Innovative Participation during the Development of the Vauban Sustainable District

May 9, 2022 Nina Sartor
December 13, 2021 hhage1

The Vauban Sustainable District in the City of Freiburg, used innovative forms of participatory planning to develop into a world-class sustainable neighborhood. The creation of resident stakeholder groups like “Forum Vauban” largely allowed for open and transparent participation.

Background History and Context

The Vauban Sustainable District (VSD) is located just south of downtown Freiburg, a medium-sized city in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. Freiburg is an historic university town and has a long history of environmentalism and activism. During World War II, the city was heavily bombed by allied forces, destroying much of the medieval city center. Following the war and the partition of Germany, the city’s army base in Vauban was occupied by the French military and joint NATO forces and remained under their jurisdiction until the reunification of Germany in 1990. The withdrawal of French forces in 1991 left the 41-hectare site to the German federal government (Freiburg Wirtschaft Touristik, 2013). The city of Freiburg quickly purchased the site for 20 million euros seeing the opportunity to build more housing in the growing city.

          Before the city conceptualized any plans for the site, squatters moved onto the site and occupied several of the barracks. Around the same time, two student groups from the University of Freiburg - the Student Services Department and the Independent Settlement Initiative (SUSI) - developed plans to convert the site into student housing and community housing respectively. Many other activists in the city shared the hope that Vauban could become an ecologically friendly, green energy-based, and car-free community. In 1994 a coalition of housing and environmental activists established Forum Vauban, the organization that would advocate for community interests at the decision table with the city government. That same year the city of Freiburg announced a design competition to seek out the architects, landscape architects, and transportation planners for the new district and awarded the contract to three firms based in Stuttgart. The initial plans formulated by these firms were met with resistance from Forum Vauban as the community demanded a community-run community center, a public plaza for community gatherings and farmers markets, and stricter building design to make them more energy efficient. With strong bargaining power, the city eventually met these demands, and the first new homes were built in 1998 (Ramos, 2010). 

Social Context

          The social context of Freiburg is critical to understanding the conditions that allowed for the creation of the VSD. Freiburg is considered one of the birthplaces of German Environmentalism. In the 1970s, a plan to build a nuclear power plant in the nearby village of Wyhl sparked protests from students and farmers that led to the eventual demise of any nuclear plans for the region (Meyer, 2014). At the same time, these activists recognized the shortcomings and environmental impacts of fossil fuels and urged politicians to embrace green technologies such as solar power. When the VSD entered the picture, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was fresh in the memory of residents which further spurred the push towards energy efficient homes and solar power for the new district.

          Outside of the environmental sustainability of the VSB, the embracement of co-housing is another factor that contributed to the success of the district. Major German cities have a strong tradition of renting compared to owning homes unlike in North America. For example, more than 80 percent of Berlin residents rent their homes (Euronews, 2021) compared to roughly 50 percent in Vancouver (VHI, 2017). In the 1980s Germany was experiencing a housing crisis as long waiting lists for social housing ballooned due to increased demand and limited supply. This was felt in Freiburg as in countless other cities across the country. One grassroots alternative to state-sponsored social housing was co-housing, also known as baugruppen (“organized group of private housing builders”) in German. Baugruppen first emerged in Berlin and revolved around the concept of multiple families or individuals coming together to collectively finance, purchase, and construct a building. These baugruppen are the basis of the housing in the Vauban Sustainable District as they allow for increased density, social mixing, and affordable housing.

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

Given the large scale of the Vauban Sustainable District it is understandable that it required the cooperation and collaboration of a wide variety of governmental and non-governmental entities. The two primary organizing entities were the City of Freiburg and Forum Vauban. Major supporting entities included SUSI and the Baugruppen Coordination Group. The primary funding entity was the City of Freiburg although the federal government, the European Union, and private donors also played a role.

