I didn’t know Vorarlberg, Austria existed until I went to the Getting Things Done exhibition at the Dalhousie architecture school last spring. The exhibition visited Halifax as it toured around the world, showcasing the state’s distinctive (and beautiful) architecture.

The more I learned about Vorarlberg, the more it fascinated me. In July, state tourism agency Visit Vorarlberg hosted photographer Tammy Fancy and me as we explored the state for six days. It’s a rural, largely mountainous region, geographically isolated on the far edge of its country, and still heavily dependent on traditional natural resources. For a Nova Scotian, it sounds relatable.

But rural Vorarlberg thrives in a way rural Nova Scotia hasn’t for generations. Centuries-old rural towns are growing steadily, not withering away. Multi-generational family farms sell traditional products such as cheese and sausage alongside internationally-sought botanicals and innovations like spruce honey and artisanal vinegar.

As it has been for more than a millennium, forestry is king. Most buildings are wooden, most homes burn wood for heat. Yet workers harvest the wood sensibly and sustainably. I never saw a bald and scarred mountain, ravaged by a clear cut.

“We would never do that,” said guide Helga Rädler. “The laws don’t allow it and, if they did, the people would be so mad. It would wreck the environment. The trees and forests are for everyone. No one can destroy them.” Tree harvesters must tell government officials which trees they intend to cut. Those inspectors review the plans, often vetoing their choices. Even cutting trees on private property requires approval. The result is lush forest everywhere you look and a sustainable, ongoing forestry industry.

Around the town of Krumbach, there are seven bus stops giving an even clearer example of how things are different. In 2014, a local architectural association invited seven architects from around the world to design bus stops as public art around the town. For payment, the architects got free holidays in Vorarlberg. Locals donated most of the materials. At a minimal cost, the area got a permanent art installation called BUS:STOP. These seven beautiful pieces of public art have made Krumbach an international tourist destination.

It began with a few activists. “Innovative community citizens have developed this project together with friends from the architecture scene,” explained Krumbach mayor Arnold Hirschbühl in an email after my visit. “Not all inhabitants were enthusiastic about BUS:STOP. A project like BUS:STOP is only possible if a network of idealists—culture interested people, architects, sponsors, craftsmen, etc.—are working hand in hand. And very important: if they put personal/individual interests behind the collective. The project has to be totally put in the foreground.”

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It reflects the community’s values and aspirations. “Krumbach has already proved courage,” he said. “The world is not developing further if all people only allow established ideas… Krumbach is very brave when it comes to public participation, in taking care of the land, with architecture and with many other topics. With each decision that is being made it has to be considered what kind of impact it could have for the next generation.”

Through that lens, BUS:STOP makes sense. “Government funds for cultural projects are always hard to argue at the time of the implementation,” Hirschbühl said. “Even three years after the opening, a lot of tourists are coming [to the region] just because of BUS:STOP. But when they are here, they experience far more than only BUS:STOP. They experience that the region and the village has much more to offer.”

The lesson: public art and good architecture matter. In Vorarlberg, there are strict building codes that create a cohesive, attractive, and welcoming community. Even chain stores and supermarkets are designed to fit the region’s traditional architectural style. New houses must follow the same rules.

You’d never see a row of historic houses demolished to make way for a glass-and-concrete block of condos. Officials reject building plans that are ugly and unwelcoming, bad for the wider community. The idea isn’t to impose a new aesthetic on the community, it’s to build on its heritage.

Architects call the philosophy the “New Vorarlberg School.” Its essence: every building should be attractive, accessible, functional, and benefit the whole community.

Wolfgang Fiel, curator of the exhibition that visited Halifax in the spring, told me about it. “The local culture and its traditions are being reflected in the continued evolution of [architecture],” he said. “I believe the notion of social sustainability is something other communities can learn from Vorarlberg. What this means is that a joint commitment to high-quality architecture is more likely to yield the kind of spaces that are beneficial for a wider public.”

BUS:STOP also shows how much transit matters. In Halifax, vandals destroy bus stops for no reason. In Vorarlberg, people make them into art. In Halifax, if you tell someone your primary mode of transport is the bus, they’ll react as if you’ve just announced you live in a box and dumpster dive for dinner. Nowhere is the class divide more apparent.

