Posts tagged ‘Vauban’


Vauban, “Learning while Planning.”

by materialsemiotic

 The district of Vauban in Freiburg Germany could be called a model of sustainability when one considers its integrated approach to community planning and concerns for the environment. An array of tactics were envisaged to produce a community whose main goal would be “to implement a city district in a co-operative, participatory way which meets ecological, social, economical and cultural requirements.” (
 In the early 1990s French troops left their barracks at Vauban, releasing an area 38ha large. Shortly after the departure of the French, the city of Freiburg purchased the parcel of land from the Federal Republic of Germany for 20,000,000€. The initial plan was to develop the district to a high density while also mixing social classes, creating a heterogeneous community. It was planned that some 2,000 housing units would be created to house 5,000 persons while also generating 600 jobs.
 From the beginning Vauban was meant to be a special community. Those involved in its planning did not want to create a simple suburb of homogeneity that would create depressing and isolating conditions, rather they envisioned a community of interaction. To facilitate the attainment of this goal it was necessary that a group be organized to enable dialogues between potential citizens and developers. This group became recognized as Forum Vauban e.V. The group was formed in 1993 and was the legal body of citizen participation in the planning process of Vauban. With approximately 300 members, Forum Vauban e.V. brought together citizens, developers and city council members in such a way that citizens had a direct impact on the planning process through providing input and criticism for the design of their community.
 Forum Vauban e.V. was one of many political bodies organized to attain the realization of the city’s original goals for Vauban. Along with Vauban Forum e.V. there was a specific group on the city council that directly addressed the development of Vauban. S.U.S.I and the Student’s Organization also contributed to the development of Vauban by both retrofitting and building housing units for mixed social classes (students, the elderly) before the city of Freiburg began to redevelop the entire district. The Students’ Organization created 596 dormitory rooms while S.U.S.I. created 45 housing units. Both organizations placed an emphasis on sustainable building practices through use of construction materials, planning and retrofitting.
 S.U.S.I’s building and conservation practices engaged issues of sustainability directly by:
 —preservation of existing buildings, recycling of scrap material left over from construction
 —use of ecologically-sound building material (domestic wood, clay and other things), PVC is not used
 —insulation of exterior walls and roofs using environmentally-sound materials
 —a co-generation plant run with grape oil
 —greening of façades, utilisation of rainwater (Sperling)

