When I arrived at my Airbnb in the heart of Vauban, I asked my host what it was like to live there. He called it a ‘tofu ghetto’ – a monoculture of wealthy, white middle class academics – not what I expected at all!
He knew it was a great place to raise a family, but he was concerned his kids would not be raised surrounded be different languages, experiences and points of view (he is from Venezuela).
Vauban does a lot of things right. Most famous is the implementation of alternative transport options from the commencement of the development, with light rail was built through the centre of the district as the first of its 5500 residents moved in.
My tour guide Steffan described the history of citizen activism that made Vauban the exemplar community it is today. Through a series of protests and interventions, the community successfully made the case to use the government owned land to create a community they wanted to live in, rather than what developers wanted to build. And the result is outstanding.
About 60% of the development area is car free. Three multi-story community car parks are on the edge of the neighbourhood, available for residents in the car free zone to purchase bays. Interestingly they were required to provide space for the legal minimum required car bays per dwelling, but they didn’t need to build it all until the demand matched. An area of land was set aside for the fourth multi-story car park, it is a point of pride within the community that demand for the additional car park has not occurred, and instead a community garden occupies its place.
One thing I didn’t know about Vauban is that about half of the development area was built through Baugruppen, housing designed and developed by the residents who will live there rather than commercial developers. It makes a real difference to the streetscape and you can tell the Baugruppen developments from the commercial developments because they are a much higher quality of both design, materials, functionality and performance.
Most Baugruppen included solar power, passive design and other useful innovations. For example: one had a co-working space on the second floor for residents of the building who work from home to have an office outside the home; one had a ‘guest apartment’ visitors plus a function room that residents could book for a small fee; many had communal gardens with a play area for kids, with an emphasis on nature play.
A network of paths and walkways weave throughout the district, most exclude cars, others are shared streets with a 30km speed limit. As a result people primarily walk or ride within the area, kids play on the street and there is a sense of community, safety and friendliness. The streets are quiet apart from the sound of kids playing and bikes are everywhere.
Social interventions through community housing developments have sought to address essential needs within the community. For example: a development includes assisted living for people with dementia – so they can live safely with support within a community; a development for families who have a child with a severe disability – with the ability for that child to transition to onsite semi-independent living as an adult, enabling independence and reassurance.
There are kindergartens built into developments, small businesses, yoga studio’s, art studios and offices, plus cafes, a mini-supermarket and even a community canteen that serves low cost lunches with an aim to build connection within the community.
A community housing organisation uses three of the original large French military buildings to provide student housing and affordable housing. Each floor is converted into large apartments with up to 10 bedrooms with ensuites, with a shared kitchen, laundry and social space. Around these buildings a tiny house community has evolved.
People live in parked caravans and trucks, converted rail carriages and quirky tiny timber cottages. A vibrant community life exists with outdoor seating and play areas and live music and meals into the night. Definitely the more radical element and I’m not sure how the immediate neighbours felt about it… It did make me query my hosts’ criticism.
Social diversity is a more deliberate feature in the development at nearby Risefeld. For example, the retrofit of a 16-story public housing development allowed for a trial to try to improve social cohesion in public housing. The authority engaged the future residents early in the process to give them a say on the specifics of the housing they would receive. Residents could state their preference to face north/south/east/west, what size and configuration the apartment would be and how it would be decorated. Importantly, a ‘speed dating’ event took place, at which future residents met each other to work out who wanted to live with who, people who got along were grouped on the same floor. Empowering residents created a sense of ownership and goodwill, the success means this process has been replicated elsewhere.
While Riselfeld may have achieved greater diversity, the atmosphere of the place is far more stark, less inviting and more functional. Vauban feels vibrant, has better architecture, better street network, less car dominance, more green space and feels safer compared to Riselfeld.
This is at least in part due to the lack of citizen intervention in the design of the development, it may also be due to the developer prominence in Riselfeld rather than Baugruppen (owner-built) developments in Vauban.
In Fremantle, we have seen great outcomes from citizen intervention in the WGV development.
The result is our very own world-class demonstration project that promises a high quality of 21st century living. However it is at risk of being a ‘tofu ghetto’ due to a limited degree of diversity of housing stock or social intervention. Apart from the Gen Y home and SHAC, the majority of properties for sale at WGV are family sized homes that cost well over $600,000.
An excellent opportunity lies with the development sites at Knutsford Street and the Council Depot.
A rep from Landcorp, the proponents of the development area, said they consider Knutsford St as an opportunity for “WGV on steroids”. I am keen to hold them to this statement.
Freo people are good at community activism, so I propose that we get active on creating our own version of utopia at Knutsford st, but let’s make sure we avoid making it a ‘tofu ghetto’.