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When I first met our host, Visit Vorarlberg’s Andrea Masal, she was staying at a bed and breakfast in Purcell’s Cove and puzzling over how she was going to return there after the exhibit opening. “I thought we could take the bus home after dinner,” she said. “But we cannot. It stops running very early and the other buses go nowhere near the spot.” I warned her she faced an expensive taxi ride. Ultimately, another guest at the exhibit was going in the same direction and offered her a drive. But “you can always depend on the kindness of strangers” is a pretty lousy transit system.

Accustomed to the mysteries of Halifax Transit, I didn’t understand why Andrea was so blindsided until I went to Austria. There’s no stigma attached to transit in Vorarlberg. Bus service is frequent and routes crisscross the state. With some free time on the second day of our visit, we decided to go hiking in the mountains. Without any planning beyond a cursory glance at a timetable we didn’t really understand, we walked out of our hotel, found the on-time-to-the-minute bus, and made an easy trip to the trailhead.

Right now, I assume some Internet commenter is typing “Yeah, but that’s Europe! Their system is entirely different.” Vorarlberg wasn’t always like this; it’s the result of deliberate choices. Its transit system began taking this shape in 1989. Roads were becoming crowded and unsafe, bus service was unpopular. Policymakers wanted to change direction; they developed the “Vorarlberg Transport Concept.”

  • Transport policy must serve the general interests of the whole population.
  • Transport-related pollution must be reduced.
  • Non-motorized passenger traffic (bikes, for example) should be given preference wherever suitable.
  • Public transport must be organized as a competitive alternative to motorized individual transport.
  • A minimum level of quality service must be provided for people depending  on public transport.
  • Routes, timetables, and fares of public transport must be structured to create demand for the service.
  • Promising trials with unconventional approaches must be supported.

Or simply: cars aren’t the most important things on the road, and bus service should be good enough that people don’t want or need cars. Try to live in rural Nova Scotia for a week without a car, and you’ll see a difference.

And in a place where it’s easy to get around, where people aren’t working to support cars, where people take pride in their homes and the buildings around them, where the natural environment is cherished rather than pillaged, a remarkable thing happens. The rural economy thrives and with it, urban areas also rise. Traditional jobs such as farming and shingle-making are viable careers with bright futures. People buy local products because they’re abundant, good quality, and competitively priced.

Even in the smallest towns, we found fantastic restaurants showcasing seasonal local food. At the Biohotel Schwanen in the tiny farming town of Bizau, we had a seven-course food-and-wine-pairing dinner that’s among the best meals I’ve ever had. The mastery of local ingredients has turned Bizau into a gastronomical destination. Throughout the visit, I met people who gushed about travelling for hours through the mountains just to dine there.

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We often saw the name Metzler in store windows on meat, cheese, and botanicals. Hearing it’s one of the most popular family-farm businesses, we decided to visit. It’s mostly remarkable for being unremarkable. A small, simple family farm, environmentally sustainable, retailing traditional foods and innovative botanicals. Its products are easy to get, whether you have a car or not. They’re no more expensive than imported alternatives, but much higher quality.

One of the most popular grocery chains in the state is Sutterlüty. It’s a multi-generational family chain; think of it as Austria’s Sobeys. It emphasizes local products, providing regular reports to customers on sales volumes and where each product comes from. When numbers dip, customers give the owners an earful, making suggestions on how they can improve the situation. Last year, all Sutterlüty stores went 100% climate neutral.

Chamber-of-commerce types and big-business advocates tell us that activist governments and stiff regulations stifle economic growth.

They’re wrong.

In Vorarlberg, such policies combine with public pressure to make the whole state, rural and urban, an attractive place to live.

Unemployment rates are staggeringly low. (Two government officials quoted an almost-unbelievable unemployment rate of about 2.5%). There’s no fear of a brain drain, no worries about sagging birthrates and a greying population; young people see the state as a stylish, progressive place to live. Many leave to pursue higher educations, but most come back, often with spouses and offspring in tow.

Vorarlberg has embraced its ruralness. It has three bustling cities, but they don’t bustle at the expense of the state’s rural roots. By making rural Vorarlberg a great place to live, the whole state has prospered. Tradition and innovation work hand-in-glove.

In Vorarlberg, you don’t hear a lot of talk about being world-class. When you’re doing things right, you don’t have to say that.

See more images from this trip in our gallery.

Editor’s note: Visit Vorarlberg paid for Trevor and Tammy’s trip to Austria; Halifax Magazine didn’t promise editorial coverage of any sort.

Halifax Magazine