Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A visit to Vauban, Freiburg

Come take a virtual walk with me through the Vauban neighborhood in Freiburg, Germany.

Let's start with a map of the place (click to enlarge). Here, the white space is a bit misleading. The part to the top left (Uffhausen) is actually another neighborhood, whereas the part to the top right (Gewerbegebiet Süd) is an industrial area; it also happens to be the site of the original Fraunhofer ISE building, Europe's largest solar research institute.

But the part to the bottom below the stream is actually wilderness, and development has been banned there. You will see various things such as the label "Biotop §24 NatschG" indicating that this is a nature conservation area (picture). You will also see a horse and a tent; the area is off-limits for new developments, but it is used for recreational purposes, such as horse riding and a children's "adventure playground."

The black and white dotted line going across the top left is a train connection, and the red line going down the street and looking around near that train line is a tram line. Buses also connect this neighborhood to the rest of the world.

Coming from the center of town, you would travel from the top right (Merzhauser Strasse) to Vaubanallee (Vauban Avenue, "alley" being "Gasse" in German). "Allee" specifically means a tree-lined street, and this main avenue does indeed have gigantic trees that are at least 70 years old running down it. The city specified that, whatever construction was done, these trees had to remain standing.

The first thing you would see in this allegedly car-free neighborhood is an empty plot of land covered with gravel with a bunch of cars parked on it and a strange ensemble of shacks that could be from the Third World. It is a strange way for visitors to enter what is supposed to be a futuristic place that can do without cars, and it is not necessarily a photo the city will of Freiburg would like you to see (although it is the first thing you see upon entering Vauban, it is never included in any official photos of the neighborhood, such as here). Nonetheless, this is the main entrance to the neighborhood both by car and tram/bus.

The story behind this particular plot is interesting. A number of architects involved in the neighborhood planned to put up an office complex year. Vauban was designed as a mixed-use neighborhood, meaning that shops would line the main street (Vaubanallee), and you would have offices scattered around throughout the neighborhood. There are doctors practices, (ironically) a driving school, lawyers offices, various institutes -- most of which have something to do with clean tech, the largest one being the Freiburg branch of the Institute of Applied Ecology -- etc. This planned "green" office complex (on the map, the pale beige strip located just below the intersection of Vaubanallee and Merzhauser Strasse just above Paula-Modersohn-Platz) would essentially be an office complex like the one across Merzhauser Strasse, where the Institute of Applied Ecology is actually located.

In a typical "close the door behind me" response, Vauban residents have begun protesting against every single project that would fill up the few remaining plots left. The green office complex is one of those contested areas. I am not up on the latest developments, but this plot remained contested over the past decade or so because residents want to have it turned into open space for the community, not an office complex.

If we now move further into the neighborhood, we see where Vaubanallee leads straight down to the end along the tram line. If that does not look car-free to you, then maybe it's because of all the cars parked there. Before we move on, take a look at the ditch. That is where rainwater seeps back into the ground. Freiburg is very proud of this aspect; rainwater is not channeled away through some underground sewage system; instead, the rainwater is collected throughout the neighborhood and given time to sink back into the ground.

Also have a look at the tram tracks, which are in the grass. In fact, there is grass all the way into town along this line where the tracks are. Freiburg really tried to keep pavement to a minimum.

Now take another look at the map of the neighborhood. You will notice that there are some U-shaped streets leading off of Vaubanallee to the north and south. Those are the ones where parking is prohibited except for loading and unloading. In other words, you can actually park your car not only in the three parking garages labeled P on the map surrounded by blue, but also on that main road. The space that is probably going to be used most by playing children is the space outside your house, and that is where you will rarely have a car (see this picture, where a car is parked on one of those side streets -- also notice the catwalk connecting the two rows of buildings over the top of the street at the end of that picture; this was an idea that the residents themselves had, not the city).

Notice as well on the map that there are green strips cutting into the neighborhood from the biotope to the south. Residents were able to design that common area the way they wanted with the city's normal budget; the city also handles upkeep of those parks in the same way that they take care of such green space throughout the city. I have provided a few pictures of those playgrounds, all of which are completely different. There is a roughly 3 meter tall climbing rock in one, fairly standard playground equipment in another, while a third is almost complete wilderness with various wooden playground equipment hidden behind the bushes. There are five such green strips used as playgrounds in total.

