Skip to main content

This German neighborhood has everything. Except cars.

In Vauban, ultra-low speed limits and hefty fees have made driving almost obsolete. Residents like it that way.

By Stav Dimitropoulos

Photos by Sandra Weller

Sixteen-year-old Jule Pehnt rides her bicycle to school every day and gives horseback riding lessons on a children’s farm once or twice a week. She hardly ever gets into a car. She doesn’t need to, because she lives in Vauban, a neighborhood in Freiburg, a city on the southwest edge of Germany’s Black Forest.

Vauban is a meticulously planned community built on a former military base, where the residents have agreed to bake climate consideration into every daily activity, large or small — most notably, by becoming practically car-free. “My family doesn’t use cars much. If we need a car to travel for holidays, we just rent it,” says Pehnt, who is also an activist with Fridays For Future, the Greta Thunberg-initiated, youth-led movement that aims to combat the global climate crisis.

Along the traffic-calmed main boulevard of Vauban, beside the tram tracks, run spacious sidewalks embraced by a canopy of old trees. On the edge of the residential area flows a little river; the children’s farm sits along the bank. Cozy cafes with bicycle parking dot the district center. Children play freely in the streets, which snake into playgrounds and public gardens.

“All this is possible because we have this car-free concept in our neighborhood,” says Pehnt. 

Dramatically limiting cars in Vauban required collective will and action, fueled by homeowner cooperatives, car-sharing clubs, and a culture that discourages car ownership. But it also required rules and infrastructure to make car-free living possible. The result is proof that if you are confident you can live without a car — in a way that doesn’t feel like a sacrifice — then you are more likely to do so. Pehnt, whose parents moved to Vauban in the early 2000s to be near nature, has her own explanation. Vauban’s planners, she says, “wanted to make people choose a sustainable way of living and give them the space they need. And it worked.”

In the beginning, the Vauban project felt like an allegory — an exhilarating example of darkness turned to light. The sustainable model district was built three miles south of Freiburg’s city center, on the site of a former Nazi military base, taken over after World War II by the French forces occupying the region. The city of Freiburg purchased the area from the German government in 1992. A local movement called the Self-Organized Independent Settlement Initiative, or SUSI, championed the base as a potential site for an alternative living concept. It lobbied the local municipal council to build an eco-village from the bottom up.

Today, Vauban’s 5,500 residents live in close-knit cooperatives, private households, or social housing developments that cover 99 acres. The neighborhood is a colorful and vibrant puzzle of rooftop gardens, food-sharing pantries, and co-op supermarkets, with a palpable absence of automobiles: There are only 17 cars per 100 residents, compared to 39 in Greater Freiburg and 53 in the nearby industrial metropolis of Stuttgart. And the cars that travel through town “run very, very slowly,” says Hans-Jörg Schwander, 62, a landscape gardener who was involved in a citizen group when the Vauban project was taking its baby steps. He helped to pioneer a traffic concept that began with strict limits on parking.

As SUSI activists designed their ecological neighborhood from scratch, they devised an outside-the-box way to limit cars on their streets: They required car owners to pay a hefty fee, now the equivalent of $29,600, for a single car permit. And they allowed parking — strictly and exclusively — inside two multi-story garages on the edges of the district.

“As a car driver, you could deliver goods and persons, but you could only park in front of your house for a moment,” says Schwander. “Then you have to bring your car back to the multi-story garage.”

The neighborhood is a colorful and vibrant puzzle of rooftop gardens, food-sharing pantries, and co-op supermarkets, with a palpable absence of automobiles.

Car-free residents of Vauban, meanwhile, were required to pay a one-time installment, now about $4,400, for a reserved area at the end of the district, to be used mostly for urban gardening. If car-free people later decided to acquire a car, they would have to hand over the five-figure fee for a spot in one of the garages. This arrangement deterred many from owning a car and encouraged even more to take up urban gardening.