 Largely these are characteristic of the entire district as a major emphasis is placed on efficiency and sustainability. These practices are collectively organized and are illustrated well through the Baugruppen. As a significant goal for the development of Vauban had been the integration of mixed social classes a series of issues would need to be overcome, deviating from the traditional method of planning and development of communities. Baugruppen translates as “groups of future building owners” and is a method of planning that relies on intense participation of citizens and clear goals.
 Funding is always an issue and to produce a community that integrates mixed social classes requires innovative practices to ensure the inclusion of those typically excluded. The Baugruppen function to ease the difficulty of cost by gathering a group of persons interested in becoming homeowners and helping them through the planning and developing process. The Baugruppen allow for decreased costs of high quality housing since they bring together a moderately sized group of people who are then able to commission a larger residential unit than the traditional single family home. By increasing the size of the residential structure, there is a significant decrease in costs without loss of quality.
 The Baugruppen then create a multifaceted planning process where interested citizens come together, form a planning and construction collective then implement the construction of their residences. It is not only that a larger residential complex decreases price while maintaining quality, but the process creates a close-knit group of future neighbors. The pre-establishment of communities is one side effect of this intensely time consuming process.
 Collective action and participatory process are common traits throughout much of Vauban’s community engagements. There is not a desire to isolate within this community or create exclusive land uses reserved for an elite. The Baugruppen especially stress the development of communal property/land. Common green and informal spaces are tucked throughout the district, these could include the playground-like paths/roads or the shared offices situated in many of the residential complexes. Features of the residential developments are varied as they are collectively designed and planned, however specific tendencies such as elevators and offices can be found and contribute to the accessibility of these spaces in regards to age and occupation.
 Another specific trait of Vauban is the separation of cars from community. There are only two community parking garages located within the community and car-free households are encouraged through transit incentives and reduced building costs. Vehicles are allowed into the residential ares but for the very limited purposes of pick-up and/or delivery. When they are passing through the community, vehicles are restricted to a walking speed limit, or 5 mph.
 Reduced building costs emphasize the desires of the community to reduce personal vehicle usage. These reduced costs are made possible by the requirement that car-owning households must pay for a parking spot in one of the two community garages. Those households without cars are then relieved of this cost while also receiving transit incentives such as metro passes and reduced train fare. It is also key to mention that Vauban is situated 3km from central Freiburg and there are a number of public transit options. These public transit options include a car sharing service, two bus lines, a tram line and an expected suburban train line. Within the first residential development area, 130 of 280 households are car-free.
 The impact of reduced vehicle usage has been a thoroughly walkable community. It is not entirely uncommon to see children playing in the roads, which are really more paths due to their reduced size, or an array of cyclists. Emphasis has been placed on the walkability of the community both through fewer cars and planning measured by walking distances. Public input was also well received for the design of the residential streets. Requests included that there be many benches and green spaces interspersed throughout the streets. This has turned what in many communities is a repressive threshold into a fluid communal space that encourages interaction among citizens.
 Vauban’s commitment to providing a well-informed, ecologically friendly community takes many forms. The physical environment reflects this dedication through a wide range of sustainable building and energy practices. All new buildings within the Vauban district were required to be low energy houses (65kWH/m2) or passive energy houses (15kWH/m2). Community planning dictated that all façades would face either East or West. There are exceptions made for passive energy homes as their façades must be South facing. In the first wave of development there had been 42 housing units in three passive housing projects. The second wave of building was to contribute to the growth of this quantity and 50 more housing units in passive housing were to be constructed. Also in the first section of development is Europe’s largest solar settlement, as of 2000, containing 150 plus-energy houses; these units produce more energy through solar power than they consume.
 In terms of infrastructural innovation, Vauban has implemented a co-generation plant, rainwater catchment and a vacuum sanitation system. The co-generation plant produces energy through wood chips and natural gas (80/20). Linked to this plant Freiburg’s public utilities are building a short-distance heating grid. The rainwater catchment system is a solution to the nearly impermeable soil in Vauban. Residential gardens act as water catchment systems, redirecting the rainwater into two ditches. Gravel connects the ditches to ground-water strata with layers of soil acting as filtration devices. The vacuum sanitation system redirects human waste through vacuum tubes to a natural gas reactor. The waste is then anaerobically fermented with household waste, creating a biogas that can be used for cooking. The remaining grey water is then filtered through biofilm plants and is ready to be re-enter the water cycle. (Sperling)
 The district contains a series of social and physical innovations. In addition to the facilities described above there are a number of other communal services such as a Kindergarten and Elementary School, a food cooperative, a central marketplace, a mother’s center, childcare centers and a community center. ( The planning process of the district has lightly been described and architectural considerations have been completely ignored in this description. The plethora of residential developments are contained within a wide category, really only excluding single family homes. There is no definitive architectural style within the community however there is a continuous integration of energy initiatives within building which contribute to the abundance of green roofs, solar-cell covered roofs and façades characteristic of their energy consumption; passive energy houses have minute windows on their North faces as part of regulating the thermal cycle.
 It is difficult to critique Vauban as so many of its traits are extremely desirable. Its own website,, notes that there is an unbalanced age distribution as the youth is already requiring further educational facilities as its population is greater than anticipated or planned. My exposure to any demographic data for Vauban is limited however the housing types complicate understanding the community make-up since student dormitory rooms and the S.U.S.I development are nontraditional housing types that include multiple strata of society. The self reflexive criticism noted on the website appears substantial since Vauban was originally envisioned as an aggregate of social classes. Whether this has been accomplished remains unclear.
 Further, the strongest points of Vauban could also be considered its handicap. The level of involvement that was required for many of the residential units to be developed is astounding, especially considering that in many cases physical labor was a required aspect of the Baugruppen or other initiatives. While I believe this is one of its strongest traits, it could easily be critiqued for its level of participation. I think that any substantial argument against this level of involvement is rooted in a misinformed approach to community design that ignores the substantial energy of the public. In truth, my only concerns for Vauban are its integration of social classes as I am a strong supporter of the process and methods that gave rise to Vauban.
 It is especially useful to place emphasis on the city’s mantra of “learning while planning” which guided the development of Vauban. In terms of community, the district is situated with a stable base due to the involvement of those who formed the community. This is remarkably different from planning processes that characterize “traditional” suburban or urban redevelopment where a specific social class is targeted and purchases houses lacking character or personalization. “A house is not a home” has been with us for many years, however in Vauban the district specializes in the creation of homes and a community, not houses in a suburb. Learning through planning was an essential aspect of this community formation as ideology was conveyed to new citizens through energy initiatives, group work and an awareness of their becoming community.
 Vauban does produce a series of questions regarding the feasibility of expansion and contraction as time progresses. While community involvement has been initially high, as the district continues to grow, if it is allowed to, will the increased complexity of political programs diminish community involvement and awareness? As Vauban expands will the model of “learning while planning” remain an option for an increasingly complex site of development? This concern may only be pacified as Vauban is given the chance to expand and contract, demonstrating the ability of participatory planning to meet the demands of higher volumes of development.

 As was mentioned, the strongest points of Vauban can also be considered its serious weaknesses. High levels of involvement in planning and eco-consciousness may be understood as unAmerican and largely a European practice. This thought is highly flawed though and the growing green marketing campaign is now distributing these ideas to the masses when previously they were thought to be fringe, counter-culture movements. Whatever forms isolation took in the planning of early suburbs, whether through physical design or a consumerist approach, are also now beginning to shift into a new mode of participation. With the current political climate that emphasizes “grassroots mobilization” in many aspects of life there is a growing tendency to negate polarizing concepts such as private/public. These situations are contributing to a shift in emphasis that is tangential to historical development, isolated suburbs protecting homogenous social classes could only last for so long. Vauban appears to be a prime example of one form that may rise from these conditions.
 Any anxieties that remain from studying Vauban are purely related to collective integration of social classes and perpetuating ecoideology. While both concepts come under heavy critique and carry with them a plethora of cultural baggage, when divorced from the form of semantics the content of these ideas remain workable and will contribute to new definitions of city and development.

Homes and Community Agency, “Vauban: Community-led Design”, “” (accessed 10/25/09)

Vauban District-Freiburg Germany, “Introduction”, (accessed 10/15/09)

Sperling, Carsten. “A Journey Through the Model District Vauban”, Forum Vauban e.V., (2000)