A Tale of Two …urban extensions

In my post on the Compact City, I noted the different choices made by Freiburg and Exeter in their approaches to balancing the need to provide new homes against the need to protect the natural environment.  To illustrate how these choices played out in practice, what follows is a brief study of how the two cities have managed urban extensions.


Within Freiburg’s southern city boundary is the district of Vauban, built on the site of a former French army barracks about 3km from the city centre [1].  Planned and developed between 1994 and 2014, with building work starting in 1998, the district was designed to be an exemplar of sustainable living.  Its population at the end of 2014 was 5,600, or 2.5% of the city’s total population.  Covering some 40 hectares, the whole district is easily walkable from one end to the other.

The city council bought the land from the German federal government, and so had effective control over land use decisions.  In planning the development, however, the council worked in a formal partnership with communities, through a purpose-built organisation known as Forum Vauban, a vehicle for articulating community views and for influencing the types of housing, traffic and energy plans and ensuring the development of a community centre for social services.

The City Council and the Forum took steps to ensure that the Vauban community was indeed “green”.

  • Energy-efficient housing was mandated, including over 100 buildings to PassivHaus standards. Solar energy is a major contributor to energy needs, and was designed into some of the buildings from the start.  Rainwater is captured on flat roofs.
  • Preference was given to co-operative housebuilders. Though there was some privately-built housing, the major housebuilding firms were excluded from Vauban.
  • The district is designed to provide some 600 jobs: in shops, schools, businesses and community services. This does not appear to have stopped commuting, but it is a better jobs to houses ratio than in many other places.

160628 Vauban Mitte

Transport planning has been managed seriously and proactively.  In particular:

  • Cars are not banned, but they must be parked in a community car park on the edge of the district, not beside houses and apartments. Households without cars don’t have to pay towards the community car park upkeep.  Car-sharing through a car club is on offer.
  • The excellent tram service was integrated into the development at an early stage, with services running from 2006. Trams to the city centre and beyond run on dedicated tracks along the district’s main central road, every 7-8 minutes.  The trams – and the buses – are run by a municipally-owned company.
  • Bicycles are in common use. The whole district is flat, there are few cars to create conflicts with cyclists, and ample parking for cycles both at the main tram stops and in residential areas.

160628 Vauban culdesac

Vauban looks modern but it doesn’t “feel” like a new town.  Its main street has ample shops and businesses, there are plenty of people walking and cycling.  The architecture is varied and well located around green spaces.

Though not designed to the same green standards, another major urban extension in Freiburg is the district of Rieselfeld [2].  Larger than Vauban, at nearly 10,000 residents on a 70-hectare site, it was also built on brownfield land – a former sewage works – without breaching the city boundaries to encroach on green space.  In Riesefeld too, the tram system was an early piece of infrastructure and now runs at the same frequency as in Vauban, taking 15 minutes to the city centre.

Both these developments are real expressions of Freiburg’s planning policy “It is quite clear: the more residential areas constructed on the outskirts of a city, the greater the negative ecological consequences. The prime directive of the city of Freiburg is therefore to keep the need for new areas to an absolute minimum.” [3].  In pursuing this goal, the city’s planners have not been afraid to plan for high-density living:  Vauban’s population is currently 137 people per hectare, the highest by far of any of the Freiburg city districts, and the density in Rieselfeld is 100 per hectare.  The average for the city as a whole is 49 [4].


The policy response to Exeter’s housing need has been, reasonably enough, to get more houses built.  The key planning document, the Core Strategy (no longer as key as it was, but that’s another story), commits to an increase of at least 12,000 dwellings within the city boundaries between 2006 and 2026.  As a result, major developments of several hundred houses have grownn and are growing up on the city’s fringes, particularly to the east, pushing against the city’s administrative boundary.

