Tag Archives: Freiburg-in-Breisgau

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/



The Compact City

How Freiburg does it, Part 2

We tend to like compact cities.  Why?  Is it because compact is the antithesis of urban sprawl, which has negative connotations.  So negative in fact that fighting it was one of the original aims of the Council for the Preservation for Rural England [1], formed 90 years ago, subsequently egged on by Clough Williams-Ellis’ polemic against sprawl in his 1928 book England and the Octopus.

Or is it something more instinctive?  We like our community to be identifiable, recognisable as a place, with its own characteristics and shared experiences.  “I live in London” says nothing.  “I live in Muswell Hill” says a great deal, at least to London residents [2].

Or it may be a recognition that a compact place uses less resources.  This might be energy, whether in the physical effort of walking or cycling around or in having to light dispersed streets at night.  It might be the protection of natural resources by not building on greenfield land.

Or, even better, a combination of all three.

In 2012 Exeter City Council adopted its Core Strategy, the basis of planning up to 2026.  The document states that Exeter is a compact city [3].  It recognises that this may not endure, largely due to housing pressures generated by the city’s growth strategy.  Indeed the strategy is brutally clear (para 2.15):  “To meet the demand for housing, whilst protecting Exeter’s character, it has been a priority to maximise the use of previously developed land. However, greenfield development has also been necessary […].  As there are limited development opportunities remaining within the urban area, the development pressures on the city fringes will continue.”

No doubt much of the response to these pressures is being discussed in the Greater Exeter Visioning Board, which is so secret that we are not allowed to know what it discusses [4]

Whether it is necessary to build on greenfield land is a matter of political choice, not – as the Core Strategy suggests – an immutable law of nature.  A document produced by the apparently now-defunct Local Strategic Partnership and published at the same time as the Core Strategy, entitled Exeter City Centre: A city centre vision for a green capital [5], draws attention to Freiburg:  “In a similarly exceptional location to Freiburg in south-west Germany, one of the world leading sustainable cities, Exeter could be in a good position to embrace a future as a genuinely green city – benefiting from the lifestyle changes, business opportunities and environmental benefits this status would bring.”

Now there’s a key difference between what Freiburg has done and what Exeter proposes to do in its Core Strategy.  Freiburg’s environmental policy document [6] states: “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.”

The Exeter Core Strategy is more equivocal.  Among the key objectives is: “8. Protect and enhance the city’s unique historic character and townscape, its archaeological heritage, its natural setting that is provided by the valley parks and the hills to the north and west, and its biodiversity and geological assets” (page 15).  This is a valuable statement, but it sets less of a clear direction than Freiburg’s.

Part of the Core Strategy is a Green Infrastructure Network, developed in a 2009 report [7], and carried through into the final plans as two green corridors, one down the River Exe to the west of the city centre and one down the River Clyst to the east of the city’s eastern boundary.  Neither of these areas could be described fairly as the sort of undeveloped open space Freiburg wishes to protect.

Compact cities are not just about protecting the natural environment.  They have huge advantages for daily living: you can easily do city centre shopping or meet friends without having to take a whole half-day over it; if you fall down in the street the green-and-yellow taxi [8] has less far to come; cultural facilities are close by; bus and taxi journeys are shorter and so should cost less.  And so on.

There is no right and wrong in the choices made by Exeter and Freiburg, though they are likely to have different outcomes.  In a future post I’ll discuss how Freiburg has attempted to maintain its compactness and design sustainability into recent developments, built within the city boundaries, and draw out options for Exeter.  Meanwhile, we need to recognise – as exemplified by approaches to the “compact city” – that planning choices are essentially political.



[1]  Now the Campaign to Protect Rural England, www.cpre.org.uk

[2]  For the uninitiated, Muswell Hill is a fairly fashionable middle-class part of North London.

[3]  The Core Strategy is available at https://exeter.gov.uk/media/1636/adopted-core-strategy.pdf   Paragraph 2.26 refers.