There were no restrictions on building design. You could use whatever material you wanted, have a slanted or flat roof, and build as wide as you wanted. The only restrictions were that the building could not be more than 13 meters tall, and it had to be a certain distance from the street. In other words, the city gave you a sort of three-dimensional box within which to construct what ever kind of building you wanted. As a result, there are some fairly narrow single-family townhouses in between apartment complexes with 12 units (picture).

Another place where residents successfully protested against a construction project in order to have community space was right in front of this building, which houses a kindergarten, a restaurant, various offices, and a community hall, which is where my daughter's violin teacher has her pupils perform their semiannual concert. On what basically became town square, various events also take place, such as a farmer's market once or twice a week (I forget) and the occasional community event.

The building itself is one of the original barracks. On the map, it is the red building just above Alfred-Döblin-Platz where Vaubanallee has a slight curve. Some of the other barracks were also left standing in the "Studentendorf Vauban" (pic), which is essentially student dormitories. But a number of... shall we say "alternative thinkers" have moved into S.U.S.I., an acronym that stands for "autonomous, independent settlement initiative." These are some of the people who have it set up their shacks on the empty plot at the entrance of Vauban. The existence of this alternative-living sector, which takes up a full four former barracks, is a testimony to the power that citizens have in Freiburg, and the tolerance of city officials. In New Orleans, I'm sure these people would have been given short shrift and harassed until they gave up in desperation; the housing would have been razed. Nonetheless, in calling for affordable housing and fighting what they perceived as "speculation," they also blocked part of what is one of the world's most progressive architectural and urban-planning projects. And they got the part of Vauban that is most prominent.

I won't get into all of the innovative buildings. The principle behind this architecture is that, at German latitudes, the house should face the south with a glass façade (triple glazing, of course -- don't even bother trying to find this in the US, for it is not commonly used there). A ventilation system with heat recovery also ensures not only that all of the heat generated within the house (such as by your body, which gives off the equivalent of 100 watts of heat all the time) remains inside the building, even as filtered fresh air is pumped into the building (pollen, pollutants, etc. are removed in the process). Again, don't bother calling your local shop in the US about this. They won't know what you're talking about (that's what US architects tell me!), but they can sell you an air conditioner.

Most of the buildings in Vauban are, however, nothing spectacular. They merely fulfill Freiburg's old building code, which meant that around four times as much energy is required for heating than a passive house needs. How much is that? German engineers speak of 15 kilowatt-hours per square meter per year. That's roughly 1.5 liters of heating oil per 10 square feet. For a house with 2,000 square feet, you would then need 300 liters of heating oil (roughly 75 gallons) per year. But most of apartments in Germany are closer to 1,000 square feet, so cut that figure in half.

While the side of Vauban west of Merzhauser Strasse mostly contains such "normal" buildings with a few passive house projects scattered around, the part to the east is the one that has drawn the most attention: the Solar Village. This project, which was the brainchild of a single architect, contains only a passive houses with solar roofs. Once you add on the solar roofs, you are probably generating more electricity than the equivalent amount of electricity and heating energy you consume in the building. These homes are therefore called "plus energy" homes; I have also referred to them as residential power plants, though for obvious reasons, real estate agents would not want to use that term.

Although these plus energy homes are certainly state-of-the-art, there is something the city of Freiburg probably does not want you to know. Take a look at the map, and you'll see a sort of white line separating the part that reads "Solar-siedlung" to the north and the other unlabeled part to the south. That white line is simply a path that leads up into the vineyards, which began right where the map ends to the right. The interesting part of the story is that the Solar Village was originally to extend pretty much all the way down to Alte Strasse at the bottom right of the map. What we got was only half of the project.

The problem was that the homes did not sell, so the city, which had reserved that large plot of land for the expansion of this prestigious project, was forced to sell it to other commercial developers, who simply put up normal buildings.

