English | EspañolVauban housing courts by Payton Chung, on Flickr

   Photo by Payton Chung 

A year ago, I claimed in this blog that local action can help create the diversity of approaches that we need to overcome the challenges of a changing climate. So it is about time now to provide some evidence for how such innovation can thrive in cities.[1] While there might be many examples for transformational activities in an urban context, let’s focus for the time being on initiatives that originated from the most important group of people in a city: its citizens.

The Vauban neighborhood in the German city of Freiburg is the result of such an initiative. What used to be the site of a French military base is now, with more than 5,000 residents, the largest eco-community in the country. When the French vacated the base in 1992, citizen groups formed and pressed the city council to make the structures available for housing projects based on communal and eco-friendly living. The Forum Vauban was founded as an association of citizens managing the renovation of the neighborhood and leading the dialogue with city authorities. The Forum overcame resistance by local officials and applied unconventional energy and mobility concepts. Today, Vauban is not only an interesting experiment for urban planners and engineers, but also one of the region’s major tourist attractions.

All new buildings in Vauban follow low energy standards with an energy consumption of not more than 65 kilowatt hours per year for each square meter of floor space (average homes are estimated to use more than three times as much energy). Many are passive houses and some are even energy-plus-houses, producing more energy than they use and thus providing additional revenue to their owners. Solar energy and other “clean” technologies are widely used for generating electricity and providing hot water.

Vauban also has an exceptional mobility concept. Walking and cycling are the major modes of transportation. A tramway and buses allow residents to easily travel to other parts of the city. Following their desire for quiet and children-friendly streets, the neighborhood highly restricts the use of cars within its approximately 40 hectares. Even though sufficient parking space for each housing unit was mandatory by law, residents dodged this requirement by reserving a lot of land for a parking deck but never actually building it. The few residents who do own a car must purchase a space in a parking deck outside the neighborhood for the considerable sum of approximately $24,000.

While Vauban’s story is a success in terms of sustainability and citizen participation, there are some caveats. As living in Vauban is a decision in favor of a certain way of life, it is hardly surprising that most residents share a similar socio-economic background. They are academics with families and a strong inclination towards post-materialistic values. This is also reflected in voting behavior – in the 2011 state elections, more than 70% of Vauban’s voters supported Germany’s Green Party. Furthermore, given the attractiveness of the neighborhood, rents have soared in recent years, making it difficult for citizens with lower incomes to live there. Vauban is therefore far from a city planners’ ideal of creating diverse neighborhoods. Also, although resistance from local officials might have been strong at times, residents could tap into government subsidies when implementing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other measures.

Nevertheless, Vauban is a successful example of how citizens have taken responsibility for shaping their neighborhood according to their needs and beliefs. Residents demonstrated creativity in dealing with red tape, ambition, endurance, and a do-it-yourself mentality. Contemplating the relevance of this story for Latin America and the Caribbean, two questions come to mind that certainly deserve further attention:

  1. What examples exist for initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean where citizens took responsibility for making their community more sustainable? While the story of Vauban is about reducing the environmental footprint of a neighborhood, citizen action can also be crucial for reducing a community’s vulnerability to environmental hazards and the negative effects of climate change, especially in the context of disaster risk mitigation and emergency preparedness.
  2. What can local governments do to encourage citizen action? Acknowledging the role of citizens in promoting sustainable development, many countries have expressed their support for fostering civil society participation on the local level (see, for example, the Agenda 21 that was adopted at the Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro). It would be interesting to learn what measures cities have taken to get their citizens involved.

Strengthening civil society in cities is also one of the principles that the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative builds upon. Maybe the story of Vauban holds lessons that can be applied in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Not only groups of citizens but also individuals can make a difference. These links provide examples for concrete actions that citizens can take to reduce their environmental footprint by reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

C40 Cities

United States Environmental Protection Agency

Mexican Secretaría de medio ambiente y recursos naturales

Inuambiental Chile


[1] If you would like to learn more about why innovation thrives in cities, you might find this article on recent MIT findings interesting which claims that the greater opportunity for face-to-face interaction in urban settings boosts productivity.