Many of these developments are housing-driven, with little by the way of the services that make life tolerable.  In a growth area in the east of the city, a proposal for a shopping centre was refused by the city council on the grounds that it could have an adverse impact on trade in the city centre.  To be fair to the council, the proposal was a bit OTT, and plans for a more modest district shops and services centre would probably have been approved.  Meanwhile the residents are as far away for easily accessible shops as ever, yet another example why planning is too important to be left to “the market”.

A characteristic of Exeter’s housing developments is that they sprawl, often onto greenfields.  Despite fine words in planning documents, it seems to be impossible to impose any sort of density requirement on house-builders through the planning system, and to prevent the gradual (and not so gradual) erosion of unprotected green space.  It’s common knowledge that housebuilders prefer building 3-4 bed “executive homes” with garages and gardens, because they will make greater profits than from building 1-bed apartments.  It’s also common knowledge that they prefer building on green space rather than brownfield – previously developed – land.

One consequence of Exeter running out of developable space has been a new settlement, Cranbrook, over the boundary in East Devon.  Started 5 years ago, currently at 1,300 homes, it is planned to quadruple in size over the next 20 years, all on greenfield land.  This new town has very little to do with East Devon’s own housing need, and everything to with Exeter’s: as late as September 2015, a report to Devon County Council concluded that decisions needed to be taken on “whether Cranbrook would constitute a standalone development in the future or an urban extension of Exeter, linking with other developments taking place in its vicinity as part of a wider growth corridor” [5].

Cranbrook is modestly described in East Devon’s Local Plan [6] as follows: “[the} efforts in delivering this self-sufficient, low-carbon new town, the first stand-alone settlement in Devon since the Middle Ages, have won national acclaim.  A sustainable community located close to real employment opportunities, among them a significant number of highly-skilled jobs, will be an exemplar for green travel.”

Ho hum.  A quick, and admittedly not comprehensive, comparison with the green district of Vauban raises a few questions about these claims.

  • First, and crucially, there are no car restrictions in Cranbrook. Almost every house has a garage or a car parking space, so there is no incentive for the residents to use public transport.  This is not surprising because, second comparison, public transport is sparse.  There is a train once an hour from the new station – opened two years late – west to Exeter or east to Honiton and beyond.  The bus service to Exeter is half-hourly most of the day.

160807 Brooks Warren(1)


  • Cycles are a rare sight. On a weekday morning there was one parked at the railway station.

160817 Stn bike park weekday(2)

  • Vauban has its central spine, walkable from one end to the other in 10 minutes, but the overall shape of the place is rectangular.  Cranbrook is a linear sausage, planned to become even longer in the future.  Both are the products of the site allocated by the planners:  Vauban based on a former barracks, Cranbrook squashed in between a railway line to the north and a former trunk road to the south.  The planners’ density assumption for Cranbrook is 40 dwellings per hectare (excluding green space) [7]

Like Vauban, Cranbrook has a district heating scheme, which is laudable.

Cranbrook’s housing design has been largely left to the developers and house builders.  Apart from the broad locations of housing set out in the Local Plan, there is – perhaps surprisingly – no development plan for the town.  East Devon District Council is currently preparing one, which won’t be adopted until mid-2017 [8].  There is something to be said for not designing a place in full until there are sufficient residents to generate worthwhile public input; but it leaves a great deal to house-builders at the outset.  And, unlike Vauban, the big house-builders are all that’s on offer: Bovis, Taylor Wimpey, Charles Church and Persimmon all strut their stuff.

That said, there have been serious efforts to provide affordable housing.  In the first development phase, 300 houses were offered at social rents or on shared ownership terms, and a further 100 at below market prices on the grounds that their rooms are 20% smaller than average. [9].

It’s probably unfair to judge the “feel” of Cranbrook at this stage.  It’s still being built, and it’s dwarfed by housing.  Yet I’ve met people who live there and rave about it.  Let’s just say it’s got a very long way to go to be a green exemplar, though with intelligent planning and strong local leadership it could get there.

 So what?

