Monday, July 2, 2007

An EcoCity in the Black Forest

My train winds its way to Freiburg into the heart of the Black Forest. The views are breathtaking as we enter the south of Germany. My visit to Freiburg is primarily to see how this small city has focused on creating a model sustainable community -Vauban, experience the black forests, and visit with forestry professors at the technical university in Freiburg.

Freiburg is surrounded by the beautiful Black Forest mountains and located along the Dreisam river, on the foothills of the Schlossberg. The forests are so named because of the pines that give it a dark appearance from afar. These are beautiful mountains, giving Freiburg a unique and magnificient landscape as a backdrop. I am lucky to stay in the oldest inn in Germany during this visit - its family run, and has a great old world atmosphere. The daily market held at the town square is charming as well as a great support to local farmers and artists who bring their wares here everyday. As I walk through the town center, I notice open drains with stormwater flowing though them! This unusual system of gutters – Bachle in German, was originally installed to provide water to fight fires and feed cattle. Today, the system manages stormwater flow, and remains a quaint element along the streets of Freiburg. Freiburg gets its reputation as an eco-city because of its base of solar industries and alternative energy research.

Vauban, a community to the south of Feiburg, is located on an old military base occupied by the French - now rehabilitated as an eco-community. When the military left in 1992, a group of people squatted here and fought for the development of an alternative community with local government. Over the years, the army barracks were developed into flats and dormitories, and a master plan for the new community was developed with significant input from the residents.Even today, some of the caravans and creatively modified vehicles of the early residents have a place in Vauban. This planned community has developed over the years into an impressive model for sustainable living. Everyone cycles, and half the community is car-free. Its impressive to me to hear that local families go off to their vacations to France via bikes! Trams, bikes, buses and walking are the main ways for residents to get places. There was some interest among residents to do away with streets altogether, but a compromise was reached with the city to alleviate concerns about emergency access. I notice kids travelling by themselves, going to the local library or the swimming hole - walking or biking. Small stores and businesses are located on the ground floor, with apartments above on the main streets.
The apartment block below is built on land that was bought by a group of families, who then hired an architect to design the multi-family building. This way, the families cut out the developer from the mix, and worked directly with the architect to develop the building plans, customizing their units within a framework agreement. The families saved money this way, but the architects job must have been pretty challenging with multiple clients and potential conflicts of needs and interests.
Vauban has an outdoor kindergarten as an option for families to choose from. I am amazed to find out that they actually live upto their name and conduct all their activities outdoors, regardless of weather! The location below is where they meet every morning. I understand that 5% of Germany's pre-schoolers are in outdoor kindergartens.

Play spaces of all kinds abound, mostly designed by parents and local architects and artists. While the developments may have been created with a similar look and feel, the play spaces, and the green areas give Vauban a distinctly unique feeling with lots of visual variety and interest.

There is very little lawn, another strategy for the community to cut down maintenance costs and create sustainable landscapes. The plant materials are rich - great displays of grasses and perennials.
The expanse of solar panels on top of homes are most impressive. Its great to see them dotting the skyline. Residents have the option in Germany to sell power back to the utility company at four times the cost of regular electricity. Vauban is the only place where I see this happening across the community.
Work continues at Vauban to complete its final phase of new homes. At its completion, there will be about 10,000 residents in this community living this sustainable lifestyle.

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