The potential of a city on the rise

A city is a complex network of relationships consisting of different levels and structures, which in turn are comprised of cultural, social, economic, landscape and design elements. How one experiences a city and which weaknesses, strengths and potentials one ascribes to it changes depending on how and at what time one uses the city, which places had (and have) an impact on one’s personal life, which profession one pursues, how one moves about in the city, and whether one perceives it “from the outside”, i.e. as a non-resident, or “from the inside”, as a city dweller.

Klangturm (tower of sounds) and town hall tower © Norbert Steiner
Klangturm (tower of sounds) and town hall tower (by Norbert Steiner)

For me as an Upper Austrian and longtime resident of Vienna, I had a number of experiences that shaped my idea of St. Pölten before my appointment as managing director for the city’s application to become European Capital of Culture 2024. Once, as a Frequency music festival goer looking for a good coffee in a relaxed environment, I left the campground at the Traisen and was suddenly surprised to find myself in a charming, baroque historical city district. As it happens, I returned after every night at the music festival. Another visit to the Parque del Sol Festival in Sonnenpark – an exciting experimental field for a self-empowering remix of culture and green space – is something I might have expected to find in Berlin rather than St. Pölten. The two lakes in the north of the city always give me a spontaneous holiday feeling.

The Klangturm sound tower, from my perspective at that time, was also something sensational, new and innovative, a must-see for non-St. Pölteners as well. Today it epitomises an ambitious project currently in the midst of a deep slumber. As an “interface between the administrative buildings and the cultural district” it could, like a cultural axis, play a decisive role in creating a link between the baroque old town and the cultural district. My first attempts to reach it on the best (i.e. most logical, short, interesting) path on foot failed, by the way, due to the lack of signage – or is it because that footpath has yet to exist?

St. Pölten revealed another side when I drove a car: my navigation system led me directly to Domplatz square, the heart of the provincial capital. As I later learned, the city centre offers the largest number of parking spaces per capita in Austria. And the St. Pölten–Krems railway line contributes to its passengers’ inner deceleration, who will reach St. Pölten’s old town from Vienna in exactly 21 minutes.

Many of these impressions garnered with a look “from the outside” also coincide with those of city dwellers. Numerous cultural discussions and the KulturFORUM #1 citizen dialogue format have enabled us to identify topics and working areas that have been close to the hearts of many St. Pölten residents for quite some time – topics that have become more and more pronounced as we’ve analysed St. Pölten’s current situation. These also hold a great deal of potential:

Identity
St. Pölten is a grown structure with eleven districts and 42 cadastral municipalities. It follows that the peculiarities of each district cannot simply be combined to form a “common St. Pölten identity”. Even the state of provincial capital has yet to be fully established in many minds and hearts. This diversity of identities can, however, be seen as a strength to be harnessed.

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Despite its above-average range of cultural offerings for a mid-sized city, St. Pölten is not yet perceived as a cultural hub by the public. The cultural cities of Vienna and Krems are too close. There is too little awareness that St. Pölten, one of the oldest cities in Austria and a beautifully baroque one at that, has a lot to offer and a high-quality cultural programme in its own right.

City/country

“Are we still in the city?” St. Pölten’s urban area is characterised by changes between densely developed areas, generous green spaces and farmland. The urban-rural dichotomy is noticeable in the city, but this proximity also boosts the quality of life: you live in the countryside, yet only a stone’s throw from the heart of the city.

Useful city vs. city to live in

Many people use the city – for work, for example, to accomplish everyday tasks, or go to school – but leave it again afterwards. St. Pölten may be a transit space, but it also offers many spaces which are currently unused and could be opened to groups like children and young people, thereby creating (consumption-free) zones for experimentation. 

Connections within the city and in the region

Another important topic is connectivity within the city: linking the districts with one another, the old town with the government district, accessibility of the Traisen’s shores, etc. But connection between the city and region, e.g. through a Krems–St.Pölten cultural axis and beyond, is still insufficiently developed. The creation of a cultural region in particular holds great potential for landing a long-term spot on Europe’s cultural tourism map.

Mobility

In terms of the public transport network, the city and surrounding regions are clearly at a disadvantage compared to Vienna with regard to frequency, travel time and timetable. This results in a shift of the spatial and temporal dimensions. Although Vienna is further away geographically, it feels closer than surrounding towns due to the short journey time on the Westbahn line.

This list of strengths and weaknesses is an extract of the results. It is our starting point for creating potentials and specific fields of action such as the redefinition of public space, the reinvigoration of the Traisen river, or the development of projects that will support this application. It isn’t the current situation of a city that matters for the European Capital of Culture application, but the resources, stories and development opportunities to be found there.

People living in other parts of Austria are often astonished to hear that St. Pölten is applying to be a European Capital of Culture – at least at first. A closer look at precisely this development potential is an essential reason why the Capital of Culture title makes sense as an instrument for urban development in St. Pölten. In other words, the “European Capital of Culture” is not a beauty contest, but acts as a catalyst, a “vehicle” for a shared look at what potentials exist in St. Pölten and how these can be activated. Models and concepts can be tested in projects at the interface of social format, architecture and art, i.e. in a “lab situation” conducive to addressing structural, socio-political, social and aesthetic topics.

A provincial town becomes an innovative mid-sized city

With the “European Capital of Culture” tool and the self-irony, honesty and down-to-earthness so characteristic of St. Pölteners – as evidenced by the KulturGESPRÄCHE (CultureTALKS) – disadvantages can be turned into advantages, weaknesses into potentials. Comparing the view from the outside with a look from the inside helps in two ways: first, there is an interesting overlap of topics; and second, it’s worth taking a closer look at where these perceptions differ.

The motto “small is beautiful” subsumes the advantages of a liveable mid-sized city over a metropolis (proximity, short distances, personal contacts, short communication channels, simple networking, etc.), St. Pölten being a good mixture of new urbanity and rurality. As a result, St. Pölten has great potential to change from a “provincial town” to a mid-sized city with a flagship character for other European cities of this size within a metropolitan region. However, in order to achieve this goal, St. Pölten’s residents need a great deal of commitment and the will to actively participate in designing their own living space and get involved in the application process. They are the ones who shape a city and lend it a diverse identity and future.

18 May 2018


Author

Michael Duscher
Managing Director St. Pölten 2024

 

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