Models Car-Free Living
By Isabelle de Pommereau
23 December, 2006
Christian Science Monitor
It's pickup time at the Vauban
kindergarten here at the edge of the Black Forest, but there's not a
single minivan waiting for the kids. Instead, a convoy of helmet-donning
moms - bicycle trailers in tow - pedal up to the entrance.
Welcome to Germany's best-known
environmentally friendly neighborhood and a successful experiment in
green urban living. The Vauban development - 2,000 new homes on a former
military base 10 minutes by bike from the heart of Freiburg - has put
into practice many ideas that were once dismissed as eco-fantasy but
which are now moving to the center of public policy.
With gas prices well above $6 per gallon across much of the continent,
Vauban is striking a chord in Western Europe as communities encourage
people to be less car-dependent. Just this week, Paris unveiled a new
electric tram in a bid to reduce urban pollution and traffic congestion.
"Vauban is clearly an
offer for families with kids to live without cars," says Jan Scheurer,
an Australian researcher who has studied the Vauban model extensively.
"It was meant to counter urban sprawl - an offer for families not
to move out to the suburbs and give them the same, if better quality
of life. And it is very successful."
There are numerous incentives
for Vauban's 4,700 residents to live car-free: Carpoolers get free yearly
tramway passes, while parking spots - available only in a garage at
the neighborhood's edge - go for €17,500 (US$23,000). Forty percent
of residents have bought spaces, many just for the benefit of their
As a result, the car-ownership
rate in Vauban is only 150 per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with 430
per 1,000 inhabitants in Freiburg proper.
In contrast, the US average
is 640 household vehicles per 1,000 residents. But some cities - such
as Davis, Calif., where 17 percent of residents commute by bike - have
pioneered a car-free lifestyle that is similar to Vauban's model.
Vauban, which is located
in the southwestern part of the country, owes its existence, at least
in part, to Freiburg - a university town, like Davis - that has a reputation
as Germany's ecological capital.
In the 1970s, the city became
the cradle of Germany's powerful antinuclear movement after local activists
killed plans for a nuclear power station nearby. The battle brought
energy-policy issues closer to the people and increased involvement
in local politics. With a quarter of its people voting for the Green
Party, Freiburg became a political counterweight in the conservative
state of Baden-Württemberg.
At about the same time, Freiburg,
a city of 216,000 people, revolutionized travel behavior. It made its
medieval center more pedestrian-friendly, laid down a lattice of bike
paths, and introduced a flat rate for tramways and buses.
Environmental research also
became a backbone of the region's economy, which boasts Germany's largest
solar-research center and an international center for renewable energy.
Services such as installing solar panels and purifying wastewater account
for 3 percent of jobs in the region, according to city figures.
Little wonder then, that
when the French Army closed the 94-acre base that Vauban now occupies
in 1991, a group of forward-thinking citizens took the initiative to
create a new form of city living for young families.
"We knew the city had
a duty to make a plan. We wanted to get as involved as possible,"
says Andreas Delleske, then a physics student who led the grass-roots
initiative that codesigned Vauban. "And we were accepted as a partner
of the city."
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.
In retrospect, "It would
have been much simpler to give a big developer a piece of land and say,
'Come back five years later with a plan,' " says Roland Veith,
the Freiburg city official in charge of Vauban.
But the result is a "master
plan of an ecological city ... unique in its holistic approach,"
says Peter Heck, a professor of material-flow management at Germany's
University of Trier, pointing out that this was a community-wide effort
involving engineers, politicians, city planners, and residents - not
just an environmental group's pilot program.
Today, rows of individually
designed, brightly painted buildings line streets that are designed
to be too narrow for cars. There are four kindergartens, a Waldorf school,
and plenty of playgrounds - a good thing, because a third of Vauban's
residents are under age 18, bucking the trend in a graying country.
As Germany's population ages
- and shrinks - experts say Vauban's model will become more important
as officials increasingly tailor-make communities in an effort to attract
"We have fewer young
people. What you need now is a good quality of life with good services,
a good infrastructure for kids and older people," says Thomas Schleifnecker,
a Hannover-based urban planner.
Across Europe, similar projects
are popping up. Copenhagen, for instance, maintains a fleet of bikes
for public use that is financed through advertising on bicycle frames.
But what makes Vauban unique,
say experts, is that "it's as much a grass-roots initiative as
it is pursued by the city council," says Mr. Scheurer. "It
brings together the community, the government, and the private sector
at every state of the game."
As more cities follow Vauban's
example, some see its approach taking off. "Before you had pilot
projects. Now it's like a movement," says Mr. Heck. "The idea
of saving energy for our landscape is getting into the basic planning
procedure of German cities."
Copyright © 2006 The
Christian Science Monitor
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