The notion of a city form that promotes day to day human happiness relates to the ability of a city to provide a living and/or working environment that affords people time and freedom to pursue their own free time whether in a private or social manner. This is a simple statement, but it has a number of implications for urban form. A city that affords one time is one that is connected and implies a certain degree of density. A city that allows someone to engage socially is one that contains open-ended public space for organic human interaction, a diversity of uses supporting heteroscedasticity among users, and opens the door to people functioning and participating in a long-term community. Finally, just as a city needs to provide for interaction, it needs to afford privacy - this can be through clustered uses, providing ownership of smaller scale public or semi-public spaces.
Really, for a city to work well, it needs to provide for human investment and support that investment. The term human investment doesn’t mean monetary investment, though that is required, it refers to a people being able to really ‘live’ in a community, to call it their own. By focusing on self-propelled, convenient mobility strategies, a city’s amenities and infrastructure can be right-sized to the human pace of the population that city serves. What’s important about this concentration on the velocity of mobility is when you slow people down, you begin to cater toward a live-in community rather that a collection of transient auto commuters - this provides the basis for a local population and the local population will be the foundation of the city’s viability. Once an intact population emerges, the city can begin to be ‘lived in’.
Learning from Vauban
Upon visiting Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, the importance of this notion of creating a city that feels lived-in - what one of my colleagues termed “messiness” - becomes apparent. When a house feels lived in, you see that the kitchen is used daily for cooking, books and magazines are on the coffee table not just for looks but to be dog-eared, the yard is often a constant experiment in urban farming. Vauban is an entire neighborhood that feels this way.
Within the German city of Freiburg, Vauban is a somewhat experimental residential mixed use community that seems to be establishing a new development norm within the city. In terms of happiness, Vauban creates an almost campus-like atmosphere. Cars are not as far removed from the development as originally described - its a bit more like life in an old urban neighborhood where on-street parking is the only option. However, there are a significant number of streets - probably 40 percent that are organized for only a temporary car presence and otherwise are places for pedestrian livelihood.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Vauban is the organic nature of the public realm and the lived-in quality of the residential developments. Even though much of the architecture isn’t very old, a significant amount of personality has been imbued on the housing, giving it the sense of being occupied much longer than it has in reality. What this tells the casual observer is that people in Vauban have a considerable association with their place of residence, it also implies a certain social layer within the community - people aren’t just making manicured lawns to show they can keep up with the jones’, they are comfortable expressing themselves.
Less than 3 km down the road from Vauban, is the old city core of Freiburg. In form, it is perhaps even more car-free than Vauban. However, it is a more dense urban mix of retail - the kind for just buying stuff, not home goods - that needs a critical mass of population to support. Nevertheless, a combination of public squares creating contagious social interaction zones serves a use within the city as a social heart. Vauban, within its more quiet play streets and cohesive, calm residential developments provide a lower scale of almost familial or neighbor to neighbor interaction - providing social stimulus, but also privacy. Connecting everything is a strong bike network breaking down to comfortable walking spaces and a high-frequency streetcar system that makes travel between Vauban and greater Freiburg simple and creates the all-important velocity of travel that fosters social interaction.