The city should not, however, be too ashamed of this failure, for it is not a problem with passive houses in general. Admittedly, passive houses cost slightly more at the outset and pay for themselves over time, so that they are actually much cheaper over, say, 30 years than a conventional building. But the fact of the matter is that upfront costs can really kill you when you are having to fork over very large sums of money, such as 300,00-350,000 euros for a home. When you are in that range, 20,000 euros can make a big difference.

And yet, the passive houses elsewhere in Vauban sold quite well. The difference was that in the Solar Settlement, the architect was inflexible. He builds all of these buildings as rows of townhouses, so you have to have a multistory apartment (3 or 4 stories, in fact). As a result, you end up with narrow apartments, some of which are only five meters wide (around 15 feet), and you have a staircase going up every floor. Essentially, it's a bit like having a three or four room apartment with one room on top of the other.

In a lot of the other projects to the west, residents could work things out with the architect. For instance, the Solar Village generally consists of blocks of five townhouses that are three stories tall. In the other projects, you could have taken that three-dimensional "box" and split it up with your friends. Maybe you want to have an apartment on the ground floor with access to the garden, and you know somebody who would like to take the two floors above that. You then end up with an apartment 10 meters wide without any staircase at the bottom, and your friend moves in upstairs with two stories on top. But none of this was possible in the Solar Village, and I believe that is the main reason why there were so few buyers. If you then take a look at the color scheme used, you will see that the buildings in the Solar Settlement look a bit unusual, and I'm sure that is not to everyone's taste. Passive houses need not, however, look any different than normal buildings, as all of the projects in the rest of Vauban illustrate.

Overall, Vauban is a dream of a place to live. If you need to drive up to your house and drop off some heavy stuff, you can pull right up to your front door, but for groceries, most people take a bike and use it saddlebags or a trailer. Your kids can not only walk or cycle to school -- which is not really anything unusual over here -- but they can also open up their front door and immediately start playing right out in the street without having to worry about cars. Or they can go to five gigantic playgrounds in the area, some of which are quite unusual. And of course, they can also just go play in the woods.

One of the other stipulations the city had four architects was this promenade -- a series of arcades at the edge of the buildings along Vaubanalle. And on the other side of the street, there is this extra wide sidewalk that I like to refer to as the bicycle autobahn.

You have a tram and bus connection to the rest of the world, so you can be at the Frankfurt international airport from your front door in only 2 1/2 hours. Or you can be in France or Switzerland in about 45 minutes. There is a Döner/Pizza place, a real restaurant, a bicycle shop (that sells lots of recumbents), a drugstore, a school, several kindergartens, a grocery store, and a couple of other shops all within a few minutes' walk. And it takes you about 10 minutes to cycle or ride the tram into the center of town.

I suppose Vauban is one of the nicest places you could live, and we certainly get our share of international visitors. I occasionally accompany urban planners, journalists, and energy experts from around the world -- literally, for we have had people from North America, all over Europe, and Asia -- and I can tell you that these experts are, without exception, very impressed at all kinds of aspects of what has been done over here, including citizen participation. The British in particular repeatedly tell me that they simply could not have such projects because they are required by law to take the lowest bidder in an effort to keep upfront prices down. But the Germans are not slaves to upfront costs, for they understand balance-of-system costs. And they are not about to have their own cities constructed by the cheapest bidders, for they want the highest quality, not the lowest price.

Nonetheless, Vauban would, in principle, be completely easy to replicate anywhere. The buildings are not hard to construct; walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, not hard to design. As a prominent US politician recently put it, "Yes, we can." But as we have seen from this politician's past year in office, "we" all have to really want change and keep demanding it.

The way Vauban has developed is a reflection of what citizens wanted -- right down to its car-free aspects. In fact, because the German building code now requires at least one parking space to be provided for each residential units constructed, residents of Vauban had to negotiate with local government to be allowed to do without parking spaces in front of each home. Now, if you do not want to purchase a parking space, you have to demonstrate each year that though car is registered under your name.

It was the residents themselves of Vauban who called for this policy; citizens forced the city of Freiburg to adopt the policy.

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