Green living in the Black Forest

“Atomkraft? Nein danke.”  For the fashionable environmentalist of thirty years ago there were few more evocative slogans.   No battered Citroen 2CV was complete without a sticker to the effect in the rear window.  The more prosaic “Nuclear Power?  No thanks.” didn’t do the job at all.  And if you could add the faint aroma of patchouli oil to suggest that your gorgeous companion had only recently vacated the passenger seat, then better still.
You don’t see those words much in the UK these days.  But in Vauban, the famous green model suburb in the German city of Freiburg, they are on banners everywhere.   Freiburg is well known for its environmental achievements, and increasingly it is Vauban that people come to see.  So I was following a well-worn path when I went to have a look last week.  300 delegations have been shown round in the last year.  The previous day’s pair had been from Sweden and Australia.

To get a sense of what Freiburg is like, think Oxford transplanted to the edge of the Lake District.  It has been a University town since the 15th century, with current student numbers standing at 25,000, more than 10% of the city’s population.  And it can’t expand outwards, as it is surrounded by the Schwarzwald – the Black Forest – probably the most protected landscape in all Germany.  There is one added factor.  Although it is most obvious in Vauban, there is a strong dislike of nuclear power everywhere.  It took me a while to work out why.  After all Germany’s nuclear industry is small and the power stations will soon be decommissioned.  But Freiburg is only 20 km from France, and just over the Rhine is the aging Fessenheim reactor, which the French steadfastly insist on keeping open.

The story of Vauban really starts almost seventy years ago.  The Altstadt, the old city centre of Freiburg, was almost completely destroyed by an air raid in November 1944.  Only 20% of buildings – fortunately including the Minster – survived.  But you would have to look closely to realise that today.  Freiburg has been recreated largely as it was before the war, and feels like an historic town.  However this wasn’t really farsightedness.  The simple fact is that this university city with little modern industry didn’t have the money for major redevelopment.  Instead individual plots were rebuilt piecemeal, adhering to a common building code.  The result is a delight.  Human scale, individualistic, prosperous and friendly.  As we all know, the likes of Coventry weren’t so lucky.

Then there is the public transport system.  Freiburg has possibly the best tram system for a city of its size anywhere.  Five routes converge on the city centre, so you are never far from a tram-stop.  And they run until after midnight.  This has enabled the whole city centre to be made a car-free area.  It is an astonishing oasis of calm, where you can walk from the university to the town hall, the shopping centre and the cathedral without seeing a motor vehicle.  Mind you for the visiting pedestrian the silent running of the trams takes some getting used to.  Thankfully most of the bicycles have bells.

Finally there are the two green model suburbs.  Rieselfeld, the larger, has about 11,000 inhabitants, and Vauban, the more cutting-edge, about 5,000.   It’s the scale more than anything which really makes you sit up and take notice.  Not far short of 10% of the population now live in them.  Neither is walking distance from the city centre, but with the tram system and the cycle route network you can give up your own car without feeling like a second class citizen.  And of course there are car clubs, so with a bit of planning you can have access to a car when you need one.  In Vauban there are only 16 private cars per 100 people.

Vauban is full of sustainability bells and whistles, like woodchip-fired Combined Heat and Power, houses with passive solar gain, and punitive charges to secure a resident’s parking space.  There is also a high level of community decision making.  But my fear was that I wouldn’t actually like the place.  It has become such an icon of sustainable living that it is probably morally unacceptable to be rude about it.  Fortunately I really took to it.  It is built in a modern style, with flat roofs, straight lines and limited external detailing, but in one vital way follows the approach used in rebuilding the Altstadt.  Each apartment block has been designed individually – usually for a group of families who join together to buy the land and then live in the apartments.

These are never more than about four storeys high, apparently so that parents can call down to their children playing outside in the surrounding landscaped areas.  These spaces are one of the features designed by the community, and as well as providing for stimulating play they soften the hard edges of the new buildings.  This, together with the variety provided by the different designs, has created an interesting, human scale and eminently liveable place.

But the most striking thing is still all the “Atomkraft? Nein danke.” banners.  I hadn’t seen a single one anywhere else in Freiburg, so I asked a young Freiburger what the rest of the inhabitants of the city thought of the place.  “My friends think Vauban is populated entirely by eco-warriors”, she told me.  They may be right.  People have chosen to live there partly because of the quality of life of course, but partly to make a statement.  And if you didn’t share all their views it might be an uncomfortable place to call home.  Mind you the residents of the first English garden cities were seen in much the same way.  Just check out John Betjeman’s 1940 poem “Group Life – Letchworth.”

So even in probably the greenest city in Europe some people want to be greener than others.  And when it comes to renewable energy things are much the same.  You do see a few wind turbines in the hills around Freiburg, but the locals I spoke to weren’t that keen on them.  People come to the Black Forest for its natural beauty, and, just as in England, the residents are not convinced the two are compatible.  But they certainly prefer them to nuclear, and together with photo-voltaics, helped by Germany’s famously generous (though recently reduced) feed-in tariffs, and biomass boilers, they have a multi-pronged renewable energy assault on their French neighbours’ pro-nuclear approach.

So what can we learn from all this?  Assimilating best practice from European cities into Britain is notoriously difficult.  Anyone who has sat around a meeting table in Brussels trying to agree the final report for an EU Interreg project will know this only too well – particularly if the previous evening was spent doing practical research into Belgian brewing history.  But in this case I’ll have a go.

Germans are really no different from us when it comes to their less than ready acceptance of the more inconvenient aspects of sustainable living.  But Freiburg is not a typical German city.  The size and influence of the University, together with the desire to build more homes while protecting the Black Forest, and at the same time wanting to show the French how wrong they are about nuclear, has created a unique set of conditions.  Freiburg has had a Green Party Mayor for the last ten years, and Vauban is really the latest step on a long road.  Go to Stuttgart, the Baden-Wurttemberg state capital, and home of Mercedes and Porsche, and you would see a very different German city.  Which is another rivalry that Freiburgers (the Baden half of the partnership) would happily engage in.

The Freiburg Innovation Academy will be working with Universities in Birmingham and London this year, as well as other institutions across the globe.  So expect a Vauban clone to be rolled out somewhere near you soon.  And when it is, just remember that it took more than sixty years work for Freiburg to make such an overnight success of it.

  • Christopher Bamber

    Good piece, interesting to have an update on Vauban after so many eyars since it was all the rage. Loved the poem too, I hadn’t seen that one – Betjeman couldn’t help but be endearing even when he sneered!

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  • David Tannahill

    Great article Tim – a realist’s view of Freiburg.

    The question still in my mind – the whole city systems (tram and rail and no doubt waste treatment) and social mix (high university related population) supports compact living and makes access to the city and the Black Forest easy.

    So is the Vauban and Freiburg model limited to compact University towns?

    Does it really offer an alternative to car based suburbia for larger cities? Would it work in Stuttgart or Birmingham?