The Vauban district is a mecca of sorts for those that think green.
Note: Find Berg's photos from the trip, arranged in an audio slideshow, here: Car-light gemutlichkeit.
I have seen "The Greenest City in Europe" and lived to tell about it.
I know what you're wondering: Did one of the Madison area's more likeable conservative thinkers take an unlikely carbon-neutral, Al Gore-approved "green vacation" in Europe this summer? Has he finally starting thinking globally so he can act locally? Did some mysterious transformation take place at the edge of the Black Forest?
A few months ago, I was invited to help represent the greater Madison area at the June 18-20 Sister City Fair in Freiburg, Germany. The invitation was extended after I wrote a column in Isthmus that dubbed as "ridiculous" Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's support for car-light neighborhoods, following his own recent visit to Freiburg, and especially its car-light Vauban neighborhood.
"What makes sense in Europe doesn't necessarily make sense in Madison," I scolded, leaving the mayor with this advice: "[T]he next time you travel to Germany on someone else's nickel, have fun, drink more beer, enjoy the Cuban cigars and leave the wacky ideas over there."
Anyway, as someone with a strong German family pedigree (mom's maiden name is Korfmacher) and an affinity for fine German beer, I accepted the invitation. (For the record, I paid for my own airfare and did not use the occasion to smoke any Cuban cigars. But I did consume appropriate amounts of beer as a gesture of kinship to my long-lost German relatives.)
I admit I was more impressed with Vauban than I thought I would be, both with the city and with its efforts to reduce automobile traffic. But I remain concerned that what works in Germany may not work here.
The Sister City Fair is an annual "We Are the World" celebration of Freiburg's many sisters: Madison and cities in England, France, Israel, Iran, Italy, Spain, Japan and the Ukraine. It's meant to strengthen cultural and economic ties - and, given that planners had the good sense to put the Tel Aviv delegation right next to the one from Tehran, perhaps promote international diplomacy as well.
Freiburg, founded 400 years before Columbus set sail for America, is a thoroughly modern and forward-looking city of about 200,000 people. In 1992, it was named Germany's "Environmental Capital."
Berlin must still be green with envy.
Munich has the Hofbrauhaus; Garmisch has the Zugspitz; Cologne has the cathedral; Nuremberg has the nation's oldest and best outdoor Christmas Market; Fussen has Neuschwanstein; but only Freiburg has Vauban.
And it seems that everyone who comes to Freiburg, Madison's mayor included, wants to see Vauban, a mecca of sorts for those who think green.
The name "Vauban" comes from Sebastian le Perstre de Vauban, the French military architect responsible for Freiburg's fortification after World War II. French troops moved into the barracks Nazi occupiers had built and remained there until 1992.
In 1993, the Freiburg Municipal Council decided to turn the abandoned Vauban barracks into a new city district, focusing on "sustainable living" and dramatically reducing the impact of the automobile.
Freiburg, situated near the borders with France and Switzerland, was heavily bombed during World War II. German planes mistakenly dropped 60 bombs near the main Freiburg train station, and intense Allied bombing in 1944 leveled most of the rest of the old city (except, miraculously, its prized cathedral).
After the war, Freiburg was rebuilt. But visionaries, many affiliated with the University of Freiburg, seized on what they saw as opportunities to make it better.
Narrow old streets were widened to accept a new tram system. Today, Freiburg has a well-developed system of tram trains that go just about anywhere in town and neatly fit city leaders' desire to keep Freiburg's old historic center car-light and pedestrian-friendly.
Strong opposition to a proposed nuclear power facility near Freiburg in the 1970s also intensified local interest in the "green" movement and helped plant the seeds of Vauban.
On the day I tour Vauban, I tag along with visitors from Guildford, England, who were also participating in the sister city events. Like other European countries, Great Britain is exploring strategies to discourage automobile use by expanding public transit and radically (by American standards) different types of residential development.
The tour is conducted by Vauban resident Thomas Fabian, deputy head of the Freiburg city planning department.
It begins next to the large multi-story parking facility on the perimeter of the one-square-mile Vauban district. The parking facility is where Vauban residents (at least the ones who own vehicles) park their cars.
About 70% of Vauban's 5,500 residents own cars. More telling, 57% of them sold a car when they moved to Vauban. There are about 250 motor vehicles per 1,000 Vauban residents, compared to 500 per 1,000 for the rest of Germany.
There are no garages in the residential district, but plenty of bicycles and pedestrians. Cars are allowed on the narrow residential streets, but only for loading and unloading; long-term street parking is not allowed.
Vauban, says Fabian, has had only minor problems with "abusers." One senses that community pressure to conform to the rules of the game is a powerful deterrent, especially in a community that prides itself on being alternative.
"We like to say," Fabian cracks, "that in Vauban we have the greatest density of lava lamps in Germany." Who am I to dispute the claim?
Owning a car while living in Vauban is made more expensive by design. Car owners must purchase a space in the parking structure for 18,000 Euros - about $23,000 U.S. dollars. The cost of this parking space is separate from that of a residence. (Most dwellings in Vauban are owner-occupied; only about 15% to 20% of the living units are rented.)