Fig 1: from Forum Vauban; quoted in Hamiduddin/Daseking, 2014

The City of Freiburg was the governing body overseeing the Vauban project. They acquired the land with the goal of increasing housing supply in the city and made the necessary decisions from their perspective to ensure that this goal would be achieved. Within the city, two entities emerged with key roles as both the participatory planning and development phases of the project proceeded. “Project Group Vauban” was created by the city administration to be a working group for governmental staff working on the project to collaborate, exchange information, and prevent redundancies. The group was primarily run by the city’s planning staff but also featured representatives from other city offices and the state of Baden-Wütternburg’s Development Agency. The city also formed the “Vauban Committee” to serve as the venue for discussion and debate about the project. The committee was run by Freiburg’s city council and featured other city officials, namely the head of planning, as permanent members. Forum Vauban was considered an “advising member” and was the sole community representative within the committee. Decisions made by the Vauban Committee would then be put up to the city council for voting on.

Forum Vauban is an organization unique to the Vauban project and one of the reasons why it has been deemed so successful. Activists and future residents of Vauban wanted to make sure they get a stake in the decision making process as the city progressed its plans. This led to the formation of Forum Vauban in 1994 with six paid staff members to advocate for the community in meetings with the city. Initially, the group included both community members and experts to provide supporting evidence. Over time, Forum Vauban grew as more future residents wanted to get involved. By the completion of most construction in 2003 the group had over 400 members. 

Alongside Forum Vauban, many other community groups engaged in the participation process as supporting entities. One key group was SUSI, a student group, who initially attempted to take over the barracks for an independent housing collective prior to the city announcing plans for Vauban. During the creation of plans for Vauban, SUSI advocated for alternative housing to be available for low-income residents of Freiburg. In 1993 they negotiated a lease with the city to take over one of the former military barracks and save it from demolition. Instead, they renovated the building and now operate it as rental housing (Coates, 2013). As other community members began to form baugruppen and begin their own development process, they realized that a lack of information and experience was proving to be a limiting factor. While Forum Vauban provided a platform for coordination and information sharing, many groups came together to create the Baugruppen Coordination Group, a space to share ideas, experience, and advice on navigating the process of managing the construction and operation of a new building. 

The conversion of an abandoned military base to an eco-friendly residential community is an expensive process. The project was fortunate to have the seemingly unwavering support and funding from the city. This was in no doubt partially due to Freiburg’s healthy economy and liberal governance. The city initially paid approximately 17.5 million USD to acquire the land from the federal government before allocating an 85 million USD to see the project through to completion. The redevelopment agency of Baden-Württenburg contributed an additional 5 million USD for the cleaning and decontamination of the base ahead of construction. This agency was also one of the primary loan providers for the baugruppen and other housing developers as they purchased land from the City and began residential construction (Ramos, 2010).

The project benefited from having funding explicitly designated for participation. This funding amounted to approximately 1 Million USD annually with seventy percent of it coming from the LIFE program, the European Union’s funding instrument for environmental action projects. The remaining funds came from the city, the German Environmental Foundation, and private donations. A large portion of this annual funding went to paying the salaries of key Forum Vauban members as well as engaging the general populace. In 2003, the LIFE program pulled its funding and caused Forum Vauban to go bankrupt. In 2005, community members established an alternate civic organization, District Association Vauban e.V, to continue the district’s legacy of participation (Ramos, 2010).

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

Public participation in planning for Vauban was mainly focused on two channels - the involvement of/through Forum Vauban, and the engagement of prospective residents through the baugruppen development format. These two channels ensured that the public was directly engaged throughout the planning process on every level of the development of the district, from conception and initial design through to physical development, and subsequent neighbourhood representation, with different levels of control on how the Vauban community was formed.


After the French army departed from Vauban in 1992, the Freiburg city council began plans to develop the VSD. The City proceeded to purchase most of the former barracks sites from the German state to facilitate future comprehensive development, and the planning process kicked into gear with the launch of an urban planning and design competition for Vauban in 1994, with a brief to plan for a sustainable urban district.

