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Car-free Urban Living in Vauban, Germany
Sarah Rich, 21 Dec 06
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This year in Worldchanging's hometown of Seattle, one of our allies, Alan Durning, has been chronicling his 365-day commitment to living car-free in the city with his family. We've been following along, hearing about the challenges and triumphs of his undertaking. A little farther away, near Freiburg, Germany, a whole town has been working towards the same lifestyle goal, in a sustainable urban setting called Vauban which was completed this year, after 13 years of development.

On a former military base, 2,000 homes house 4,700 residents. It's designed to be an equally appealing alternative to suburban relocation for young families who want a good place to raise their kids. A number of planning criteria have created an atmosphere that incentivizes residents to bike or walk instead of drive. For one thing, a parking space costs $23,000USD, while an annual tram pass is free. To put into perspective the result of this costly arrangement, an article in the Christian Science Monitor tells us that just 150 in every 1,000 Vauban inhabitants owns a car, "compared with 430 per 1,000 inhabitants in Freiburg proper. In contrast, the US average is 640 household vehicles per 1,000 residents."

From its first stages of planning, in the early 90s when the Vauban army based closed, the development was intended to be a beacon of ecological living, and a haven for younger generations in a country with an aging demographic. (According to CSM, one-third of Vauban residents are under age eighteen -- a sharp contrast to the age distribution across Germany.)

In 1998, Freiburg bought land from the German government and worked with Delleske's group to lay out a master plan for the area, keeping in mind the ecological, social, economic, and cultural goals of reducing energy levels while creating healthier air and a solid infrastructure for young families. Rather than handing the area to a real estate developer, the city let small homeowner cooperatives design and build their homes from scratch.

This distributed approach to the establishment of Vauban lent itself to a harmonious melding of grassroots community interests and government influence. A citizen's association was formed and legally recognized in 1995, and was actively involved in the planning and implementation of the district design.

In addition to encouraging car-free living, Vauban subscribed to principles of green building for the neighborhood homes. According to this abstract of the project:

  • All houses are built at least with improved low energy standard (65 kWh/m2a, calculated similar to the Swiss SIA 380/1 standard) plus at least 100 units with "passive house" (15 kWh/m2a) or "plus energy" standard (houses which produce more energy than they need, another 100 plus energy houses are planned).
  • A highly efficient co-generation plant (CHP) operating on wood-chips is operating since 2002 and connected to the district's heating grid.
  • Solar collectors (about 450 m2 until 2000) and photovoltaics (about 1200 m2 until 2000) will be common "ornaments" on the district's roofs.
  • Finally, in an effort to encourage social interaction and community engagement, the citizen association (Forum Vauban) "gives voice to the people's needs and supports their initiatives, invents innovative ecological and social concepts and sets up a communication and participation structure including meetings, workshops, a three-monthly district news magazine, publications on special issues and internet-presentations."

    It's early on the Vauban's life, but like BedZED, this development appears to be a model for modern, urban, ecological living -- the sort that even a green-shy househunter would want, simply for its style, proximity and livability.


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    Comments seems to be developing a bike parking meme. Perhaps this is because large, well-utilized, visible bike parking areas (especially when they replace parking for automobiles) are indicative of progressive/wordchanging institutions, municipalities, and communities. Thanks for the update on Vauban.

    Posted by: Ethan on 21 Dec 06

    Thanks for this news Sarah. I visited Vauban 10 years ago. At that time, I thought they had decades of struggle ahead of them. I'm delighted to see how much progress they've made. Freiburg is an astonishing incubator for a sensible future.

    Posted by: David Foley on 22 Dec 06

    The pricing scheme for parking in Vauban makes good sense, and reminds me of the market-driven pricing attached to cars in New York City. When my wife and I moved to NYC, it didn't even occur to us to bring a car, because we knew we couldn't afford to park it in a garage, and we didn't want to pay the higher insurance costs charged (reasonably enough) to NYC drivers. So we lived in Morningside Heights and walked or rode the bus, the subway, or a taxi wherever we needed to go. When we brought our newborn daughter home from the hospital, we called a car service, and I still remember fondly that ride in the Town Car and my conversation with the driver, who had several children of his own and who beamed at our daughter with the affection of a proud papa.

    Anyway, a lot of our friends and kin from back home in Texas initially couldn't get their heads around the idea of giving up our car or of not having a car. The appeal of public transportation was totally lost on most of them, since they had never been exposed to good mass transit or to bicycle-friendly cities. But it *did* make sense to them once we explained the costs of parking, insurance, and so on. As it so often does, economics played the role of trump card.

    There are plenty of worldchanging solutions that require little more than a nudge in the right direction by installing some economic rationale (like $23k parking spaces) to move consumers in the right direction. And yet, because of apathy and a general overconnection to the status quo, many people don't realize all the ways that we subsidize things in the opposite direction.

    Here's hoping that more communities like Vauban will arise, not just in Europe where the mainstream of Americans can dismiss it as another example of European strangeness, but here in the States as an example (if we need to sell it this way) of American can-do-ism.

    Posted by: Tim Walker on 22 Dec 06

    This is a great story.
    How do we make more people aware of the urgency of adapting to life without oil? When OPEC themselves are even discussing the last oil crisis beginning sometime in the next decade, yet it does not break the evening news, how do we propel the bike meme out passed the ever dominant SUV meme!?

    Nevertheless, it's great to see that so much has been done so quickly in at least this German village. How we apply that to 70 years worth of suburban sprawl construction across Australia and the USA, I don't know.

    Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 23 Dec 06



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