Tübingen’s Loretto and the French Quarter: the original “City of Short Distances”

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

One of the best mixed-use new urban neighborhoods ever built, Tübingen’s French Quarter and Loretto (often referred to simply as the French Quarter), is hardly known outside Germany. While Freiburg’s Vauban and Rieselfeld have received praise in the English speaking planning literature, almost nothing has been published about the French Quarter, despite a comprehensive book in German by the planner in charge, Andreas Feldtkeller1. This is a great loss for us because it represents an outstanding model of true urbanism. I had the opportunity this fall to revisit the development for the first time in 20 years, and to talk again with Andreas Feldtkeller.

Image: Loretto. Photo credit: Manfred Grohe

Background:

When the Allies withdrew from Germany in 1993 the French barracks came back under the control of the federal government, and the City of Tübingen purchased the land in order to create the new urban neighborhood. In March 1991 the City Council clearly defined the task of redeveloping the old French military base with its parade ground and officer housing  (Loretto) and the adjacent barracks, stables and military equipment storage area (the French Quarter). The goal was: “To create a mixed-use quarter with a broad spectrum of dwelling types, work places and public institutions connected with public streetscapes that can be used for the everyday life of the residents and workers in the densely constructed buildings.”2  This was a deliberately radical rejection of the modernist planning principles of separation of functions.

Images: Loretto (left) after 1922, French Quarter (right), 1991

 

It was clear from the beginning that commercial developers would have problems with these goals. The solution was to facilitate small private building cooperatives (Baugruppen). The land, around 10 hectares, was sold to these groups at a specially low rate, with the stipulation that the ground floor facing the street must be used for a commercial, business, cultural, or social purpose. 

The earlier successful revitalization of Tübingen’s medieval city had demonstrated the importance of fully mixed-use urban fabric and traffic-reduced streets. The physical form of the medieval city, however, was inappropriate for redeveloping the military base. A more suitable inspiration was found in the mid-19thcentury Gründerzeit urban form of contiguous 4-6 story buildings with commercial uses at street level.

Image: The French Quarter. Photo credit: Manfred Grohe

Urban mix:

The fine textured, mixed-use urban fabric and complex, diverse social fabric achieved in the French Quarter and Loretto is even more impressive today than the goals were 20 years ago when construction was just beginning. Feldtkeller went beyond the most visionary planning goals of the time to insist that it was essential to include not only shops, cafes and small businesses but also small industry, craft workshops, culture, services, and professional offices. He understood that a true mixed-use with workplaces as well as commercial would reduce the number of people commuting to jobs and services outside the neighborhood. It would also reduce the trips residents would make to access these resources, placing more destinations within the 10-minute walking radius, and ensure greater diversity in the people living in the neighborhood.

To achieve this, Feldkeller insisted on zoning the whole neighborhood to allow small industry – a use generally barred from neighborhoods that include residential. He also specified that on most streets all ground floor street facades must be anything other than residential. This has resulted in a very rich diversity of street level activities. If the building owners did not need these work spaces for themselves, they were free to rent them out.  

Small building cooperatives:

Feldtkeller was convinced that the desired diversity could only be achieved by encouraging residents themselves to plan what they need, and by the City helping them develop, design and build it. To make this possible, Feldtkeller facilitated the creation of a type of very small building cooperative (“Baugruppe”) that could be composed of groups of friends, families, or associates who would design and build what they themselves needed in this new neighborhood. He was the first planner in Germany to do this. With the cooperation of the City, the small Baugruppen worked as their own developers, thus saving 15-20% on development costs. The City provided guidance and advice. Almost no developers were involved.

Each Baugruppe decided how much land they required, and worked with their own architect to achieve the individual design solution they desired. Some opted for small, modest lofts or apartments with a workshop/studio for themselves at street level. Other larger or more affluent groups decided to design more spacious multi-family homes with commercial premises at street level that could be rented out. Some groups organized themselves along principles of cooperative housing, or intergenerational housing. 

Images: Variety of building sizes, styles, materials and details

Some buildings were virtually hand crafted with natural materials, while others used prefabricated elements. This diversity in the Baugruppe membership and their goals ensured diversity of architectural expression, details, colors, and materials. 

Images: Balconies abound

A diverse population:

Students, immigrants, and low income families were accommodated by adapting the former barracks as housing. Middle income families were offered lofts and multi-room apartments in the former officers' quarters facing the parade ground. One privately funded building with a facade by the artist Frido Hohberger provides artists' housing.

