The small community of Vauban, on the outskirts of the South-Eastern German town Freiburg is a good example of how citizen participation can play a vital part in a city’s effort to reduce its ecological footprint. With the aid of car-sharing programmes, parking policies and good bike and public transport infrastructure the city of Freiburg has, together with the citizens organisation Forum Vauban, managed to create a livable and car-lite community.
Vauban was, up until the reunification of Germany, the site of a French army base. Since it was conceived and planned as a military base, the street grid was never meant to accommodate private car use; rather the streets were small passageways between barracks.
When the French army left the area in 1992, the people of Freiburg found themselves with an unused, somewhat built-up area of 41 hectares which the city was planning to demolish for new housing. A group of students, single parents and unemployed citizens joined forces and squatted parts of Vauban, protesting against the proposed development, and began establishing an affordable and self-organised community. They called themselves SUSI: the self-organised, independent settlement initiative. After long negotiations with the federal government, the squatters were able to buy the four buildings that SUSI consisted of, and have since converted these military barracks into housing for over 260 people, complete with playgrounds, workshops, circus wagons – and all of it carfree.
The SUSI project was an experiment in alternative methods of planning and living suburban life; the aim was to be able to live and work more sustainably. Building ecological, carfree and inexpensive was a way to reach the goals of constructing a sustainable and socially integrating community.
The housing set aside for the SUSI project was only a small part of the whole Vauban, and on the remaining 38 hectares the council delegated the mandatory community consultation to Forum Vauban, who had convinced an initially sceptical council to try the carfree concept. Forum Vauban was the NGO functioning as the legal body of the extended citizen participation and was thus co-responsible for the district design by representing wishes and needs of the future inhabitants.
The real building project started in 1998, consistent with ecological solutions for electricity supply and sewerage. A combined heat and power plant burning wood chips and gas provides electricity for around two thirds of Vauban; solar and PV panels cover the rest of the demand, while a sustainable urban drainage system was built for the whole district. In order not to scare people away, their framework for transport behaviour and car use is very loose: instead of controls and penalties, they have chosen to use guidelines and hints. The sustainable alternatives had to be very attractive – low fares on public transport and higher charges for car parking, nice bike routes everywhere and parking spaces only in garages on the periphery. The idea of a carfree society has been a central part of the visions for Vauban, but the term “carfree” is seldom used. It is the individual driving behaviour that is considered to be the problem and car-sharing programmes are encouraged.
Residents of the carfree parts of Vauban must sign an annual declaration stating whether they own a car or not, and if they do own one they have to purchase a parking space in the car parks on the periphery of the neighbourhood. The parking spaces are priced so that the car owners pay the real cost of the infrastructure required: the price for one parking lot exceeds €17,000 plus a monthly fee.
Vauban is not actually considered carfree, but rather a car-lite place. A survey in 2000 found car ownership at 54%, but car use at only 16% of the trips made.
Even though Vauban may not be entirely carfree, there is actually another part of the Freiburg area which is: since 1971 the city has made major investments in pedestrian, cycle and public transport sectors, and since 1984, the historic centre, Altstadt, of Freiburg has been completely carfree.
Today the population of Vauban exceeds 5,000 persons. Families with children live close to each other in 4-5 storey apartment buildings, riding the bus to work and school together and sometimes sharing a car for a trip to the department store. Since 2006 there is a tram line extended to Vauban and new infrastructure developments are constantly in progress.