Sustainability Lessons from a German Neighborhood

Rather than working in opposition to natural forces, new American developments could follow Vauban’s example and plan with them.

Vauban is an ecologically-and socially-minded neighborhood of 5,000 in Freiburg, Germany. In many ways, Vauban is a successful case study in sustainable urbanism. There is academic agreement that the design at Vauban is outstanding. Nevertheless, as long as this style of living and outstanding design is prohibitively expensive for many, its benefits will be limited.

Vauban Land Use Plan. Courtesy: Vauban°de – Der Freiburger Stadtteil mit Flair und Lebensqualität, CC BY.

Many American cities are beginning their push toward sustainability with initiatives left and right. As they grow, it’s worth considering and planning what form growth will take. The following is a list of tips for American cities to borrow the best aspects of Vauban and learn from its mistakes.

Make sustainable living accessible and affordable.

Vauban has had difficulty in making housing affordable at a large scale. If its citizens want to include more income diversity in the community, they could consider price mechanisms to do so. Vauban could employ rent control, effectively preventing rent price from rising too quickly. Germany’s capital city—Berlin—created a rent ceiling earlier this month. In its law, landlords are prevented from increasing the rent by more than 10%.After WWI, many American cities created rent controls to protect tenants. Cities without rent controls that are undergoing gentrification might revisit the idea of creating or altering existing rent ceilings. Alternatively, cities could require new development to reserve 10% or more of its units as affordable housing.

Pursue transit oriented development.

Without a huge apportionment of space for cars, Vauban is able to commit more space to the public realm. In a Badische Zeitung survey, 14 in 15 community members expressed some type of support for Vauban’s nearly auto free principles. Development in Vauban has sprung up around its 3 tram stops, which connects the entire district to downtown Freiburg.American city officials in Portland, Oregon and Washington, D.C. have used TOD as an economic development tool. This concept has the ability to reshape and revitalize communities with greater mobility and economic opportunity.

Provide lots of green space that everyone can enjoy.

Residents of Vauban all live close to some kind of green space. A document published by the community claims that the areas five main parks, seen in the plan above, were created with citizen input.

Want to take a stroll along a quiet stream? Vauban is bordered to the south by Dorfbach, the village’s creek.

A stroll along Dorfbach. Photo Brian Vaughn
A stroll along Dorfbach. Photo Credit: Brian Vaughn

Rather than working in opposition to natural forces, new American developments could follow Vauban’s example and plan with them. 60 year old trees can be seen as having an important role in providing greenery and shelter, not as an obstacle.

Let the citizens tell you what they want.

It’s not always easy to please everyone, but the participatory democracy model has worked well for Vauban. Forum Vauban was formed in 1994, and a year later the City of Freiburg was utilizing their input to plan the community’s future. Though the Forum no longer exists, it left its mark on Vauban’s current urban form.Before selling huge tracts of land to real estate developers, local and state governments should consider the desires of the public. Community advocacy forums have the ability to reshape the style of development in the United States.

Further reading:
H. Fraker, The Hidden Potential of Sustainable Neighborhoods: Lessons from Low-Carbon Communities
S. Field, Europe’s Vibrant New Low Car(bon) Communities
City of Freiburg, Verkehrsberuhigte Bereiche (Traffic Calming Areas)

Brian Vaughn is a sophomore undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studied and wrote about planning and energy issues in Spain and Germany during the summer, returning to North Carolina with a renewed invigoration to explore and discuss these issues as online content editor of the Carolina Planning Journal. Brian also writes for the Daily Tar Heel’s opinion page, and works with the Sierra Student Coalition’s coal divestment campaign.