These differences between Freiburg and Exeter reflect in large measure wider social and political differences, in particular the embracing by the UK’s – or at least England’s – political classes of market-driven doctrines over the past 30 years.  This contrasts with the “managed social economy” approach prevailing in Germany and much of the rest of the EU.  Whether England’s bosses will ever realise that the market is not the solution to everything is at present unanswerable.

Meanwhile there are lessons in the Exeter-Freiburg comparison, which I will elaborate in future posts: how plans are developed, and community engagement; the relationship between local government and the private sector, and the former’s relationship with central government; the involvement of social and co-operative enterprises; and investment in transport.



[1] The website www.vauban.de provides a wealth of information about the origins of the district, some of it in English (though much needs updating).  Freiburg City Council’s website is authoritative but mostly in German: for Vauban, see http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208732.html. The Google translation tool at [..] makes a valiant if not wholly successful effort at rendering German planning-speak into English planning-speak.

[2] See the entry in Freiburg City Council’s website at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208560.html (in German)

[3] English text available at http://www.greencity-cluster.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Dateien/Downloads/Environmental_policy_Freiburg.pdf. Page 9 refers.

[4] These figures refer to population per hectare of developed land (“besiedelter Fläche”), so are less prone to distortion from large areas of greenspace in an area.. They are from page 34 of the 2015 edition of the excellent 300-page compendium of statistics published by Freiburg City Council, available at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/site/Freiburg/get/params_E1938626907/906571/statistik_veroeffentlichungen_Jahrbuch_2015-NIEDRIG.pdf  .

[5]  See para 9 of the report at http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_cs1519.html

[6] Available at: www.eastdevon.gov.uk/planning/planning-policy/local-plan-2013-2031/

[7]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/planning-libraries/evidence-document-library/chapter8.1-housing/hsg012-cranbrookexpansionoptions.pdf

[8]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook/

[9] More detail at http://www.exeterandeastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook-new-community/



12 thoughts on “A Tale of Two …urban extensions

  1. Ivan

    I agree with you that this is societal. U.K. vs Germany may as well be on different planets. And so, as excellent and balanced as this piece is, I can’t help being a bit depressed by it. The extraordinary claim that Cranbrook will be a sustainable exemplar when there is no public transport and no restriction on car ownership. That’s a laugh or cry moment. I was reliably informed that the developers were very keen to erase all cycle paths from the development.

    Keep up the good work.


    1. Peter Cleasby Post author

      Thanks, Ivan. I want to give Cranbrook the benefit of the doubt, and the planners may well be sincere – but they don’t have the muscle to take on the developers.


      1. Ivan

        Yes, it is clear that planners don’t have the muscle to take on developers, but, speaking as someone who deals regularly with planners in many local authorities, in my view small c conservatism is the dominant mentality in planning. At the domestic scale this often means a parochial attachment to dormer windows and garages. At a civic scale, it means failure take control or responsibility for big decisions – a vacuum which is gleefully occupied by Midas / Land Sec. etc… This is largely because Town Planning is a branch of Geography. It is a passive/ aggressive profession, which seeks to protect the status quo ( a microcosm of English society, one might say). Qualified Planners, (who can become very powerful people) have no training in design, which is daft. One will meet the occasional enlightened planner, particularly if they have worked abroad, but mention Jane Jacobs to most of them and one gets a blank look. And she was writing 50 years ago.

        In Germany, Planners and architects train together. This benefits both professions, and in the physical realm, naturally leads to well conceived, comprehensive, and brave schemes like those at Frieburg. So, by all means give them the benefit of the doubt, but I doubt anything like this can ever happen here because the Planners, culturally, don’t have the will for it.


      2. Peter Cleasby Post author

        I don’t disagree. I think part of the problem in this country is that we have all too often allowed planning to become a technical function, run by (often uninpsired) technocratic people who talk planning-speak and exclude most of us from the discussions. I have some sympathy for the working level planners in LAs because their numbers are just being cut and cut, and so running to stand still is the order of the day. In all these respect councillors have failed in their responsiblity to explain to their electors what’s going on.
        I didn’t know about the joint training in Germany – seems highly beneficial, as you say.


