Vauban reflections

IT was 12 years ago when I wrote up my experiences of a visit to Vauban. I had been part of a Scottish Government delegation and my report was published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Of course, Vauban continues to be a possible inspiration for Scotland, but, still, very little remotely resembling it has been built here. A couple of Vauban ‘ingredients’ have made their way into Scotland’s policy discourse, but we don’t have a complete replica.

So, the challenge remains. The question is: who will have the vision and courage to take up the baton?

Vauban is part of Freiburg, which can reasonably claim to be Germany’s ‘greenest city’.

I remember the city’s head of planning, Wulf Daesking, remarking that “it is better to live in Freiburg with no job than to live in northern Germany with a job”.

Twelve years ago, that felt absolutely true. Freiburg felt like a mature, ‘green’ city, absolutely at ease with itself. 

The commitment to a low-carbon way of life extended well beyond just the production of energy (from renewable sources, not least solar), but also an excellent public transport network which meant that, over the years, people’s dependency on a car soon enough evaporated. 

It was second nature for Freiburgens to use public transport, walk or cycle – all of which helped to create a more sociable and generally safer environment.

The decision to pursue an energy policy based on renewables was prompted by a then oil supply crisis (of the mid-1970s) and opposition to nuclear power as a possible alternative. Sounds familiar today?

Freiburg also felt like an ‘intelligent city’ in the way it had moulded its economy around high skills and high-value sustainable technology and services, while, at the same time, creating an environment where its citizens actively wanted to live, work and enjoy a green way of life.

Its local authority was clear-headed, recognising that Freiburg was not only competing for talent and investment with other German cities, but also nearby France and Switzerland. So, it was hard-headed economics that saw a place like Vauban being supported, not some ‘utopian’ ideology.

Significantly, the city’s chief planner was part of the local authority’s senior management team. 

It wasn’t a case of creating policy and then expecting the private sector to unilaterally deliver. Instead, infrastructure was built – such as public transport links – to create the conditions for the private sector to come forward, albeit at a price that began to re-imburse the local authority for its initial outlay.

A set of simple, straightforward design standards additionally gave the private sector a clear steer as to what was expected of it. And these standards were high, not least in the provision of energy-efficient housing.

Members of the public were actively supported to form small-scale collectives, to design, finance and build their own housing – on plots with all the necessary services infrastructure already on site. This wasn’t community input of the completing-a-survey variety, but physical, hands-on, boots-on-the ground community-led building.

All these different collectives added up to a pretty infinite variety of house design styles albeit remaining within the development design codes.

Masterplans were not just about housing layouts, either. They embraced all the constituent parts required of a thriving neighbourhood, in much the same we recognise today with the so-called ’20-minute neighbourhood’ concept, where life’s essentials (shops, health, education, public transport, recreation, etc) are all within a short walk, ‘wheel’ or cycle ride away.

A staggering 70 per cent of Vauban’s population lived within 500m of a tram stop.

Twelve years ago, I had reflected how the ‘green pioneers’ in Freiburg during the mid-1970s had been roundly scoffed by much of German society. But they had pressed on, they had the determination and energy to keep chipping away. And they deserve praise, for their conservable achievements.

Twelve years ago, I also remarked that Scotland then felt 20 years behind. By my reckoning, that’s now about 32.

Steven Tolson is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and past chair of the RICS in Scotland. In addition to his professional work in public and private sector housing and development, he has held academic teaching and examining posts at a number of Scottish universities and is a regular writer on a range of housing and place-making matters. 

Picture credit: Steven Tolson

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