On a recent trip to Switzerland, I took an overnight trip to Freiburg, where I was able to spend a couple hours wandering around Vauban, a one-square-mile eco-village built in 2006. The city has been lauded as the best low-carbon living in Europe; cars are generally excluded from the development altogether (there are garages on the periphery); a tram runs through the middle of the development; and freestanding houses are forbidden. One hundred of the homes in the development meet Passivhaus energy standards, and, as I walked around, I lost count of the number of green roofs and solar panels within minutes. They’re everywhere.
Vauban is one square mile. Houses are four or five stories tall. The development is mixed-use, with a (delightful) cafe, a grocery store, some small-scale retail, and roughly a bazillion playgrounds, schools and other facilities for children and families (and for me. Because I climbed all over the playgrounds, and it was awesome). In general, the design quality of all of the buildings is really high, and in proportion and design, it called to mind a very modern Back Bay. The houses where of uniform proportion and design without being monotonous; the streets were narrow but not claustrophobic; and the whole place felt prosperous and well-heeled. We wandered around for hours, commenting continuously about how everything should be designed like Vauban.
The development was originally Nazi army barracks that were occupied by the French. Some of the buildings were turned into student housing for the University of Freiburg; some were retrofitted and turned into apartment buildings. Many were leveled to make room for new housing and mixed-use buildings on the one-square mile site. There were no streets in the barracks, so the site already had a human-scale development pattern that the urban planners maintained and improved upon.
The whole place felt pretty amazing. Freiburg was recently named one of the best places to live in Germany, and we were there on a day that was pretty much perfect. There were children all over the place, and the development was quiet (no cars) but full of life. The thing that struck me the most is how green it was. There were green roofs, trees, shrubs, allotment gardens – it felt like a place that had been tended for generations rather than a place called forth from the minds of urban planners less than a decade ago. I was also struck by how successful the car-free streets were. The last car-free city I was in, Louvain La Neuve (in Belgium, in February) felt creepy and out of scale – a little like the empty cities in Inception. Not so with the Vauban.
All rhapsodizing aside, though, I have a few major critiques of the development. The first is a question of density – 6500 people live in the square mile. That’s not that many. Cambridge, MA has an average density of 7,350ish. Cambridge, UK has 7600ish. And Shorewood, WI – my hometown – has a population density of 8600ish. You’d think that eliminating all those streets would give the developers plenty of space for more people than a streetcar suburb in the American Midwest, and that such density, in the absence of cars, would be desirable. I found the number to be disappointing.
The other thing that I found really jarring was the tramline/Main Street down the middle of the development. The tramline was built in concert with the development (good!) and the tracks are covered with grass, a design detail that I admired throughout Germany and Switzerland. But the street was huge, treeless, and lacking in any activating features (most of the houses turned away from the street). Furthermore, since most of the houses are carless, there was hardly any traffic on the massive central road. The tramline/main street was as divisive as a river, and substantially less scenic.
Finally, while there was certainly plenty of mixed-use development, there didn’t seem to be any commercial center per se, or any Main Street (at least that I found). We found a few businesses, and we stopped at the grocery store on the edge of the development and bought goo-gobs of Ritter Sport chocolate, but the cafe where we ate lunch was on an edge of development and was set far back from the walking path. It had a lovely terrace and some pretty old trees, but very little adjacent commercial space. It was the only commercial development that we saw on that side of the tramline/main street, and seemed like pretty slim pickings for 6500 people to share.
Despite my reservations, though, I would be thrilled to live in a place like that, and I fervently hope it inspires copycats (and that they read my blog and eliminate the enormous main street).