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Vauban district - how it happened

This is a rather personal view on Vauban district but I think the text will reflect many thoughts of many of us. I did this as one of the frequent questionnaires we are being sent from journalists:

How did this idea start?

The idea to try to create a new district came immediately after the French military had decided to leave Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the French left us in 1992, many citizens had already gathered and discussed the possible features of a new district.

In 1994, the citizens formed the Forum Vauban benevolent association and were supported by the city administration which was fine, but all the important ideas that have been realized came from the citizens much more than from the administration.

Why did you chose Vauban?

My personal relation to Vauban district began when I became a member of the student’s initiative SUSI in 1995 – I was employed as one of four who had to refurbish and install the heating system, hot-water-generation and a co-generating power plant that produced most of our electricity and 100% of our heating demand from natural gas. (SUSI is based on the low-cost refurbishment of 4 old barrack buildings in order to create social homes for about 225 persons (50% of them are students)).

Later, I was scheduled to be electrical planner for the first passivehouse as a multi-family-house in Germany . When I inherited some money a bit later I could additionally parttake in the building of that house.

To me, the participation process was both very interesting and motivating. For the first time maybe, citizens felt that their contribution counted, be it only in our “own” district. We wrote a book of 400 pages full of ideas and got about half of them realized.

Second reason to chosse Vauban was its quietness, read: Traffic concept. Though being the most densely populated district in Freiburg, it is very quiet, as we’ve banned most of the cars in the outlines of the district and we have much less cars than usual.

Third reason were the big linden trees in front of our house.

What did you do to transform Vauban in a sustainable neighborhood?

Actually, we are far away from being sustainable. The problem with that term is that it is so badly defined that every mayor claims his or her own definition. Mostly it means “the eco-things we do not yet understand nor are convinced of but maybe will be going to start in this town because this looks fashionable to me – if it is not too expensive and the developers are not against them”.

I’d rather explain to everyone the difference between kW and kWh and that we’ve saved 79% primal energy when living, the Solarsiedlung produces even more energy than they consume.

I can only estimate that the whole district saved about 50% of the primal energy for living. Better numbers are not available yet. But there are several other topics besides energy. The list of changes would be rather long. As the motor of this development were the citizens, almost every one of the 60 private projects on Vauban implemented some good ideas that I might not even know. It is certainly not a paradise, but we’ve realized about 50% of the ideas that we’ve found worthwile. Another district, your neighborhood can and will do better. It depends whether you got yourselves informed.

How long was it to conclude this project?

The “hot phase” of development ran from 1994 to 2004 when the masterplan was modified for the last time I think. Today, all the lots are sold and there are some developing construction sites.

How works Vauban as a sustainable neighborhood?

Well, as I can’t say that we are sustainable I can’t answer this.. After all, Vauban is a totally normal district, but with many many children and young families, about 40% of us is less than 18 years old!

We were successful in changing a lot of things in the constructions – some small, some bigger. We have no “moral code” or something in the use of the district, but we are slightly better informed. We have no regular meetings and such, but I think we know each other a bit better as we’ve planned together.

Did you spent a lot of time in this project?

Yes, but I was not one of the key persons nor founders of the Forum Vauban, Most of the time that I’ve spent was in the planning and constructing of our passivehouse and in the citizen’s center house 037

Do you think is possible to transform another neighborhood in a sustainable place?

What is impossible?

What characteristics the place must be to be transformed in a sustainable place?

If we only knew that! For anything to become possible, people have to feel that it is possible first. As i cannot modify their feelings, I just can’t say…

I have another suggestion: Get yourselves informed: Invite technicians, specialists and generalists for all the topics that could possibly improved in your place – reconstruction or modification doesnt matter. Then discuss, go deeper and get even more information simply on what is better. Try to avoid errors that you know are errors. The internet should facilitate this very much today. Then form a common will and present it to the public (that same public with which you’ve discussed all this). The more we knew, the more often our common will was unanimous.

Next step is the hardest: Convice the council members, inform and win the hearts of the council, the press and the people. Remove obstacles, remove ignorance and prejudice that will always be there as soon as you’re trying to do something unusual. Humans have more habits than thoughts. Now the city is proud of our district, but for quite some time the city treated us partly like an annoyance.

To the day, we have not succeeded in that the city provides pus parking spaces for the numerous busses of visitors that come every week, especially in spring and autumn.

Take some time and be perseverant. Get your funds from research institutes if you are to develop something new.

This was the way we did it and it worked.

How the people live there?

I can only say: very well – the overall life quality is better than in every other district in a city that I know.

How many people are there?

About 5500 (on 41 ha).

The costs there increased or got down after the project?

Which costs?

We have had exactly the same construction costs as they are common in Germany or in this area. As we did not buy our houses from speculators or construction companies we've had no speculation. By forming “Baugruppen” (groups of individuals that called an architect in order to build multi-family housing projects, they often contributed labour as well) we saved always about 20% of the total construction cost.

If on the other hand a passive house (only 10-15% are passive houses unfortunately) will carry a 5-10% surplus investment, you’ll see that there is headroom. My heating bill is about 90 EUR a year for 90 sq. m. so I save more that 1000 EUR per year just by living in my apartment.

What do you think is a really sustainable neighborhood.

Could you give us some examples?

I cannot tell. To me, the whole thing is only about making progress: Coal, nuclear power and many other things are a thing of the past and dangerous. 100% renewable energy is possible. We know this since 25 years and are only slowly moving forward.

One problem is that the societies are dominated by big companies who fight neither for the well-being of all nor for obvious improvements. Their just want to pull 20% money out of their “investment”, no matter how – best with a monopoly that no one can break. Someone has to work for these 20% and it is never the rich.

If we try to keep the money flowing more within our local circles, private investors might be happy with 3 or 5% interest rates. Then, many good things can happen, the burden of the big business is lightened. In the near future, we will have to discuss why there is interest at all and how we could modify our financial system so that the money keeps circulating without automatically making the rich richer.

Nothing against profit if you have a good idea and take a risk. Most of the money that is being made is no more about taking riska but only one: the collapse of the worldwide economy. But there are non-stupid approaches

What do you think about the projects to construct a new neighborhood with sustainable concepts?

Go for it, but get yourself well informed. Be prepared for surprise (new things to learn) and often frustration from those in power, – wash, rinse, repeat. Do not wait until the government follows. At some time, a government will have to change rules, but until them: Win them with arguments and your work. Don’t leave construction to the big companies. Just dont.

It not “It’s the economy, stupid”. It is “It’s stupidity, stupid”.

Do you have another project in mind?

I only can say there are always many interesting things going on in a city, – currently I am not partaking in a new one.