  2. Trevor Preist

    Your comparison between Vauban & Cranbrook was interesting although I feel a fairer choice for comparison would have been with Newcourt since that has a similar location within Exeter to Vauban within Freiburg. Your conclusions would of course still be valid.

    Cranbrook is even more of a basket case and interests me since currently there is a draft Cranbrook Development Plan and I recently made a submission to the consultation process ( now closed ) concerning the transport issue and the idea ( or myth) that this is sustainable in this context.

    The newly available Datashine website provides a wealth of Census 2011 data relevant to the Broadclyst- Cranbrook area about where people who live in the area work and how they travel. Similar information is available about how those who live outside the area but work inside it.

    The Sustainability Assessment of the Draft Plan focusses mainly upon land use and ecological issues saying little about transport which reflects the emphasis in the Draft Plan. The only new idea in the latter is the proposal for a second rail station at Cranbrook !!
    The ‘baseline data’ says nothing about the status quo and the plan makes no estimate of the likely consequence in transport terms of 8000 new homes by 2030 and ( unstated ) 9000 new jobs in the area.

    In 2011 there were 3200 working residents of the area and the latter contained 5100 jobs; 2200 travelled out of the area to work and 4700 travel from outside to work in the area. The total car use both IN and OUT is 6000.

    The number of residents and the number of jobs will toughly TRIPLE and in an ideal world the 8000 new workers would work in the 9000 new jobs. Unfortunately the modern world isn’t like that and many of the new jobs won’t pay wages that permit the purchase of the new homes in the area.
    This implies a massive increase in commuting bot IN and OUT with an estimate ( nine) of 10 000 additional cars most of which will at some time use parts of the old A30…..
    I would like to believe that some of these facts & projections would be deemed relevant to future plans but as Peter will no I am not optimistic !


    1. Peter Cleasby Post author

      Thanks, Trevor. Much to agree with here. Your point about Newcourt as a better comparator is fair, but there is a key difference from Vanban in that Newcourt was built on greenfield land. I also chose Cranbrook because of the claims made for it as an exemplar of sustainable living.


  3. Trevor Preist

    Sorry about the grammatical errors at the end -the wet walk on Dartmoor today obviously took more out of me than I expected !

    With regard to Newcourt the area adjacent to the Topsham Rd was formerly a sizable MoD Naval site but I am not sure what percentage of the development it represented.


  4. Trevor Preist

    This is my second bite of the cherry since yesterday’s contribution was made to give some kind of context to what might happen in the Cranbrook area.

    The exchange between Ivan & Peter raised a number of issues about lack of joined- up thinking and the downsizing of LEA’s has resulted in the loss of officers with specialist expertise (eg transport).
    Car use is the problem and the ideas discussed on planning out cars are valuable but without the availability of a realistic alternative mode of travel to work they will not succeed. Cycling can make a valuable contribution in urban areas but in the rural regions its contribution is marginal when the distance to work is perceived to be too far to cycle.
    Within many cities on the continent with large cycling rates they also have a much larger mass- transport system than is the norm in the UK. This takes many cars off the road leaving more space for cyclists which encourages greater cycle use.

    We have had 70 years of neglect of non-road transport in this country and without addressing this neglect through a long term plan for improvement little will change. As long as we believe locally that a Devon ‘Metro’ ( with a designer label but not much else ) will solve our problems then little will change.


  5. Peter Cleasby Post author

    Agreed, Trevor. I shall be setting out in subsequent posts on this blog what I believe needs to change to deliver the vision set out in “A Future”, including transport. Devon Metro is an excellent example – it must (and can) be more than a label.


  6. Pingback: Wider still and wider – time to call a halt – A Green in Exeter

  7. Pingback: How dense can we be? | A Green in Exeter

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