Monday, October 12, 2009

The Guardian on Freiburg

Before I get to my presentation of Vauban, let me first revisit this atrocious article from the Guardian from 2008 about Vauban and Rieselfeld, Freiburg's two most recently developed neighborhoods. I wrote the newspaper pointing out all of the corrections below, and an editor actually wrote me back and said he would make these changes online. But they are still up as of today, more than a year later.

Starting at the top, we have a picture of a man cleaning solar cells "at Solar World in Solar Valley, Freiburg." The problem is that SolarWorld and Solar Valley are not in Freiburg, but rather some 600 kilometers away in eastern Germany. SolarWorld does have a production plant in Freiberg (with an e), which is itself not in Solar Valley (but not far either), so maybe that's close enough for the Guardian. Kangaroos are probably from Austria, too.

Later, the author states that Freiburg was "flatten by Allied bombers in the Second World War and rebuild on enlightened, energy-saving principles," but that is nonsense. The environmental principles began cropping up around 1990, decades after the city had been completely rebuilt.

Things get much worse from there. Proving that a little bit of knowledge is worse than none at all, the author writes that Vauban reminds him of Le Corbusier (a consultant for the UN building in New York), but he obviously has no understanding of what Le Corbusier stood for (take a look at this baby and compare it to this picture taken by a Brit). The problem with that style of architecture was that it was too large for people to manage. You could walk for several minutes and never reach the end of your building, and shops were too far away.

While the author is right in saying, "Because the properties are all the same age, the place lacks character and charm," that does not mean that the buildings do not have a human dimension. It simply means the development is new. You could make such claims about any new project, and indeed I see the following complaint about Prince Charles' Poundbury project: "The controversy over Poundbury has been dominated by its looks." Anyway, as in Poundbury, in Rieselfeld and Vauban, you can go downstairs and walk to the end of your building in about 50 yards. The next shop is probably only a minute away. Not Corbusier.

As one British expert described Vauban and Rieselfeld, "While the blocks tend to be similar in height and footprint, each block looks individual because of the rich variety of materials and colours that are used."

The Guardian author doesn't seem to realize that his own article demonstrates that Vauban/Rieselfeld is a rejection of Le Corbusier:

'From the top floor of every house,' says Daseking, 'parents had to be able to shout to their children in the garden - and hear the reply. It was important to get in touch with the ground.' This limited the height of buildings. To reduce theft, small garages (for those who wanted cars) were built every two blocks, rather than large ones every five blocks. 'From every corner, you could see what was happening in your garage,' says Daseking. 'Criminality had to go down.'

The author then manages to find a resident who argues that "there is little support for a car-free system," which "people don't really accept." I was surprised to read that -- first, because I know a lot of people who live there, and none of them have a problem with the system; and second, because it was the citizens themselves who forced the city to get all the parking spaces away from the houses. When reading this Guardian article, you would think it's the other way around -- it sounds as though a bunch of radical city officials are trying to force residents to do without cars, but in fact the opposite is true.

The car co-op that forced the city to allow people to do without adjacent garages is currently pursuing three cases of people having relatives register their cars, which are then parked down the street. Some 4,500 people live in Vauban, i.e. almost 3,000 households. That sounds like near 99% compliance.

As I have said before, a parking space in the community garage costs 16,000 euros to purchase, not 18,000 euros a year -- but I have talked about that enough. The 18,000 euro figure comes from a clause in the Land Registry, which ties each particular apartment to a parking space, even if the residents have opted out because they do not have a car. In other words, if you sell your apartment and do not have a parking space, you pass on the obligation to the buyer, and the debt is estimated at 18,000 euros in the Land Registry.

The journalist also does not seem to know the difference between photovoltaic solar panels, which generate electricity, and solar heat collectors, which heat up water, when he writes:

These 'collectors' don't heat the properties themselves, since Vauban is supplied by a small local power station, but they feed energy back into the regional grid to make their owners a modest income.

And when he later writes, "the homes also have solar collectors capable of feeding more energy into the grid than they waste," he can only mean "consume" where he writes "waste."