Reuse of the stables and riding hall as workplaces with modest dwellings above accommodated artists and craftspeople who would otherwise have been unable to live in the city. And the opportunity for small and large Bauvereins to design the spaces they need at the price they could afford allowed many in the lower middle income level, as well as wealthier families to buy property in the city. This ensured a great diversity in the population of lifestyles, economic, social and cultural backgrounds.

Image right: Small industry - printing press.

Diversity of workplaces:

The diverse population that moved to the neighborhood brought with them a great diversity of businesses, professions and occupations. Today, there are around 130 workplaces in 65 different buildings, employing around 2,000 people. The workplaces range from social services to productive workshops and small industries, and include childcare, culture, adult education, health and social centers. The number and diversity of workplaces is quite extraordinary for a new neighborhood.

Images: Corner cafe, health food store, small industry, professional services

Image: Plan of buildings containing workplaces

Planning parameters:

A strong planning framework holds this diversity in check and ensures compatibility. Feldtkeller, using the result of a town planning competition (won by five students from Technical University Stuttgart -later on LEHEN drei Architekten und Stadtplaner Stuttgart) did not plan beforehand how large each building should be. He laid out the ground plan of streets, the footprint of buildings on each block, and the location of two entrances to the inner courtyard. He specified the maximum height, and required all buildings to be contiguous. Within these parameters each Bauverein or family could take as much horizontal building frontage as they wished, wherever the appropriate space was available. Some opted for a street front as narrow as 4 meters (13 feet), others four or five times the length. 

Green courtyards:

One of the most unique features of the French Quarter is the way the interior of each block has been designed. The streets were laid out in such a way that the blocks would be almost entirely surrounded with buildings, leaving a large internal semi-public area. This large internal area is directly accessible from all surrounding buildings, and has one or two modest entries from the streets. Balconies and roof terraces abound, each uniquely designed and decorated with plants, testifying to the presence of residents and eyes on the courtyard.

Residents of the surrounding 15 or 20 buildings were invited to work together to decide how the space should be used. Most opted for giving each building a small private garden or terrace, with the rest of the area shared communally by residents in all surrounding buildings. The City facilitated residents in achieving these goals, advising, assisting and providing some materials, trees, etc., but the responsibility lay with the collaborative efforts of the residents.

Some inner courtyards are neatly trimmed with lawns, patios, sandboxes and areas for water play. Others are wilder, with rambling creepers and wisteria enveloping the buildings, fruit trees, and improbably constructed colorful play structures. There are hand made slides, swings, imagitive climbing structures, fountains and rivulets for water play, a tiny shop, and a gazebo.

Images: Variety of inner courtyards

The intense involvement of residents themselves in designing and building their own homes, and in collaborating with neighbors to create inner courts acceptable to all meant that every resident invested a great deal of time and care in the project, joining efforts with their neighbors. This collaborative effort ensured that strong social bonds developed not only within each Bauverein, but also between all members of all Bauvereins on the block. The sense of ownership and pride in the neighborhood is strong.

Streets and public spaces:

Streets and squares were conceived not primarily as traffic arteries but as places for communication and social integration. Many workplaces and shops generate everyday patterns of activity in the street that form the basis for conversation and contact and lead to enhancement of the public realm to better accommodate this social life.

Image: Lively sidewalks

Streets are narrow, sidewalks are wide, and all buildings rise straight from the sidewalk with active street level facades surmounted by a profusion of residential balconies and terraces ensuring “eyes on the street”. Four-year-old kids can be seen making their way to Kindergarten. Elders shop or make their way to an appointment or meeting, or sit in the sun. The public spaces are inhabited, especially after school when kids choose to play out of doors.

Image right: Serendipitous conversations

 

Image right: The sidewalks belong to the municipality but are designed and cared for by the building cooperatives. 

The parade ground in the Loretto section of the French Quarter was too large to function as a public square. The City therefore decided to build over half the parade ground, which still left a substantial area to serve as a tree-shaded avenue. This is enhanced with grass, water fountains, play structures, and seating areas. 

 

Wohnstrasse:

Image: Wohnstrasse

Almost all streets within the French Quarter are “Wohnstrasse”. Traffic is permitted, and there are even some bus routes through the neighborhoods, but vehicles must travel at pedestrian speed. To encourage drivers to move slowly, the driving lane is narrow and often jogged around planters or trees.

