

The second development is digitalisation. This is opening up new options for the inclusion of various groups of society and paving the way for democratic innovations. But at the same time we have to ensure that any sections of the population which cannot keep pace with this process of digitalisation are not excluded.

What do you consider to be the biggest threat to democracy in your city?

Today, cities are being confronted with a growing gap between those who are eligible to vote and those who only reside in the city. This leads to problems regarding the democratic legitimacy of political decisions. Cities are therefore being called upon in particular to facilitate the participation of all residents, by means of democratic innovations. Democracy is not a finished state of affairs but a process within which cities need to continually evolve. Vienna is a good model in this regard, because it develops formats that enable all of the city’s inhabitants to actively participate in shaping the place where they live. Strengthening this approach will be a key objective of innovative, democratic cities in the future.

Which democratic processes or institutions should be improved to make democracy work better?

Participation and codetermination must be made possible on various levels. Community participation projects need to be designed in such a way that they offer all social groups possibilities for access and participation. The central question is how to facilitate access for various different groups. An easily accessible democratic project implemented in Vienna was Werkstadt Junges Wien [Young Vienna Workshop], in which over 22,500 children and young people were invited to contribute their ideas and wishes for the future of Vienna. This formed the basis for the child and youth strategy which the City Council adopted in 2020. 

From your experience as former City Councillor for Housing and Urban Development, what are the policy areas you consider as being relevant for the democratic development in the City of Vienna?

Vienna has succeeded in creating a highly diversified residential population – more diversified than in virtually any other city in Europe. This is the result of our social housing construction and far-sighted urban development programmes. This mix brings together people from a range of different backgrounds, and helps to create neighbourhoods that overcome rifts and do not put up barriers.