Thursday, October 1, 2009

Yet another misleading article on Freiburg

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that this article written by someone who works for the New York Times and the international Herald Tribune is about the Vauban district in Freiburg [update: I was right]. Nowhere does she say she visited Freiburg, much less Vauban, but I know of no other part of Germany -- indeed, of the world -- that she could be talking about.

Here is the passage that is misleading:

in Germany, I’ve seen... an upscale suburb that had banned cars from its streets; you could own a car, but it had to be kept in a garage at the edge of town where parking spaces cost over $30,000 a year, meaning that few people owned cars and those who did rarely used them for small daily tasks like shopping.

Skip the fact that cars have not actually been banned from the streets altogether; she is more or less right in her synopsis. But 30,000 dollars a year for a parking space?

In fact, these parking spaces cost 16,000 euros -- not for a year, but for good. I just spoke by phone with the woman who handles the management of the Solar Garage, and she says that in addition to the purchase price of "around 16,000 euros," there are monthly service charges of "around 20 euros." Even at the terrible exchange rate of around 1.43 dollars to the euro, I still don't get much more than around 23,000 dollars for that parking space -- and again, just one time, not every year. And when these parking spaces were built, the exchange rate was much different, so if you bought one back when the dollar was worth 1.3 euros, then that parking space only cost you around 12,000 dollars, not 30,000.

The really amazing thing is that the author did not bother to find out whether these prices are remarkable in any way. They are not. You pay 16,000 euros for a parking space elsewhere in Freiburg, too. In nearby Rieselfeld, a less prestigious neighborhood, they go for something closer to 12,000 euros. But I bet you can get a parking space in the town center for closer to 20,000 euros. That's just what parking spaces cost in Freiburg. It has nothing to do with any kind of environmental thinking.

Here's the best part: this article is no better than a lot of the other stuff out there. A few years ago, the Guardian -- a quite respectable British newspaper, not a tabloid -- wrote this completely inaccurate article about these two neighborhoods of Freiburg. Here's what that guy had to say about the price of a parking space in Vauban:

Vauban residents can own a car - but they have to pay €18,000 a year to park it in one of the multistorey 'Solar Garages' on the outskirts of the quarter...

Well, at least he gets one thing right: the Solar Garage (so-called because the roof is covered with solar panels) is at the point where this new district meets the main road, i.e. where it touches the rest of town. So it is not, as our other author put it, a "garage at the edge of town" -- but on second thought, it's not "on the outskirts of the quarter" either really. It's the closest part of that district to the rest of town. And it is only a few blocks' walk away from your home. When you hear the phrase "edge of town," does that sound like you can walk to your car in two minutes?

In Vauban, you can. And on the way there, you will walk by a grocery store, a drugstore, at least one playground, at least two places to eat, and at least one tram stop that will take you to anything else you'd need to reach.

I'm not going to go further into the Guardian article (that will have to be another post) because there really are far, far too many factual errors in it. But there is one other thing wrong in the article written by our New York Times journalist -- who, to be fair, seems to be honestly open-minded. Her mistakes are probably just sloppy journalism, whereas the Guardian guy has a chip on his shoulder (but I'll get into that some other time).

The other thing that needs clearing up is this passage:

A passive house has to be under 2,000 square feet and basically box-like in order to make it energy efficient. “If someone feels like they need more than 2,000 square feet to be happy, well, that’s a different discussion,” a passive-house architect said.

Here, the exact opposite is true. The smaller the house, the harder it is to meet the passive house standard. As engineers Ludwig Rongen and Tom Nabrotzky put it at the last Passive House Conference:

Everyone who has ever dealt with energy-efficient construction knows how important a building's compactness (shape factor) is for energy efficiency.

(Disclaimer: Petite Plan├Ęte translated the proceedings for that conference, so that is our translation.)

But "compactness" does not mean small. Basically, as you can see from this definition of "shape factor," the larger the "box," the less outer surface you have proportional to the heated interior volume. And the surface is where you lose the heat, ergo: the bigger the box, the better.

I'm certain that the German architect interviewed would agree with that assessment, and I think I understand what he was actually trying to say (keep in mind that he was speaking in a foreign tongue): if people want to have gigantic homes/apartments, it takes a certain amount of energy to heat up that space, so the more space you have, the more heat you need. But while it is easier to heat up a small apartment, it is also easier to heat up a large building consisting of numerous apartments than it is to heat up a bunch of single-family homes with all walls exposed to the wind.

Since 2007, I have been giving tours of Vauban (and Rieselfeld) on behalf of the City of Freiburg or acting as an interpreter with city officials when international visitors, such as urban planners from Singapore or Manchester, come by. So I know first-hand not only the history of this district, but also of its importance on the international stage. Its importance can be overstated, however. Unfortunately, its importance can also be misrepresented, not only by people with an ax to grind (like the guy who wrote in the Guardian), but also by people who actually seemed to like what they saw, like the other article.

I suppose I'll just have to come back to this with a couple of other posts on Vauban.

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