If you own a parking space and decide to move out of Vauban (which, apparently, few people do), selling the parking space is your responsibility. After all, the incoming homeowner may not have a car.
"Those who live without a car do not finance the [parking] garages with their apartment rent payments, as is common practice in practically all new housing projects," according to one Freiburg publication. "Here the car-users bear all the costs of the parking spaces."
Holy Henry Ford! I wonder how Vauban residents would feel about the taxpayer bailout of GM and Chrysler.
People who don't own a car are required to annually sign a statement affirming that fact. But it's estimated that 5% of Vauban residents are concealing automobile ownership by parking their car elsewhere or hiding it with a friend or relative.
Some may call such policies "anti-car," but the preferred term in Freiburg is "traffic-calmed." The city brags that, between 1982 and 1999, the percentage of all traffic represented by bicycles rose from 15% to 28%, while use of public transportation rose from 11% to 18%. Best of all, the share of city traffic represented by the automobile dropped from 38% to 30%.
In short, a green Valhalla.
Residential construction began in Vauban in 1998 and continues today. Tram Line 3 to Vauban was completed in 2006. It takes passengers to anywhere in Freiburg and to the main train station, from which they can get to anywhere in Germany and throughout Europe.
Madison resident Tom Kaminski, an instructor at MATC, was part of the group that spent a week in Freiburg in June 2008. Like fellow traveler Dave Cieslewicz, he fell in love with the Vauban vibe.
"I like the pedestrian and kid-friendly appeal of the place," Kaminski says. But Kaminski confirms what I noticed: The district's denizens are mostly young families with kids; there are very few elderly or handicapped residents. (About 30% of Vauban residents are under 18 and only 2.2% are over 60.)
Younger and mobile Freiburg residents like the idea of a self-contained, sustainable community that includes 500 jobs, a large supermarket, an open-air marketplace, culture, art, social services, canteens, restaurants, drugstore, bicycle shop, florist, salons, shoe repair shop, gift shop, ice cream stores and room for more businesses - all easily accessible by foot or bike.
Essentially, Vauban is resurrecting (minus the car, of course) what small-town life used to be like in Wisconsin before fast-food restaurants, chain stores and a lousy economy killed many of the "mom and pop" operations.
Vauban provides its residents with generous amounts of green space. There are children and young adults playing in the parks, running in the auto-free streets, or just sitting on a bench soaking up the solar rays. Vauban residents have considerable say over what these public spaces look like and what amenities they contain.
Along with the limitations on cars, no building can be taller than four stories. Fabian explains that the height restrictions create "an impression of length rather than height." He calls it "less oppressive" and says it produces a neighborhood more attuned to the human scale.
Some Vauban homes are solar-powered, with south-facing roofs covered with photovoltaic devices that produce more electric power than residents consume. The surplus energy is sold by residents to the public grid, which means those residents receive a check from the electric utility each month rather than having to send one.
Other buildings in Vauban are designed to make maximum use of passive solar heating, something Mayor Cieslewicz hopes to emulate in a new neighborhood on Madison's northeast side. And nearly all buildings within the Vauban district use heat and hot water energy produced by a wood-chip-burning co-generator plant.
Could Vauban work here? Maybe, but it would be a serious uphill climb in a culture where car ownership is seen by most as about as essential as oxygen.
"Wisconsin does not understand what it's like to have excellent transportation systems," says Kaminski. "Freiburg shows that quality of life is quite good for a city the size of Madison when good planning includes good transportation."
Of course, one of the main reasons many Americans wouldn't recognize an excellent non-auto-based transportation system is because we largely abandoned it after World War II, when Eisenhower pursued construction of the vast interstate highway system.
Europe, in contrast, not only rebuilt its short- and long-distance rail and public transportation systems, it enhanced and expanded them. But the success of green alternatives in Freiburg owes to more than just infrastructure.
In Freiburg in general and Vauban in particular, a remarkably unified public and political consensus has coalesced around energy and transportation issues. The public is on board and so are the politicians.
I attended a seminar on Freiburg's energy policies at which a presenter was asked whether a local rule mandating significantly lower carbon dioxide emissions was a contentious political issue. At first he seemed puzzled by the question, as though it was odd to oppose something that made so much sense. But in the end he admitted there was disagreement: Two of the local council's 48 members had voted against it.
All of this helps explain how Freiburg has become a worldwide leader in solar energy, energy conservation and other alternative sources of energy. It's much easier to begin with a common community consensus and a city where the physical obstacles have been leveled by heavy bombing.
It will be interesting to see if Mayor Cieslewicz can achieve the consensus needed to realize his dream of creating a Vauban-like residential neighborhood in Madison - and whether local residents would embrace the concept with the same enthusiasm that Vauban residents have shown for car-light living.
There's no successful Vauban-like neighborhood anywhere in the United States. But if Mayor Dave can pull it off, it won't be long before Madison lays claim to being America's "Environmental Capital."
The Freiburg connection