‘Planning is bringing coincidence into a system’, Wulf Daseking told us, tapping his bemused neighbour on the sleeve to reinforce the point. The renowned Professor of Urbanism, and former Chief Planner for Freiburg, certainly doesn’t lack confidence in the results of a job he did for nearly thirty years and important to his success it seems is this bolshiness, an aptitude for taking risks to lead a very proactive planner department.

Professor Wulf Daseking

Prof. Wulf Daseking

Wulf began a crash course on being a city planner with three core elements: the importance of independent authorities (power), partner institutions and working with an engaged population. Political culture was key to allowing Freiburg to flourish out of the 1970’s, with the socialist party benefitting from national legislation and funding to push forwards an agenda for a world-leading city. Socially-damaging aspects were removed through not designating space for them, the developers couldn’t profit from traditional schemes and there was no opportunity for out-of-town shopping centres to suck the profits away from citizens. ‘Open public space’ he said ‘is the face of the city’ and should be preserved in both loud forms (performance, play etc.) and quiet forms (reading, thinking, talking etc.).

Freiburg is composed of five fingers of urban area projecting out from the historic centre, however the boundaries of these fingers had restrictions on growth not unlike the force that the greenbelt currently exerts on Oxford. Wulf’s team set on removing these restrictions and challenging the traditional, and safe, ways of developing. He levelled that the UK’s irrational attachment to tradition is what is stopping our cities from thriving. In Freiburg the authority captures two-thirds of the uplift in land prices when a planning application goes ahead – a factor which would make a huge difference to development in the UK.

Diminishing the car was a key element to successful Freiburg neighbourhoods (40% of Germans do not have a driving license and 40% of Freiburg use a bicycle every day). We regularly hear about the possibility for trams in Oxford at the moment but Wulf is certain that it is not possible in a city half the size of Freiburg because trams never pay for themselves – his suggestion was to make the bus system better.

Wuld recommended Malmo, Copenhagen and Tuebingen as case studies for convincing authorities back in the UK.


Rieselfeld, the first Baugruppen project in the world according to Wulf, came out of an awareness in the early 90’s that younger people wouldn’t be able to afford the high cost of developer-led property in the city. They understood that young people need to be brought into the city to make it vibrant, not relegate to the edges where they can afford it.

The solution was to allow people to build on their own plots, ‘plot by plot, another architect’ using four main focuses: (1) energy efficiency: all houses had to be Passivhaus standard (2) water-considerate schemes to avoid flooding nearby regions (3) building a social mix (third private owned/third rented/third social) and; (4) financial sustainability.

Groups had seven months from the launch of the programme to set up their Baugruppen organisations and had to contribute €5,000 to be accepted onto the programme or the land would be sold off to private developers. At this stage they didn’t require plans, just a description of intention and the ability to demonstrate that they could afford to build. Only two of the sites were allocated to developers in the end and the remaining groups were matched with architects (nine architects in total), who, along with other professionals, would be paid out of the €5000. The successful groups met with their architect and planners on a weekly basis for a 6-week period to create drawings for submission.

Social interaction in open spaces was key, with children having to be in shouting distance from their parents in green spaces. The only rules on designing the blocks were that they had to keep to their set footprint (Grundstück) and that the utilities had to enter at the same locations. The cheapest way to satisfy the fire regulations was to have the central circulation space and front door in the centre of the property – staircases and lifts are expensive.


Having shown with Rieselfeld that this type of construction was not only possible but could be very successful they began looking for their next opportunity. Shortly after, Wulf and his team travelled to a house owned by the authority up in the Black Forest. On this trip they sketched a masterplan for a new zone to the south of the city at the location of the French barracks. The idea was shelved for a number of years however in 1992 the mayor of the city met with Wulf’s planning team to tell them that the French army were intending to move out of the barracks and to ask if they had any ideas for that part of the city. The planning team urged the mayor to buy the land and finance it through the next Baugruppen project.

Wulf’s team went away to value the cost of the entire scheme, from roads to houses to schools – everything. The authority spent more on construction costs to make sure building-functions could be adapted to fit future need, for example the kindergartens were 10% more expensive so could be adapted for other uses if they became redundant (say 10-15 years in the future) and thus saving money in the long-run. They also received government subsidy for lots of aspects of the infrastructure which was subtracted from the overall cost.

Once they had an estimate the mayor went to the bank of the city of Freiburg who agreed to finance the scheme in three parts based on the success of Rieselfeld. The authority added 50% to the cost of their scheme to incorporate unforeseen expenditure such as contaminated land or market changes (Wulf recommends this for all other similar large-scale projects).

One of four previously squatted barracks

One of four previously squatted barracks

The day after the French army moved out a group squatted the barracks. After a fierce legal battle, including at one stage the squatters blocking off critical points of the city with vehicles in protest, the city agreed that they could keep four of the twenty blocks in the old barracks and a company from Switzerland bought them for low-income living. The now-legal residents turned one of the buildings into S.U.S.I, a cooperative through the organisation Mietshäuser-Syndikat. The city agreed not to bother them as long as there was no crime, drugs or prostitution in that area.

Cars were shifted to two multi-storey car parks at the two ends of the neighbourhood (one above the supermarket). On-street parking is not allowed and is self-regulated by people who live there, meaning that visitors are moved on if they stay for longer than just dropping-off, loading or offering a service. The process was similar to Rieselfeld:

  • The plots started from 190m2 to beyond 450m2.
  • There is a space ratio of 1.4 (e.g. a max. 266m2 block can be built on a 190m2 plot)
  • The open areas between streets are owned by the authority and are never sold.
  • If an owner wants to sell a plot they must have it valued by an external company authorised by Freiburg who set the price, there is no bidding.

We went for a walk around Vauban after the talk and it really is a lovely place to live 20 years on, very open and full of vegetation. It’s a common saying in Germany that the middle-class are ‘a bit muesli’ which Wulf used to describe the residents of Vauban. We are being shown around some specific homes tomorrow so I will say more about it then.

Green streets with no parking for cars

Green streets with car parking for maximum 20mins


In a different part of the city Wulf had planned to demolish a 30-storey apartment block to build four-storey street-scale bulidings, however the team argued that retrofitting would be much more energy efficient when taking in the environmental cost of the demolition. The scheme was financed by moving families into the nearby area before the refurbishment then bringing them back two years later at a very similar rent. The previous rent was €6.25/m2 with €3.80/m2 for running costs. After the refurbishment they offered the flats to the previous tenants at €9/m2 rent which was roughly comparable to living costs before due to the 95% energy savings. The cost of refurbishment was €1650/m2.

RECOMMENDATION: ‘Salt of the Earth’ by directors Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders

For a map of all the housing schemes I visited on this trip click [this link]


Baugruppen scheme in Vauban