In a sense, this spurred the increased involvement of the public within the planning process. The City of Freiburg had already planned to include public participation within the planning process, in part because SUSI squatted in one of the barracks blocks on site, subsequently receiving an official rental contract from the city (Kunze and Philipp, 9) and thereby earning a stake in the district that the City had to factor in and negotiate / plan with. However, the design brief for the planning competition was developed by the City’s planners, without significant input from the public at this juncture. This seemed to galvanise grassroots organisation efforts, with the formation of Forum Vauban also in 1994 and their subsequent formal inclusion in the planning process.

Forum Vauban

Forum Vauban was established in 1994, as a group of activists and prospective Vauban residents rallied other Freiburg residents interested in living in Vauban to form a citizen-led association. The initial group pitched their concept for Vauban as “an ecological, socially just and self-organised city quarter with lots of green space and affordable housing” (Kunze and Philipp, 2016: 16), and quickly gained a groundswell of support, as their membership increased quickly and significantly.

The funding that Forum Vauban had managed to secure from the start from the EU as well as from the German state allowed Forum Vauban to employ experts in a professional capacity to further develop their concepts for Vauban into specific policy proposals. The pairing of activism with technical and professional expertise helped to strengthen Forum Vauban’s voice and legitimacy vis-à-vis those of the city, and encouraged the city to formally assign Forum Vauban as the agency for extended public participation. Specifically, this meant that Forum Vauban was the main conduit for coordinating and incorporating input from the range of citizens and local stakeholder groups directly into the planning process, that the City would provide them with additional funding to facilitate their formal role, and that Forum Vauban could nominate a representative to the Vauban Committee for the planning and development of VSD. This representative would attend working group meetings and debate proposals and decisions on behalf of prospective residents.

The first key phase of Forum Vauban’s facilitation of public participation in the planning process took the form of visioning and technical input to the plan. While the winning proposal of the planning competition was based on the city’s initial stated goals for the district, Forum Vauban worked with the working group, technical experts and local stakeholders to better understand and refine proposals along specific aspects, including mobility, energy, open spaces and community facilities, in response to the winning proposal from architects Kolhoff and Kolhoff, landscape architects Luz and Partners, and transportation planner Hans Billinger. 

Through this process, Forum Vauban advocated for three key district goals that were not part of the City’s original brief - namely, a self-administered community centre at the heart of the district, provision of more sites for passive housing to improve the district’s energy profile, and a car-free district in line with Forum Vauban’s initial concept for VSD (Coates, 2013). Of these three, the first two were incorporated into Vauban’s final plan, while key aspects of the third were adapted into plans for a “car-light” district.

The second key phase of public participation was a sizable publicity push for Vauban. Funded by the City, Forum Vauban coordinated and carried out a major campaign aimed at sharing the district planning and design concept with Freiburg residents and attracting more prospective Vauban residents. Specific platforms used by Forum Vauban as part of this push included brochures, information stalls, public meetings, advertisements and media appearances by activists, planners and experts. Through these efforts, the Forum garnered significant interest in plans for Vauban, with around 1,500 households registering interest to move to Vauban, and this was an important aspect that contributed to popular support for key Vauban innovations (Scheurer and Newman, 2008). This outreach programme also facilitated the formation of baugruppen, leading into the next phase of development. 


Forum Vauban also worked together with the city to facilitate the formation of baugruppen. Through the outreach events that Forum Vauban held, future residents could organise with others who were like-minded or had similar needs - or indicate interest in some of the concepts proposed by design/planning professionals - and form their respective baugruppen to plan their future residences. 

The baugruppen approach was attractive to the city in a practical sense, and germane to the socially and environmentally progressive direction that Vauban was to take. Having purchased the land from the state, the city sidestepped the need to deal with private developers who would likely have increased the housing price for future residents for profit. This also meant that citizens did not have to worry about covering the costs of taxes, construction or infrastructure on their own, as all members of the groups were considered co-builders, and costs were shared with the government. There was also the benefit of future residents being able to determine what was favourable or necessary in their community spaces. 