Free-range kids:

The high residential density, eyes on the street, active facades, traffic calmed streets and interlinked green streets and play areas make an environment that is ideal for free-range kids. You see little children everywhere, on their bike, playing on swings and climbing structures, gathering up the leaves, sliding on a giant slide down the hill or engaged with water play.

Images: Free-range kids

There is a tremendous range of places for children to play - in fact the whole quarter, including inner courtyards, streets, the parade ground, uncovered stream, and adjacent hill have been recognized as places children will want to explore at different ages, and structures have been built to encourage their sense of adventure.

Images: Play structures abound: 

Reuse of old facilities:

Both development sites – Loretto and the French Quarter – contained many buildings dating from their original use as a French military base. The most sustainable and affordable building, Feldtkeller argued, was an existing building. He therefore decided to retain and adapt as many as possible, contrary to many other German cities that decided to demolish them. 

Feldkeller transformed officer housing into lofts and condos, and barracks into affordable housing for students and immigrants, with workshops, and social services at street level. The former stables along Aixerstrasse have been transformed into studio workshops, and dwellings have been constructed above.

Images: Former barracks, officers' quarters, and stables, now housing

The former riding hall has been divided into workshops and small industries, accommodating among other, a solar skylight manufacturer, a community workshop offering a variety of courses, a workshop for those with disabilities, and a small but internationally known self-powered bicycle light manufacturer, SON-Hub Dynamos.

The Panzerhalle, originally the military tank repair shed was stripped of walls and is now used by the community as a roofed area for ball games and other events, with a water-enhanced concrete climbing structure beside it. The former parade ground is now a green and inviting park shaded with tall trees and provided with a paddling pool, a play carousel, benches and stone structures. At the eastern end of the site, a stream that had been channeled into a pipe beneath the military base was brought to the surface and made accessible for children’s play.

Images: Former parade ground and Panzerhalle

Green buildings:

Wisteria, roses, grape vines and other vine-like plants are encouraged to grow up the building walls, outer stairways, and over balconies. The plants soften the streetscape, provide a constantly evolving experience, and appeal to our biophilia. Their shade also helps to cool building walls in summer; when they lose their leaves in winter the sun can warm the walls.

As part of the low-energy construction principles enacted here, more than half the buildings have been constructed with green roofs. These improve insulation and prevent rainwater runoff. All buildings in the neighborhood are heated by a district heating system, which provides the most sustainable and affordable solution.

Images: Green roofs and green walls

Parking:

A small amount of short-term parking is available on the streets, but there are no open parking lots or individual garages. Most people who own cars park them in a parking structure at the edge of the development. Public transit (bus) lines serve the neighborhood on a frequent schedule and stops are within a 5-minute walk of every home. 

Feldkeller’s original goal was to encourage all residents to participate in a car-sharing system, with cars stored in vertical automatic parking. Twenty years ago this was a very radical idea. It did not appeal to many new residents, who decided not to give up their own car. Parking is accommodated in 11 buildings around the periphery of the neighborhood. Nevertheless, car use tends to be only on weekends or for long trips. Most trips are made by foot, bike or public transit. 

Conclusion:

“In many ways, after only 20 years” as Feldtkeller says, “the French Quarter works like a city that has grown over centuries. This is due to the proximity of old and new buildings, the workplaces that thread through the whole quarter like a red ribbon, the diversity of the building forms, the relationship between the compact urban forms and green spaces, the variety and liveliness of the streets.”3

Feldkeller is justly proud of the extraordinarily diverse, creative and nourishing environment that has resulted from this careful facilitation of community engagement. If he had to do this all over again, he says, he would have reduced costs to the residents still further by instigating a community land trust, or shared equity system with long leases so that the price of property could remain affordable in perpetuity.

As it is, the value of property in Loretto and the French Quarter has increased tremendously. Living in a 10-minute neighborhood, or “City of Short Distances” where everything is within a 10-minute walk has become very popular in Germany. The French Quarter houses 6,000 residents and contains 2,000 workplaces. 

 



[1] Andreas Feldtkeller (Ed.) (2001). Staedtebau: Vielfalt und Integration. Neue Konzepte fuer den Umgang mit Stadtbrachen. Stuttgart/Muenchen: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

[2] Franzoesisches Viertel. Stadt m Wandel #15. Stadtwandel Verlag. (2015) p. 14

[3] Ibid  p. 11