No needles or yarn involved in this though. This is about an altogether different kind of knitting – the knitting together of a community. Stick with me, you’ll see where I’m going. And I hope you may want to join me there.
When we go to the Black Forest, one of the things we always enjoy is a visit to Vauban, a suburb of nearby Freiburg. The first time we went there it was because we had read a newspaper article about it and thought it sounded interesting. It was love at first sight. We’ve been back many times, including once when we rented a small apartment there for a week. It proved to be as delightful place a place to stay as to visit.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m quite sure that Vauban isn’t heaven on earth, and I’m sure it has its own problems too. But it also has an awful lot we can learn from in terms of creating a liveable nurturing urban space.
Recently I took a friend who had never been there before. I was relieved that he felt the same way as I do about it. I might have had to question the future of our friendship if not.
Vauban is a green suburb of Freiburg, a city that back in the 1970s decided to transform itself into a ‘green city’. Partnerships were developed between the city council, the local university, and local businesses to develop solar knowhow and technology, manufacturing, and infrastructure. Alongside this they introduced an experimental central pedestrianised zone in the city, and schemes to reduce reliance on cars for transport.
I really recommend you read this article to find out more – it has the facts but also lots of photos that give a real impression of what it actually looks like. I promise you won’t be disappointed; I hope you’ll be as inspired by it as I am.
As a result, Freiburg now has a fantastic network of cycle paths; an excellent and integrated public transport system including buses, trams and trains; considerable solar and wind electricity generation; industries supporting and providing this; and a human-scale approach to housing. And a logical next step, taken the 1990s onwards, was the development of green suburbs as the city needed to expand. The two best known examples are Rieselfeld and Vauban.
In fact, as I discovered recently, the green Freiburg history goes back further still. This year is the 100th anniversary of the completion of Freiburg’s first garden suburb (Haslach), inspired by the British model developed by Ebenezer Howard. Ironic then that nearby Vauban is so frequently lauded in the UK by architects, landscapers and planners, without acknowledging the early British origins of many of the ideas.
What’s so inspiring about a visit to Vauban is the human-scale way it has been done. Whilst the place as a whole sings with inspiration, if you look closely, the buildings themselves are relatively unremarkable (though in fact most incorporate innovative ecological features that are not necessarily apparent). Much of the infrastructure that makes the difference is externally added – staircases, balconies and wires to support plants; bike and bin stores with green roofs; design of green community spaces. The planting is now mature and exuberant.
Vauban has about 2000 inhabitants, and I believe that the housing density is quite high. But it doesn’t feel that way when you’re there. Most of the homes are apartments. There are some houses as well, on streets of terraces (which often also include apartments). There is a large housing co-op of mainly flats, for older people.
In between there are lots of shared or communal spaces, some for everyone to use, others for the residents of particular blocks or areas. They include barbecue places, play and climbing spaces, gardens, open spaces for games, and just quiet spaces to be. Marking one edge of Vauban is.a wooded area alongside a stream. (Another edge is the railway line; yet another is the main road into the city).
It’s the way in which plants and planting have been used to knit the whole together that really catches the eye, the spirit, and the imagination. Also the vibrant use of colour on the buildings (reminding me of the use of colour on some houses in parts of Bristol).
See, I got there in the end: the green knitting.
A few years ago Malcolm and I went to a talk by Martha Schwartz about sustainable design. Her central point that evening was that landscape architecture is essentially about making the ‘spaces in between’ work, and that is precisely what has been achieved so brilliantly in Vauban. Malcolm reminded me of this when I was talking about writing this post, and suggested the green knitting analogy (not a reference to the fact that where I go my knitting goes too then?).
Vauban is a place where cars are present but not dominant; where walking and cycling are the main means of getting around; where the only sounds are people (children! playing freely in the streets!), birds, and trams; where plant life is abundant and everywhere; and where opportunities for community and tranquility are designed into the environment, not designed out.
When you look carefully at what it involves, it’s often very, very simple and inexpensive. But the impact is massive.
I love to take something home with me from every holiday. This time, I’m fired anew with enthusiasm to see how and where (and if?) I can help introduce some more of this magic where I live.
Or we could decide that we just want more of this:
Well I know what I think about that, and I suspect by now you do too.
And where will I start? Well, it’s going to have to be my own front garden. After all, how can I complain about anywhere else, if my own front garden doesn’t ‘up the game’? And my goodness, I know there’s room for improvement.
Want to join me?