Page last updated at 18:29 GMT, Friday, 13 June 2008 19:29 UK

Learning from the Germans

By David Gregory
BBC Midlands Today science and environment correspondent

As the debate over the development of "eco towns" near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire and Throckmorton in Worcestershire continues, people on both sides of the debate often bring up the German town of Freiburg.

Baking in the heat of the sun on the edge of the Black Forest, it is the original eco town and supporters say it shows the way forward for the UK.

The low energy housing forms an engaging mix of styles

Opponents say it just does not work half as well as is claimed.

A visitor to Freiburg would usually enjoy tea at one of the many attractive cafes and restaurants clustered around the cathedral, maybe a little coffee and cake.

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 reusing "existing buildings is an important part of ecological architecture".

Low energy housing

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

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

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 you should make a profit in the end.

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.

Vauban is in the historic city of Freiburg

Andreas Haitz-Fliehmann is another architect who lives here 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 are not 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 did not see a single child.

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 more than 50.

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