If you’d vaguely thought that Germans had the edge when it comes to urban design, prepare yourself for a shock: they’re in a completely different league. Building reports from two award-winning schemes

Germany is generally accepted as being a few steps ahead of Britain when it comes to sustainable building. Largely because of stiffer regulations, all buildings are designed, constructed and run to use the minimum of fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources. What is less well known is that Germany applies enlightened sustainable principles to all-round urban development and regeneration. This means high-density, mixed-use, low-energy developments that put people before cars, are richly infused with greenery and put the accent on the social commonwealth rather than individual consumer interests.

Such an all-round considerate approach to development is actively encouraged at the political level, largely thanks to the strength of the Green party at all three levels of government. By enlisting the people living and working in an area, it makes for a more bottom-up, community-spirited approach to regeneration than we are used to in Britain.

John Thompson, chair of the RIBA’s Urban Design group, reckons that important lessons can be learned from the Germany, as it transcends “techno-ecotecture” to embrace “sustainable urbanism”. Over the following pages, we examine two award-winning schemes of sustainable urbanism, which Building visited as part of a study tour of southern Germany organised by Thompson’s practice, John Thompson & Partners. One is an municipal urban regeneration scheme in Tübingen, the other an irresistible private housing development on the outskirts of Stuttgart.

Garden City: Arkadien Asperg

Arkadien Asperg on the outskirts of Stuttgart can be seen as Germany’s answer to Britain’s award-winning New Hall housing development in Harlow, Essex. It is a greenfield development of 84 dwellings for sale by Strenger, a private housebuilder. Although built at the relatively high density of 60 dwellings to the hectare, it lives up to its Arcadian name with a verdant garden city ambience – complete with a babbling brook.

As designed by Joachim Eble Architekture of Tübingen, car parking is relegated to either end of the scheme next to access roads. This has allowed the bulk of the site to be given over to short rows of three-storey terrace houses, a few quasi-detached houses linked by carports and, at its centre, a four-storey block of sheltered housing above a community hall.

But it is the lush, all-enveloping greenery that is the scheme’s key feature. Modest-sized private gardens merge into richly planted communal spaces unimpeded by boundary walls, fences or hedges. And through the middle, a freshwater stream gurgles between rough boulders, yellow flags and marsh marigolds. Although it would pass for a natural pastureland stream, it is in fact the creation of water feature specialist Studio Dreiseitel, and its pump can be switched on and off by residents.

More than that, Asperg scores high on conventional green features. All the dwellings come with either gardens or generous balconies as seductive sun-traps. The four-storey block is capped by an array of photovoltaic cells. And even the stream turns out to put stormwater to good use. Little wonder, then, that the project won the German Real Estate Award in 2003.

Mixed up: Tubingen’s French Quarter

The French Quarter in the southern German university city of Tübingen has a vibrant, lived-in feel about it. Mostly four or five storeys high, the buildings come in a rich variety of forms, colours and materials. The upper storeys are apartments with generous balconies, and the ground floors are occupied by shops, cafes, kindergartens and small self-contained offices.

The buildings jostle around a wide piazza where pedestrians, cyclists towing child-buggies and unicyclists all take precedence over traffic.

The amazing thing about the French Quarter, and indeed the whole 60 ha of the Südstadt district, is that as recently as 14 years ago it was strictly out of bounds to German citizens. It was a 1930s military base that since the Second World War had been occupied by the French army – hence its name.

In 1993, after the unification of Germany, the city council took over the site with the intention of regenerating it for civilian use, and commissioned a high-density, mixed-use masterplan from Lehen Drei of Stuttgart. Its next step was to hand over several pepperpotted barrack blocks to students to relieve the city’s chronic shortage of student housing. Though driven by expediency, this set the tone for the whole project. So instead of selling off the remaining land to developers, as would happen in Britain, it was divided into small parcels and sold to groups of aspirant residents. Each group was required to form a self-build housing co-operative, raise a mortgage, commission a design and contract a builder.Within a loose design code that prescribed perimeter lines, heights and privacy, the architects were given free rein. The architectural commissions were largely taken up by fledgling practices, which responded with a stimulating variety of fresh building forms, materials and colours. Indeed, the young architects became so enthused by the project that many set up office on the ground floors of the apartment blocks they designed.Old non-residential buildings have been converted to small workshops and live–work units. An old tank shed serves as an occasional market hall, and a full complement of facilities, including nurseries, health clinic and schools, are being funded out of the land sales.The public realm is reserved for recreation and socialising rather than traffic. Cars are absorbed by neighbourhood car parks. And to add to the relaxed feel of the development, a natural stream from nearby hills has been disinterred from its culvert and now meanders freely through one of the green spaces.The French Quarter is the first section to near completion of the whole Südstadt regeneration, which won the European Prize for Urbanism in 2002, and is on track to house some 6500 people and provide jobs for another 2000 by 2015. Angela Weiskopf of the city’s regeneration department confirms that this approach to regeneration has attracted a mutually supportive mix of residents and small businesses. It has also, she adds, “been settled by a varied cross-section of the population”. In binding together such disparate peoples, activities and built forms, Tübingen’s regenerated French Quarter creates an infectiously refreshing sense of community.