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A Look at the Poster Child of Green, Dense Development

Vauban, Freiburg

On the southern edge of Freiburg, Germany, sits a neighbourhood with an unconventional history and impressive statistics. Home to 5,267 inhabitants and a density of 12,846 people per km² (similar to the Groningen city centre), the neighbourhood of Vauban is a prime example of sustainable urban design. With passive housing, green space supporting the regional ecology, and accessible alternative transport, Vauban’s residents can live car-free in a sustainable urban forest.

Vauban housing courts.jpg by: Payton Chung on wikimedia
The neighbourhood boasts a rich variety of plants spread over interconnected spaces designed to serve diverse functions. 
By Payton Chung from DCA, USA – Vauban housing courts, CC BY 2.0,
Luftbild von Westen der früheren Freiburger Vauban-Kaserne auf der Infotafel in Freiburg-Vauban.jpg by: Andreas Schwarzkopf on Wikimedia
The site during military use.
By Andreas Schwarzkopf – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The history of Vauban

In 1937, the site was completed as the location of barracks for the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany. In 1945, the French military occupied them until German reunification in 1992, at which point squatters occupied several of the barracks. Many of these early residents had alternative and environmentally conscious values, which laid the groundwork for the district’s future. After organising protests, the squatters successfully pressured the city into purchasing 34 out of the 38 total hectares of the site from the federal government.

Unique development

An urban design competition by the city led to the development of a master plan in 1994, intending to develop the area into a compact, walkable and carbon-neutral neighbourhood. The city saw the success of civic participation in earlier projects and supported a private organisation, Forum Vauban, to represent the current and future residents of the area. Forum Vauban especially pushed for sustainability measures, exploring energy, housing, mobility, social infrastructure and public space to facilitate their goals.


To achieve sustainable development goals, Forum Vauban secured funding from the EU and the German Environmental Foundation. As a result, they were able to consult experts and develop three district goals beyond the city’s original plans. They wanted a self-administered community centre, more sites for passive housing and a car-free district. While the first two goals were implemented, the last was met with compromise— while the area is designed to discourage car use, it is not entirely car-free.


Another aspect of the development that sets it apart is that many blocks were built by collaborating with future residents. Generally, groups would apply to build a block of apartments together and could make several design choices themselves. This streamlined the construction process, as applying to the city directly cut the need for private developers and the impact of profit-driven development. Forum Vauban also supported these groups by sharing networks, experience and information. 

Key takeaways

Vauban is a great case study for an effective citizen participation scheme, but it is also an excellent example of how densification and green space are not mutually exclusive. By following principles that promote spatial efficiency, sustainable mobility, and urban greenery, Vauban is a model for all cities embarking on neighbourhood revitalisation projects.

Satellite imagery in 1943  via Google EarthSatellite imagery in 2023  via Google Earth
Satellite imagery in 1943 vs 2023 via Google Earth
Lo Muller
Lo Muller
I'm the chief editor of Girugten, the magazine of the Faculty of Spatial Science at the University of Groningen. I eagerly joined the magazine in 2023 and have enjoyed the outlet for a different writing style compared to the academic assignments assigned to me. I am studying Human Geography and Planning and would eventually like to narrow my interests enough to specialize academically. Feel free to review what I've written below and reach out if you see value in some discourse.


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