[4]  See https://petercleasby.com/2016/05/16/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-1/

[5]  I cannot trace this document on the internet.

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

[7]  Available via http://www.exeterandeastdevon.gov.uk/green-infrastructure/

[8]  An expression,  used by those with a dark sense of humour, for a paramedic ambulance.


How Freiburg does it – Part 1

Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany

It’s difficult not to feel a bit of an alien when even the regional paper, the Badische Zeitung, runs an article pointing out that England has exited both the Euro football competition as well as the EU.  On the plus side, everyone I’ve dealt with has responded in German, not English, to my attempts at speaking German, which puts Freiburg in a politeness class of its own as far I’m concerned.  Or perhaps my German’s getting a bit better – who knows?

There are many more plusses to Freiburg than that.  It’s acknowledged as Germany’s Green City [1] and, as such, should have much to teach those places in England and elsewhere – such as Exeter – who aspire to such a status.

This post is essentially first impressions at the end of day 2 of a 3-day visit.  There’s a mountain of information on the internet about the city council’s development plans, some of which I’ll need to digest to put it all in context.  But meanwhile, some notes on transport.

Paying for transport is easy.  I bought a Welcome Card at 25 euros, valid for 3 days across the whole transport region – up to 30km from Freiburg – and which includes much of the Black Forest.  It’s valid on trains, trams and buses – and even a cable car.  And the card comes with a really good map.  Locals can buy similarly flexible tickets.  Trams have self-service ticket machines on board.

The city’s bus and tram network carries about 211,000 journeys each day.  The annual number of journeys on the network rose from 29 million in 1984 to 77 million in 2013 [2].  Work is in hand to build a new tram track along a major road, which will bring more people in the central area closer to a tram stop.

Trams run on time.  The city is served by 5 tram routes, criss-crossing the city and linking to feeder buses for those areas not on the tram routes.  The more modern vehicles include information screens which not only show the next three stops but also show real-time connections to other bus and tram services at particular stops.

That said, helpfulness is inconsistent.  At Freiburg’s main railway station, the trams stop on an overbridge above the tracks with stairs and lifts down to each platform.  But it’s very difficult to find information telling you which platform your train leaves from.

Conversely, at a nearby country station, Hinterzarten, one platform can only be reached by an underpass with steps.  To help passengers with luggage, a moving conveyor belt has been installed on the steps to take the bags up and down.  We could do with that at Polsloe Bridge.

Cycling is positively encouraged.  Some roads have been closed to motor traffic, and others have been narrowed to make space for dedicated cycling and walking lanes.  Shared pavements are rare, and where they exist are broad enough to avoid conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians. Cycle parking spaces are liberally provided around the city centre and near tram stops in the suburbs.  It helps that Freiburg is generally flat.

Except for access to residential areas, cars are kept to main routes away from the old city centre.  Even on these routes, there seems a surprising absence of congestion, but I may be looking in the wrong places.  There is no congestion charge.

The city council claim that their spatial planning and their transport planning are fully integrated.  I haven’t been able to test this, but the claim feels right.  It’s worth noting that a key policy in the city’s development plan is to avoid sprawling outwards onto greenfield sites, and instead to use brownfield within the existing built-up area.  This should in theory lead to savings on new transport infrastructure.

None of this has happened overnight: Freiburg’s transport policies were put in place some 30 years ago.  Moreover, the strong powers available to Germany’s local authorities – guaranteed in the constitution – make it easier to develop integrated and coordinated transport services than is the case in England.

So, many questions to explore if we are to tease out lessons for Exeter.



[1]  I’m particularly grateful to two books that pointed me to Freiburg.  Professor Robin Hambleton’s Leading the Inclusive City (Policy Press, 2015) cites Freiburg as a case study in strong local leadership.  Dr Steve Melia’s Urban Transport without the Hot Air (UIT Cambridge, 2015) includes a section on Freiburg’s transport system.

[2]  Figures from http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/622505.html