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Political fight erupts over closure of Vienna’s big parks 

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Political fight erupts over closure of Vienna’s big parks 

Coronavirus

Political fight erupts over closure of Vienna’s big parks 

Austrian government praised for proactive response to coronavirus but residents feel the strain

Cyclists enjoy a sunny day at the Prater public park in Vienna last week © Christian Bruna/EPA

Ingeborg Schödl has lived opposite the Augarten in Vienna since 1960. The sprawling park, with its broad gravel avenues, horse-chestnut trees and monolithic wartime anti-aircraft towers, is a lung for the densely packed apartment blocks of central Leopoldstadt and Brigittenau.

People live their lives in the park, Ms Schödl says: walking their dogs, playing with their children, exercising, or just strolling. “There aren’t any other parks nearby, so the Augarten really is like an oasis.”

Not any more. Alongside four of Vienna’s other big central parks — around 230 hectares of public space — the Augarten has been shut since March 15 on the orders of the Austrian federal government, as it fights to contain the pandemic.

Last week, the closure of the five Bundesgärten exploded into a national political row. Newspaper headlines and interviews have pitched the dominant Social Democrats of Vienna against the ruling conservative federal government — and its green minority — of Sebastian Kurz in a fight to have the capital’s biggest green spaces reopened.

Viennese politicians have accused the federal government of capriciousness. Mr Kurz’s ministers say the Viennese are playing politics with public health

With Europe’s cities entering their third week of lockdown, the loss of parks and public spaces is emerging as one of the trickiest faultlines of the crisis as politicians battle to curb new cases of Covid-19 and city residents cling to small freedoms to keep their sanity. 

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In the UK, as spring temperatures soared over the weekend, health minister Matt Hancock castigated Britons for sunbathing and on Sunday morning threatened an outright ban on all outdoor activity. 

Austria has been particularly proactive in curbing public life to battle the pandemic, but many Viennese see closing their cities’ biggest parks as a step too far.

“I’m really not happy about it and a lot of other people I know aren’t happy either,” said Helene Terner, who lives close to the now shut Belvedere gardens. “I’m a mother of four, two of them are small, and we just need to go out and do something with the kids every day.”

A closed playground at a park in Vienna last month © Roland Schlager/APA

Ms Terner says the closures are “puzzling”. Parks elsewhere in Austria are still open, as are the smaller, municipal parks in Vienna itself, which are now more crowded as a result.

“We feel caught in a political campaign about this, but it really shouldn’t be a political issue,” Ms Terner said.

Vienna is gearing up for an election in October. The government has dismissed the row as a campaign gambit by the Social Democrats. But other political parties have joined the call for the parks to reopen. 

“It’s stupid, [the government] is making arguments that have no basis at all,” said Stephanie Krisper, a member of parliament for Austria’s liberal party, the Neos. Ms Krisper lives near the Augarten. “People have to move to keep sane and healthy.”

Even the far-right Freedom party — Mr Kurz’s former governing ally — has come out in favour of the parks reopening.

On Friday, Austrian tabloids carried photographs of riders from the imperial Spanish Riding School, in 18th century livery on white Lipizzaner horses, exercising in the empty Burggartenimages that suggested to some the notion of government hauteur towards Vienna’s urban masses. 

“It’s arbitrariness,” said Ulli Sima, the Vienna city councillor in charge of open spaces, who has become the public face of Vienna’s anger. “These are vast spaces in the heart of the city. People are standing in front of the gates and they are really annoyed. 

“We in Vienna really have helped the federal government during this crisis … but this is a step too much. There’s no argument for health to support this.”

According to Ms Sima, 500,000 people in Vienna no longer have access to parks within walking distance of their homes.

The federal minister in charge of the policy, Elisabeth Köstinger, was not available for interview. A spokesperson pointed out that parks were closed all over Europe. “The protection of people is a top priority at this time,” he said. “In the five Bundesgärten … the minimum clearances were not observed, which endangered people and their health.” 

Mr Kurz’s approval ratings during the coronavirus pandemic have risen and his government has won plaudits for its rigour. As of Sunday, Austria had 12,051 confirmed cases of the virus. 

Sources close to Mr Kurz say the battle over the Bundesgärten will die down as cooler heads prevail.

But the dispute has the potential to fester. The closed parks in Vienna have been contrasted with the scandal in Tyrol, a conservative heartland, where ski resorts were kept open for weeks — in the apparent interest of politically well-connected businessmen — after the first Covid-19 infections were recorded. The rural region has more than 2,600 cases compared with 1,600 in Vienna.

“Please stand firm!” Mr Kurz urged fellow Austrians on Twitter this weekend. “Austria will come out of this crisis faster than other countries, but only if we stand together.”

Solidarity, however, is what the row over Vienna’s parks is putting under strain. 

“In the countryside, they are having a much less hard time of it than we do in the cities,” says Katharina Golser, a single mother who normally uses the park near her home to walk her dog, jog and get out with her son. 

“We don’t have a balcony, or any outside space in our building. The park is our garden.” 

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