In practice, the group formation process was as simple as groups applying for areas; however, the city had to build some groups, which generally consisted of ten or more families. The demographics of Vauban inhabitants were mostly family households with children below the age of eighteen and very few seniors. When the groups came together, they were responsible for the designs of the shared and private spaces. "Many co-building groups have realised themselves special ecological and social measures within their new homes beyond the official planning which already includes for example low energy building, public transport and keeping cars outside the district. Most individuals were intensely involved in the planning process which resulted in high identification with most of the technological decisions.” (Ornetzeder and Rohracher, 2006: 145)

Throughout the baugruppen design process, Forum Vauban provided support to the groups, by providing networking opportunities for the baugruppen to share experiences and information with each other. The Forum also helped in providing information about project financing, accounts management and other administrative tasks, and helped to represent the baugruppen’s concerns at the Vauban Committee meetings. The Forum hosted regular baugruppen coordination meetings and roundtable sessions with commercial representatives and the City (Kunze and Philipp, 2016). As a result of the process, the building groups became more of building communities, with citizens gaining a lot of power and control in the development of their residences; indeed, Forum Vauban activities led to the formation of Bürgerbau AG (Citizens’ Building Corporation), which specialised in coordination services of baugruppen projects from planning and financing to construction and move-in management (Kunze and Philipp, 2016).

Overview and Analysis of Methods and Tools Used

As mentioned earlier, the design and development of the VSD was directed by 3 main actors which included Vauban City Council, Project Group Vauban, and Forum Vauban. These actors branched into various levels of government, planning departments, citizen participation groups and cooperatives. 

This governance structure is made up of seemingly all the important stakeholders for the Vauban development. However, when describing this through each section of Fung’s Democracy Cube, we can critically understand the position and power structure of each actor. According to the “Participation Selection” arm of Fung’s Cube, Vauban engages in both “Lay Stakeholder” and “Open, targeted recruiting” types. For example, members of a baugruppen or residents involved in organizations associated with Forum Vauban must “possess requisite personal resources, such as money, disposable time, political education, or confidence” (Fung, 2006). Although we will expand on the participation process later on, it is also important to note that this project engaged in “Open, targeted recruiting” in the form of town halls and public meetings. While these opportunities may have been open to all, these strategies result in active and passive forms of recruitment that are selective but not exclusionary. 

Fig 2: Participant Selection Methods. Fung (2006)

On the second arm of Fung’s Democracy Cube, this governance structure affords more authority to Vauban City Council and Project Group Vauban than the resident associations involved in Forum Vauban. In the first few stages of this project, the governance structure allowed for a “Advise and Consult” relationship wherein ““officials preserve their authority and power but commit themselves to receiving input from participants,”. With Forum Vauban being 1 of the 3 core stakeholders, a clear path was created for power and authority in resident’s hands. After the plan completion, residents utilized a more “communicative influence” approach after finding deficiencies in the draft plan. By mobilizing public opinion and vocalizing pushback to government partners, these resident organizations were able to successfully amend key areas of concern.

Fig 3. Extent of Authority and Power. Fung (2006)

Lastly, the last arm of Fung’s Cube, “Communication and Decision Making” helps us understand the modes of communication and decision-making used by Vauban City Council and government officials to engage with residents.The majority of communication and decision making when engaging with residents was done through an “Aggregate and Bargain” process, as well as “Develop Preferences” system. The aggregate and bargain process was mainly done in Forum Vauban wherein representatives from different groups (ie. Genova Co-op, baugruppen, Association for Care-free Living) would come to the meeting with an aggregated and accepted stance to present. The bargaining would happen at council meetings in which all stakeholders would be present. However, this process is not perfect given that those in power who control the bargaining aspect can set the terms of the debate, manipulate the process, and further marginalize some community groups. 

Design Competition 

Design competitions can be used to collect and develop innovative ideas from people not generally engaged along with generating excitement. However, there can be barriers to entry (exclusive) since highly specialized skills are usually required to produce winning designs. It is generally difficult for the general public to participate unless the team of specialists explicitly solicit community engagement. 