He then finds a resident named Stefan who claims that, if he changes his mind about having a car, "they can take part of our property." I called Stefan to ask whether he said that in whether he stands by the factually inaccurate statement; you can by a car any time you want, but you just have to buy a parking space in the garage then. He pointed out the passage in the Land Registry -- that is what he meant.

Stefan says that he knows of three people with campers that don't fit in the garage. They indeed parked outside of the neighborhood, but apparently an agreement has been reached for such extra large vehicles.

While some of the other local people in the article were incensed by the report, Stefan said it did not upset him. He especially liked the last sentence in it, where the British author points out that Germany is "decades ahead" of the British in terms of citizen involvement in urban planning. And Stefan swore that he did not get drunk with the British journalist and does not know why the man wrote about 12 turbines when there are only six: "on a pine-covered mountain overlooking Vauban, I spot a dozen giant wind turbines."

Stefan also confirmed my personal impression from the people I know in Vauban that there is very high acceptance of the restrictions on cars. He says he personally picked up the British journalist in a co-op car -- a fact the journalist does not mention, though we do read all kinds of negative aspects, such as that people do not like to do without cars, that the city did not get the demographics right, that Stefan's bike was stolen, etc. Nowhere does the British journalist tell us that all of the people he interviewed think the place is fantastic.

Overall, Stefan says he told the British journalist up front not to get his hopes up too high because "Vauban and Rieselfeld" are really quite normal -- a sentiment I would completely support. Nonetheless, the British author seems to have been collecting dirty laundry and trying to be facetious:

  • "Like all good Germans, Claudia recycles"
  • "It sounds extreme, but Rieselfeld is a fairly extreme place"
  • "With his shaved head, bomber jacket and shades, he looks every bit the fortysomething communard." (This was said about a man who volunteered to show the journalist around for an hour at no charge.)
  • "It's a brave utopian vision" (that doesn't sound normal to me)
  • "Vauban, the radical car-free quarter" (not car-free, but whatever)
  • "'This is our local Conflict Resolution Workshop,' says Barbara, without a trace of humour, 'which does a lot of work with migrants'"
  • "SUSI - a radical housing association"

Stefan was also surprised to read that he apparently said the following: "some enraged residents have smashed up cars left on the street." When I called him, he said, "Nothing of the sort has happened over here, and I never said that. People leave messages under your windshield wiper asking you to move your car, but otherwise I have only heard of one case of a tire being slashed" -- something that, admittedly, can happen anywhere. Again, Vauban and Rieselfeld are normal.

Fortunately, I have toured these neighborhoods with other Brits and know what the British generally think about Vauban and Rieselfeld. One cameraman from the BBC stood in amazement in one of the passive houses and remarked, "You couldn't get an Englishman to install an airtight window." (Passive houses undergo blower-door tests.) And British urban planners (from Manchester, London, and Guildford) say they simply do not have the flexibility to allow for such citizen input; rather, they have to accept the cheapest schemes from large housing associations.

In my experience, the British reaction is closer to what this blogger wrote:

The list of achievements at Rieselfeld is almost endless and mind-boggling; from a UK perspective, it would be remarkable to achieve but a few of these.

Finally, the British journalist complained about the food, which is simply going too far:

... the 'vegetarian curry' was an abomination: rice with a tin of apricots emptied over it, topped with a heap of overcooked Brussels sprouts.

Sorry, buddy, but I have spent enough time in England to know what the food's like. And I have taken out a number of British visitors to Freiburg, and they were all completely blown away by what I consider to be absolutely run-of-the-mill Freiburg cuisine. One meal at one café does not an overview make. (Though I agree that that café is crappy.)

"The two settlement extensions of Riesefeld and Vauban are so different from anything yet attempted in Britain," wrote an expert in London, that "it is easy to dismiss them as interesting but irrelevant. Yet they tackle some basic issues that apply equally to British cities, including how to attract families to live at high enough densities, and close enough to city centres to avoid depending on the private car, and this they do extremely well." Nuff said.

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