The district also set strict rules for how fast cars could travel. The main streets in Vauban, which are only 13 feet wide, have a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour, or 19 miles per hour. But the parking-free parts of Vauban — about 75 percent of the total district — have a speed limit of 5 to 6 kilometers per hour, or 3 to 4 miles per hour — about the pace of walking. Children, cyclists, and cars share the right-of-way, Schwander says. Bikes and cars run on a “step-by-step” velocity — they have to follow the same speed limit. “Everybody has to pay attention,” Schwander says.

Sustainability weaves its way into everyday life in Vauban in many ways besides the car restrictions. All housing respects Freiburg’s strict low-energy building standards, thanks to energy produced from local wood-chip-powered heating systems. Nothing goes to waste in Vauban, not even organic waste. Residents cook with biogas, sent from a local, collective photovoltaic plant that breaks down household waste. Greywater, the water from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines, is cleaned in biofilm plants and returned to the perpetual water cycle. Concrete is also recycled. “When we first moved to Vauban, we didn’t knock down the old military buildings, because knocking down means destroying all the energy,” says Schwander. “Instead, we modernized and reconfigured them.”

Schwander has been a green activist for as long as he can remember. At 17, he participated in a massive protest that managed to shut down a nuclear power plant in Freiburg. Now, he is director of Innovation Academy, an organization in Freiburg that sets up tours and workshops on sustainable city development. He remains active in Vauban: He co-created a two-day workshop, held in 2018 in one of Vauban’s parks, that introduced the car-free concept to schoolchildren and young adults. He has also initiated projects dedicated to boosting urban horticulture and climate protection.

“I learned from a very young age that it’s important that we not wait for politicians to save us,” he says. “We all have to be active.”

Examples of people taking initiative on their own — and imagining how things could be, rather than how they are — intrigue and encourage Brian Helmuth, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University who studies the ecological impacts of climate change. “Oftentimes, we get locked into the way things operate now and mistakenly equate those with the only way forward,” Helmuth says. Vauban is a notable example of what’s possible when the consequences of our actions remain at the forefront of people’s minds, he continues.

That said, it is not guaranteed that the Vauban model could work everywhere in the world, Helmuth says — particularly in societies such as the United States, where the culture is built around individualism.

“We see the culture wars going on in the U.S. as the population reacts violently to the idea that some approach to the world will be imposed on them,” Helmuth says.

So to duplicate a collective endeavor like Vauban, Helmuth thinks, you have to be a tad more inventive, to come up with tools to avoid pushback. For instance, if you want to promote the idea of having car-free areas, you need to find a way to divorce that policy from politics and offer it as a series of choices.

Even the growing appeal of climate-friendly living could pose a challenge to Vauban. As the district’s profile rises, it faces the specter of gentrification — and subsequent rising property prices that could displace its original residents or limit its diversity. “How do you prevent gentrification from happening when there’s a growing recognition of the importance of green spaces?” asks Helmuth. In Vauban, the number of U.S. students coming to stay for a while (or longer) has been on the rise lately, an effect of Freiburg’s historic charm and reputable university, but also of its rising reputation as a cradle of eco-progressiveness.

Valerie Breteau, 54, a transplant to Freiburg who grew up in France, moved to Vauban in 2005 and now works as a sustainability expert at Innovation Academy. She cofounded Sonnenhof, a mixed-use community in Vauban made up of an office block and 30 dwelling units, where elders, single parents with their children, and residents with dementia cohabitate.

Breteau starts her days ceremoniously, with a generous portion of vollkornbrot, the authentic German whole-grain bread. She then heads to the quartiersladen — Vauban’s organic grocery store, run via co-op membership. She says she’s proud of how Vauban is now praised across the world as a successful ecological and social community, creative from the bottom up. Even outside a place like Vauban, she notes, anyone can choose to act every day with the climate in mind.

“Every single person can ask themselves: Do I really have to fly there?” says Breteau. “Do I really have to go by car?”

Published on

Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Greece. She has written for the BBC, National Geographic, Nature, Scientific American, Science, Runner’s World, Popular Mechanics, Inverse, and The Sunday Times.

First Word

Broaden your bookshelf

Northeastern University professors recommend books that inform today’s conversations about identity.