I wanted to see two of its new experimental housing estates, Rieslefeld and Vauban, about which I had read a great deal. Both have been realised by the City Council on land it owned – without the use of private developers – and have new tramlines running through them and connecting them to the city centre. Most, but not all, of the dwellings are arranged as 4-storey blocks of flats at 70dph. Each has a district heating plant. The speed limit is 30kph. As radical as all these aspects may be to Australian ears, they would not be seen as so unusual in Germany.
The radical departures are as follows. Although mains gas and electricity are connected, there is widespread use of solar panels. The insulation and general design of the houses limits their annual energy consumption to 65kwh/m2 per annum compared to the national standard for new dwellings of 100 kwh/m2 pa. Some Vauban dwellings are only 15kwh/m2 pa, and some others are net exporters of power. Cuts in federal tax subsidies for social housing meant that original ideas for a predominance were cut to “only” 25% in Rieselfeld, and much less in Vauban.
Unique housing initiative
This has prompted a unique housing initiative. Prospective residents obtain their mortgage and then approach the City Council, which forms them into groups known as “baugruppen” (the nearest Australian legal equivalent would be a “body corporate”). The group pools their mortgages and engages an architect to build them a block of flats on the Council’s land. Through such housing policy the City Council has promoted Rieselfeld and Vauban as places for families with young children, and one of the remarkable sights is the large number of young children running around everywhere, often unsupervised.
Car parking in Rieselfeld is provided underneath the blocks, which struck me as a rather expensive, and not altogether sustainable, solution although it gets them out of the way of all other uses. At Vauban, cars can only be kept in separate multistorey car parks for a substantial fee. As a result, 50% of households there do not have a car. The disappointment in both areas is, surprisingly, the urban design. Although all ground floor apartments and townhouses have a substantial private garden (unlike Australia!) screening by fences or hedges is perfunctory. The consequent low level of privacy makes for a high level of surveillance, and therefore security, but I found it culturally challenging. While this is an aspect that is debatable, some other urban design issues were clearly mistakes.
Residents spoke of Vauban having an “edge” where less desirable uses were put, such as the multi-storey car parks. One of these edges was the main road into town which, consequently, had little active frontage. Another was, of all things, the unfenced school playground where young people got up to no good at night because of the lack of surveillance. As excellent as the non-physical town planning was, the process appeared to go straight from this to the architect without a strong urban design layer in between – something I have also encountered in The Netherlands. Nevertheless, the positive achievements of the Freiburg experiments are so remarkable that they should be on everyone’s list for further study.