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New German community models car-free living

Isabelle de Pommereau, Christian Science Monitor
FREIBURG, GERMANY – It’s pickup time at the Vauban kindergarten here at the edge of the Black Forest, but there’s not a single minivan waiting for the kids. Instead, a convoy of helmet-donning moms – bicycle trailers in tow – pedal up to the entrance.

Welcome to Germany’s best-known environmentally friendly neighborhood and a successful experiment in green urban living. The Vauban development – 2,000 new homes on a former military base 10 minutes by bike from the heart of Freiburg – has put into practice many ideas that were once dismissed as eco-fantasy but which are now moving to the center of public policy.

With gas prices well above $6 per gallon across much of the continent, Vauban is striking a chord in Western Europe as communities encourage people to be less car-dependent. Just this week, Paris unveiled a new electric tram in a bid to reduce urban pollution and traffic congestion.

“Vauban is clearly an offer for families with kids to live without cars,” says Jan Scheurer, an Australian researcher who has studied the Vauban model extensively. “It was meant to counter urban sprawl – an offer for families not to move out to the suburbs and give them the same, if better quality of life. And it is very successful.”

There are numerous incentives for Vauban’s 4,700 residents to live car-free: Carpoolers get free yearly tramway passes, while parking spots – available only in a garage at the neighborhood’s edge – go for €17,500 (US$23,000). Forty percent of residents have bought spaces, many just for the benefit of their visiting guests.

As a result, the car-ownership rate in Vauban is only 150 per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with 430 per 1,000 inhabitants in Freiburg proper.

In contrast, the US average is 640 household vehicles per 1,000 residents. But some cities – such as Davis, Calif., where 17 percent of residents commute by bike – have pioneered a car-free lifestyle that is similar to Vauban’s model.

Vauban, which is located in the southwestern part of the country, owes its existence, at least in part, to Freiburg – a university town, like Davis – that has a reputation as Germany’s ecological capital.

In the 1970s, the city became the cradle of Germany’s powerful antinuclear movement after local activists killed plans for a nuclear power station nearby. The battle brought energy-policy issues closer to the people and increased involvement in local politics. With a quarter of its people voting for the Green Party, Freiburg became a political counterweight in the conservative state of Baden-Württemberg.

At about the same time, Freiburg, a city of 216,000 people, revolutionized travel behavior. It made its medieval center more pedestrian-friendly, laid down a lattice of bike paths, and introduced a flat rate for tramways and buses.

Environmental research also became a backbone of the region’s economy, which boasts Germany’s largest solar-research center and an international center for renewable energy. Services such as installing solar panels and purifying wastewater account for 3 percent of jobs in the region, according to city figures.

…As Germany’s population ages – and shrinks – experts say Vauban’s model will become more important as officials increasingly tailor-make communities in an effort to attract citizens.

“We have fewer young people. What you need now is a good quality of life with good services, a good infrastructure for kids and older people,” says Thomas Schleifnecker, a Hannover-based urban planner.

Across Europe, similar projects are popping up. Copenhagen, for instance, maintains a fleet of bikes for public use that is financed through advertising on bicycle frames.

…As more cities follow Vauban’s example, some see its approach taking off. “Before you had pilot projects. Now it’s like a movement,” says Mr. Heck. “The idea of saving energy for our landscape is getting into the basic planning procedure of German cities.”
(20 Dec 2006)
One interesting point that I’ve not seen elsewhere. Walkable communities with good public transit are very attractive to seniors. And what is the most dramatic demographic trend in the developed world? An aging population. Japan, Europe and the U.S. are experiencing rapid growth in the numbers of seniors (though in the U.S., the trend is counter-balanced by immigration of a younger population). Thus, city planning that accounts for higher energy prices goes hand-in-hand with preparation for the boom in senior citizens. -BA

Software and Community in the Early 21st Century

Alex Steffen, World Changing
Eben Moglen, Professor of Law & Legal History at Columbia, recently delivered the single best talk I have ever heard about the meaning of free/libre/open source software and its role as both a model and a means for righting social inequalities (or, as we have put it, redistributing the future).

Moglen makes the point that in a world moving into collaborative production, the rules by which we govern the distribution of benefits from the use of ideas will have enormous implications in the lives of billions — that in a world where innovation, technological progress, and access to resources, energy and materials all flow from access to knowledge, the kind of access communities have will largely decide whether or not the people there eat:

…You can listen to his talk on audio or watch it as video. I think even people who are not all that interested in technology will fin it compelling.
(19 Dec 2006)
In contrast to many technological optimists, Eben Moglen in his talk shows an awareness that conflicts of interest will continue, pointing out how his vision of free information – despite its many benefits – could be exploited to create a dystopia. -BA

Permaculture for the Inner Landscape
(audio and video)
Peak Moment, Global Public Media
Facilitator and musician Melanie Rios believes life can be much richer after peak oil–with lighter living that gives back time and joy. She facilitates communication skills to help groups “work together to stay together.” In performances like her “Three Little Pigs Meet the Peak Oil Wolf,” she erases the boundary between audience and performer.
(7 Dec 2006)

A Natural Builder Creates an Ecovillage
(audio and video)
Peak Moment, Global Public Media
Tour an urban ecovillage on less than two acres only five minutes by bicycle from the center of Eugene, Oregon. Builder Robert Bolman uses natural materials like sensitively-harvested wood, earth and straw in the several beautiful, well-insulated, non-toxic structures surrounding the central shared gardens
(4 Dec 2006)

Suburban Renewal – One Backyard at a Time
(audio and video)
Peak Moment, Global Public Media
Jan Spencer shows his quarter-acre permaculture project transforming a typical suburban lot. Lawn and driveway were replaced with fruit and nut trees, vegetables, brambles, and native habitat, plus a 3500 gallon rainwater catchment system, a sunroom heating the house, and a small detached bungalow to increase residential density.
(4 Dec 2006)