Christchurch needs an eco-neighbourhood like Vauban
PERSPECTIVE: Vauban, in Freiburg, south-west Germany, is one of the world's most celebrated residential eco-neighbourhoods.
With its solar power, "plus-energy" buildings, and accessible streets, Vauban offers a bold sustainable vision for the future of urban or suburban living. It could even work for Christchurch and Canterbury – but only if the authorities and enough people are determined to make it happen.
Vauban actually took shape despite, rather than because of planners. Rather than being a centrally-planned model with solutions prescribed and imposed from on high, it has grown far more organically and is the result of entrepreneurial individuals working together: communities doing it for themselves.
Covering a site measuring 41 hectares, Vauban is built on land occupied until 1991 (the year of German reunification) by the French military. Residents founded the Forum Vauban in 1994, and in 2005 the Vauban District Union (Stadtteilverein Vauban eV) was established.
"Both associations have been and continue to be influential in shaping the sustainable district," according to Freiburg's information service.
"Vauban's planning process, which scrapped design regulations in the land-use plan and provided a wide range of different plot sizes, played a particularly important role in achieving the active neighbourly relations and district we see today. The planning process created a diverse mix of individual building projects, groups of building owners, rented and owner-occupied flats, co-operative models as well as inclusive accommodation projects that promote social integration."
Reaching Vauban couldn't be easier. A tram ride from the city centre takes us 15 minutes. My first impression is quiet leafy streets and cyclists: young and old, small children being carried on the front of bikes or in bike buggies, and all without helmets.
Cycling does not have to be an extreme endurance contest versus cars, as it is in Christchurch; cyclists and pedestrians take priority. Most cars are tucked away in plant-covered carports on the leafy streets; on residential laneways a 30kmh speed or walking pace limit applies. Some streets are car-free. Community solar and glass garages are fitted with solar panels.
Streets are named after prominent citizens forced to emigrate in the Nazi era, including architect and founder of the Bauhaus movement Walter Gropius, physicist Lise Meitner, and writer Kurt Tucholsky.
Vauban is more than just housing, but 10 former barrack buildings were converted into affordable housing by the Student Union and the SUSI project ("self-organized, independent neighbourhood initiative").
The district also has a community centre, nurseries, a primary school, cafes and restaurants, shops, and innovative businesses.
If you like, you can stay at the Green City Hotel, a plant-covered multi-storey timber-clad building. The hotel has a policy of employing people with disabilities.
All buildings aim to be as energy-efficient as possible. A passive (ultra-low energy) house was Germany's first "passive" apartment block, built in 1999. There are now over 30 passive houses in the neighbourhood. To help meet additional energy requirements, a combined heat and power (CHP) plant uses natural gas and wood to supply district heating and electricity.
One of the most striking buildings is the "Sonnenschiff" ("sun ship"). It is the first "plus energy" building in the world, combining houses, workplaces, and shops. The "Solarsiedlung" ("solar settlement") consists of 59 plus-energy houses. The Heliotrope is the world's first plus-energy house.
Plus energy? As an example, the Heliotrope produces three times more energy than it consumes. Built in 1994, it rotates to capture sunshine or shade as required.
Visionary architect Rolf Disch, who designed the plus-energy solar buildings, is passionate about their potential, describing the concept as "a quantum leap in architecture".
Their secrets are super insulation, including triple glazing, heat recovery systems, and photovoltaic (PV) panels.
Disch says 40 per cent of our energy use is spent on the construction and utilisation of buildings; hence, there is "gigantic potential" for savings and to make houses highly efficient.
"We need plus-energy settlements, plus-energy city areas, and plus-energy regions. Architects, the construction industry, investors and tenants, regulators, and authorities have a great responsibility. And with plus-energy we all have the possibility to break through into the Solar Age."
Could any of this happen in New Zealand? A few examples of co-housing and eco-conscious residential subdivisions have been built. In Christchurch, the "Breathe" eco-village completion attracted huge worldwide interest and a winner was announced; however, nothing has happened so far on the compact central city site.
The Viva Group is keen to also build an eco-village.
What scope there would have been to build a solar Vauban-like eco-neighbourhood on Christchurch's East Frame!
It would have showcased environmental technology and new approaches in design and construction to the world. Perhaps we still could have such a district – somewhere. It might not appeal to everyone, but it would certainly put us on the map. And be good for the planet, too.
- The Press