In the case of Vauban, the City held a design competition for the proposed master plan. It took place after the City government established goals which might have been why submissions were very prescriptive. For example consider the guidelines around submissions, which requested details down to building construction systems and tree retention plans:

“All entrants were to provide a master plan for a high-density housing district that would include spaces for small businesses as well as public services infrastructure including schools, kindergartens and recreational areas. Bicycle paths and sidewalks were to be given priority over automobiles and the city’s light rail line was to be extended into the heart of the community to link the district to the city center. Environmental standards were also established by the city, requiring houses to be built to German low-energy standards or better. Building construction systems were required to be durable and of high quality. It was also decided that the district would be provided with electricity and hot water by a wood-pellet-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant. All proposals were required to preserve existing trees and other natural features including the creek run-ning at the edge of the southern boundary of the site. Finally, the designs for Vauban were required to have an ecologically based system for catching and retaining rainwater on site. Altogether, the vision was for Vauban to be developed as an ‘urban garden’.”  (Coates, 2013)

Given this level of specificity with elements already decided on by the City, there is not that much room for any creative departure from the plan that the CIty had initially drawn up for the district. 

Testing/trial-and-error learning (piloting) & Small subplots 

Pilot projects and trials can provide low stakes ways of testing methods that are not completely understood or verified. The pilot project does not require significant investment to test and will not create major problems if it is not successful since it's generally small in scale. Therefore, a concept’s feasibility can be tested and verified without creating major issues. This allows for more innovative and untested ideas to be implemented. Further, testing the concept can provide insight into the adjustments needed for larger scale implementation. Another important factor is that pilot testing can promote more gradual change which allows citizens to 

Pilot testing also provides citizens with a chance to understand potential concepts the City is planning to implement at larger scales. Citizens may be able to provide input based on the trial to inform a larger development in the future. Regardless of the level of citizen input, citizens can at least get more used to seeing a concept at a smaller scale during testing before it is implemented more broadly. 

Dividing the land and developing it with small subplots can create conditions for a range of different types of developments and nonuniformity. The smaller scale can also allow for more local citizen participation since the meetings and things will generally be smaller with less bigwigs. Further, small sub plots create favorable environments to pilot test projects.  

The Vauban development was led by atest as you go concept and division of land into small sub plots. The idea of testing concepts in small subplots and evolving plans throughout the implementation process as opposed to one-time large scale developments allowed for more lay stakeholder engagement. Citizens' ideas were more likely to be implemented with this approach since the stakes were minimized by testing a concept at a smaller scale. In addition, dividing the district into small plots facilitated development of over 40 Baugruppen projects (Coates, 2013). Overall, these two strategies created a greater voice for community members (advise/consult to direct authority depending on the case). However, citizens need to have some level of available capacity to participate. Further, it can cause the planning work to move at a slower pace. 


The baugruppen approach was developed to provide significant opportunity for lay stakeholder participation with significant authority/control in housing development. Individuals/groups of citizens can join together to become their own designer and developer. This gives citizens the opportunity to design and develop according to their long term needs rather than just investors. The process can also create a sense of community as members collaborate.

In Vauban, aided by the division of the VSD into small sub plots, the community members were able to self-organize to create group housing efforts. The baugruppen-based process assured that citizens were interactive partners with the City and, as the primary housing developers, that their participation would be real and consequential. (Coates, 2013). Therefore, citizens were able to achieve a high level of authority/control. However, while costs were shared among baugruppen members and were relatively lower compared to private developments due to the CIty’s role in acquiring the land, given the extensiveness of the project there are financial barriers that limit which citizens can participate in these types of projects. 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The development of VSD was influential in many ways. Its unique approach to public participation and citizen involvement was one of its defining features. After the release of a draft plan by Vauban City Council, Forum Vauban, one of the 3 main stakeholders, was influential in developing a counter-proposal as set out in its urban design competition parameters. In reference to the role of resident involvement, another project analysis by Scheurer and Newman (2008) writes, “It was this meticulous liaison work with prospective residents that contributed to, and eventually built the necessary popular support for, some of Vauban's most conspicuous innovations”. According to a City of Frieburg document, many of these considerations were incorporated into development plans and concerned regulations about property purchase agreements. For example, many concerns were brought up in regards to energy requirement and consumption as well as the importance of reducing vehicle traffic within the district boundaries.  

