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Black Forest goes green

« Urban sprawl is not just a technical or legal issue. It also reflects a deep-rooted shift in values »

It’s a real picture-postcard valley, with green fields climbing up the slopes, cows peacefully ruminating in the shade of pine trees, large farmhouses with wooden balconies decked with flowers. And in October policymakers and researchers gathered in the small town of Nordrach, in this quiet corner of Germany’s Black Forest, to discuss practical solutions to urban sprawl.

They are all involved in a novel process that draws on French and German experiments, with input from academics, and is covered by an EU research programme, Interreg IV, on the economical use of space in small localities in the Rhine valley.

The scheme was launched in 2010 and regularly brings together council leaders from both sides of the border, who have similar goals but differing concerns. « People are leaving rural localities in the Black Forest : the younger generation is moving into larger towns where they can find cinemas, friends, services, shops and jobs, » says Carsten Erhardt, the leader of the Nordrach town council.

So his key concern is to increase the appeal of the small-town centre, which runs along the valley bottom. The community centre has been given a facelift, and a new housing estate has been built with easy pedestrian access. Bringing new life to the heart of country villages seems much the most effective way of keeping residents and containing urban sprawl.

In France, the situation is rather different and local councils have to cope with rising population. The mayor of Saales, Jean Vogel, takes pride in the fact that he issues only one building permit a year. Over the last 15 years the council has refurbished public buildings and supported local shops. It has also converted the old vicarage and several empty houses for use as social housing. The district council of the Saint Amarin valley, near Mulhouse, has redeveloped a brownfield site, rather than setting it aside, as is often the case with former industrial land. The buildings and land, purchased on advantageous terms, are gradually being rehabilitated.

« In less than 10 years it has been converted into housing for 300 people, business premises for 80 small firms, with 250 jobs, a supermarket, a botanical garden and a museum, » says council leader François Tacquard.

The district council now wants to harmonise zoning plans all along the valley. In particular this involves rezoning 80 hectares of land previously earmarked for development in order to halt urban sprawl. « It’s politically risky, » Tacquard admits. « I lost votes at the last local election because I scrapped plans to build on a greenfield site in my home village. »

Local councils in France still control zoning plans, but they are under considerable pressure from local landowners eager to develop their property. On the other side of the border, in Germany, local councils have fewer powers : « There are three layers of government above us, » Erhardt explains. « They all have to agree on development plans. »

Policymakers display greater determination too : land consumption is now restricted to 100 hectares a day for the whole country, compared with 200 a day in France, and the federal government plans to lower the barrier to 30 hectares a day by 2020.

But urban sprawl is not just a technical or legal issue. It also reflects a deep-rooted shift in values, according to Patricia Zander at Strasbourg University, one of the programme co-ordinators. « Sprawl irons out the particular features of the countryside, which are in increasing demand, » Zander says.

« In an environment that seems more and more confused, people want places to meet. Detached houses are losing their appeal due to the cost of transport. To meet these changing demands we need a clear political direction, drawing on input from residents, » she says. The Interreg IV programme will be reporting its findings at the end of 2012.

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