The Noise of Humans

I'm jealous. Last week, I spent a few days in Freiburg, at the edge of the Black Forest in southern Germany.  I spent most of my time in Vauban,

a new-ish neighbourhood conceived and built by its residents in the form of building co-ops. All the housing was energy efficient (most houses were new, but some were refurbished army barracks) and some created more energy than they used, and that energy was then sold back to the grid. That's right, the owners of the homes were being paid for doing nothing but invest in solar panels.

It's also a place with restricted car use (not "car-free" like so many journalists report... shame on you, The New York Times!) - you can own a car, but officially, you're not allowed to park it outside your home.

Which means a few things: more space to live outside in, more socializing with neighbours, kids playing out on the street unsupervised, and a whole lot of quiet.

Freiburg itself has a car-free centre, like a lot of European cities. Pedestrian areas are a great idea, but they also tend to create a ring of dead space around them, where cars need to drive and trucks need to load and unload. Those roads are usually multi-laned, incredibly noisy affairs which you not only inevitably need to cross to get in and out of the pedestrian zone, but which also counteract it, and I hate them. I was staying in the car-free part of Freiburg, but I found myself retreating to Vauban every chance I could get just to sit in its silence. Its streets were the streets and silence of my childhood, where once an hour you heard a car coming and had to move off the street until the car passed (slowly, carefully, because it could see you on the street - no parked cars were blocking its view) and it was a good hour again before you had to worry about another car coming.

And I came to the conclusion that it might be better to just allow traffic in city centres, but make it unpleasant to drive there.  Because that ring of noisy, dead space makes me grumpy. You spend time in a car-free zone thinking this is great! And then you come out and come up against one of those busy streets and your (or at least my) heart sinks and you think "ugh". It's not quite good enough.

Here's the thing. The citizens of Vauban felt the same way, and they didn't know any more about politics than I do (at the time, at least - I'm sure they do now). But they fought for their vision and they stuck to their guns and I'm sure it exhausted them, but look what they got in the end: a really livable place - a place that feels like people made it,

not developers or a computer program or politicans who don't live there. A place where you can hear the noise of humans, not of machines.