However, the creation of Forum Vauban itself was a new and innovative step in the public participation field. actively contributed to the planning phase and led to creation of Vauban’s key features. Another example of proposals made by Forum Vauban after the draft plan were developments like self administered community centers with community offices as well as locally owned restaurants. The forum's push for more substantial sustainability measures resulted in more sites for passive houses as well as the full implementation of a “car-free” district. This was done despite the statutory and legal issues that council and developers had to contend with (Coates, 2013).

Today, Vauban is pointed to as an example of a community that experienced success through the use of baugruppen. Co-housing has many societal benefits and current Vauban residents enjoy the “family-like structure” that living in a baugruppe provides (van den Berg, 2019). Research by Hamiduddin and Daseking (2014) suggests that Vauban residents felt a strong sense of belonging to their community, compared to other neighbourhoods in Freiburg. The closeness of residents, partially due to community bonding that occurred during the planning phase of the residence, now allows people to call on neighbors and share childcare and grocery shopping with each other. Additionally, by engaging with the design process of their buildings, residents share a closer connection and sense of attachment to the built environment as they helped create it. This benefits more than just the residents, as other neighborhood members can share in this improved sense of community. There are cost-saving benefits for residents as well due to the evasion of developers and speculatively constructed housing. However, concerns arise relating to the types of people who can live in baugruppen. Despite long-term cost saving, large amounts of initial equity are required to kickstart the construction process, a financial barrier for potential low- and middle-income residents. The self-selecting nature of baugruppen inhabitants can also lead to a homogeneous make-up of residents, potentially excluding newcomers or outsiders. This has been pointed to as a major barrier for diversity in Vauban and other co-housing developments across Germany and the world.

Lessons Learned and Considerations for Improving Participation Strategy

  • The political and environmental context played a major influence in creating a strong environmental and citizen participation ethic. This participation plan/process could not have been replicated without this context. The general public and city officials wanted to move away from potentially environmentally threatening technologies that require large bureaucratic governments (nuclear). 

  • Given the high level of citizen engagement including Forum Vauban, there was criticism that city officials did not uphold work on their end and shifted their duties to citizens. This could occur in other similar planning efforts where there is high participant participation and competency so the hired planners are not as strongly motivated to support the work. 

  • The City initially created goals without community input which caused the City to revisit and revise the goals later in the process. Plans then needed to be changed later on in the process to address community input when it was more costly and difficult. This is a general lesson that all Cities (or similar organizations) can learn from.

  • The trial and error mentality and use of smaller sub plots promoted more lay citizen ideas into implementation. As previously mentioned, it was easier to implement citizen suggestions on small scales since it does not require significant investment. However, piloting and the use of smaller sub plots can also draw out the timeframe for implementation and development. 

  • Engagement in public participation needs to include providing funding/compensation and support to be able to engage at a substantive (with technical backing and access to decision making bodies) level and at multiple scales. In Vauban, generally, a large portion of citizens had the time and capacity to participate in various forms of engagement. This worked in the case of Vauban since there was not large inequality among citizens but the lack of funding/compensation could be criticized in other cases and create inqueal involvement. At the same time, the provision of funding at the initial phase of Forum Vauban enabled the hiring of experts on a professional basis, which helped the Forum better communicate their ideas to prospective residents, refine their proposed concepts and attain stronger legitimacy for their plans vis-a-vis decision makers.

  • The group build developments generate limited socioeconomic representation in housing developments. Low income or financially vulnerable groups have limited capacity or funds to participate since it requires significant investment. In the case of Vauban where the population was more homogeneous, this wasn’t a major issue. However, this financial barrier can generally restrict groups from participating. Additionally, citizens need the time and expertise to be able to successfully implement group build housing developments. There needs to be a way to level the playing field so more citizens can participate in these types of projects.


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