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Vauban - a correspondent's view

David Gregory
BBC Midlands Environment Correspondent
Politics Show West Midlands

House in Vauban surrounded by plants
Green living in Vauban.

Vauban is an eco-town which has been created in Germany.

It is a suburb of the city of Freiburg im Breisgau and BBC Midlands Environment Correspondent David Gregory has been to have a look around.

Here he describes his visit...

A visitor to Freiburg would usually enjoy tea at one of the many, many attractive cafes and restaurants clustered around the cathedral. Perhaps nibbling on a little "kaffee und kuchen" (coffee and cake).

Maybe even a moist, dark slice of Black Forest Gateaux named after the cooling forest that brushes up against the edges of the town.

BBC Midlands Environment Correspondent, David Gregory
BBC Midlands Environment Correspondent, David Gregory

But I found myself eating lentil dahl in a socialist co-operative in a suburb about four kilometres to the south.

I also found myself remembering how Germans really don't do chilli.

Coming from Birmingham where my other half is a superb cook of Indian food, well this dahl was a little bit on the bland side.

Not so my hosts.

In the Vauban district of Freiburg I was breaking bread with what the planners call "The Alternatives" - a group that had taken over a number of the deserted Army barracks in the '90s.

Eventually after some heated debate with the local government they were allowed to keep four of them and after our late lunch we were invited back to look inside the home of Bobby Glatz, a local architect.

For Bobby, re-using "existing buildings is an important part of ecological architecture."

And just as the "Alternatives" of Freiburg had turned their former barracks into homes, so too our government with plans to convert old military sites at Long Marston and Curborough.

But as Bobby was at pains to point out to me, there is much more to an "eco town" than reusing buildings.

Low-energy housing

Cross the road and the tramway from the "Alternatives" in Vauban you find the low energy housing and around the corner from that there is student accommodation and solar powered homes.

The solar powered houses cost more than most but with the government guaranteeing to buy any energy produced at above the market price for the next 20 years the owners should make a profit in the end.

Children cycling down a street in Vauban
Children play on the streets of Vauban

The low energy housing forms an engaging mix of styles and includes higher density flats and houses.

Rather than use a developer for the whole estate, single plots of land were sold off to people who then employed their own architects.

Banishing cars?

Andreas Haitz-Fliehmann is another architect who lives in Vauban and he explained that "before we started the building we didn't know our neighbours, but after all the problems we certainly did".

Building your own house helps to build a community too.

And while cars aren't banned they are banished to a large car park at the end of the street.

You can pull up outside your home, but only for 30 minutes at a time. So the roads between houses are narrow and lined with rather nice gardens or else turned over to parkland and children's play areas.

And I've never seen so many children playing outside - except in the one part of Vauban that was built by a single developer. Here there are cars on the streets, signs banning ball games and we didn't see a single child.

It's hard not to like Vauban and indeed Freiburg.

Wulf Daseking, Freiburg town planner
Wulf Daseking: No point in copying Vauban

Baking in the sunshine and enjoying ice cream while children play all around, and with no grinding traffic noise in the background, is a really delightful experience.

Other British journalists who've visited say it's too rule bound and that people are almost obsessed with being green. But I think that misses the point.

Town planner for Freiburg Wulf Daseking says, "you can come and visit us, but there's no point copying what we did.

"You need to adapt if for your own culture. This means (the British) dealing with the idea that your home is your castle and what to do with your cars"

If Eco Towns are to work here we can look to the Freiburg model, but then need to sit down and work out what we all really want from these proposed new developments.

A ground up approach, with strong local leaders, no developers and cheap reliable public transport would appear to be key.

And if you want to measure the success of an eco town, well, count the architects who live and work there. With a population of a few thousand Vauban has over 50.

The Politics Show for the West Midlands, with Jon Sopel and Michael Collie on Sunday 15 June, at 1200 BST on BBC One

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