Tuesday, 4 November 2008

A settlement pattern: Esslingen am Neckar

Updated (see end of post)

I’ve been to Germany for ten days, the first time after five years, staying at the place where I lived from my pre to late teens.

I don't know whether it's the fact that I'm getting older, or whether it's this time where recession and banks are a recurring subject here and there, or that I’d observed the building boom in Ireland inflating and finally bursting, that drew my attention more than during and after earlier visits to the character and features of the city where I once lived. I kept thinking about this city, and I feel urged to write about it. I actually lived in the village of Berkheim then, but this has since been incorporated into the city of Esslingen am Neckar in Baden Wuerttemberg.

Esslingen am Neckar is located in a “Ballungsraum” (= packed area) and is the second largest city there after Stuttgart, the capital of Baden Wuerttemberg, situated only 10 km from this. It's old centre is in the Neckar valley, but it has long grown up the slopes and into the surrounding area. It had 91.557 inhabitants in March this year, in an area of 46,43 square kilometres. For comparison: Co. Leitrim, where I now live, has appr. 29.000 inhabitants in an area of 1.876 square kilometres.

Now, here is a view from the balcony where I stayed:

This shocked and disturbed me first. It was not quite like this at my last visit. When I moved to this place as a child, it was to a small area newly zoned for mixed residential and industrial development. There was nothing but arable fields, allotments and orchards around. Then at some stage a large road was built at the end of our garden, as well as the first factory building. I remember that I was not pleased about it then. Yet I later worked there twice during my school holidays. Piece work was done that time. According to their website "Festo is a worldwide leading supplier of pneumatic and electrical automation technology. The globally aligned, independent family enterprise with headquarters in Esslingen, Germany, has evolved into a performance leader within its respective industry over a period of 50 years."
My disturbance is now mixed with fascination however. The company is not foreign, but indigenous. It employs approximately 2000 people at this location. I can see that its existence there makes sense.

Here are some pictures of the representative side of the complex.

The buildings have various features to minimise their environmental impact. The following sounds all impressive at least.

This website tells us the following about the building:

"Objectives for the new company Festo Pneumatic were a high degree of flexibility, an ecological and energy optimization, associated with a resource-saving house technique, as well as the use of pneumatic solutions. Even the communication of the employees should be encouraged, through short distances between the different areas. The result is an exciting and technically innovative buildings at the same time, which offers about 33,900 sqm gross area for the employees. The new building is similar in layout of a hand with six fingers. The 'gaps' form five courtyards with outdoor and garden areas. In these atria are galleries, cafes and event zones. Air was used as building material and so pneumatic roofs span the courtyards. The transparent building with a high proportion of glass meets the requirements of a low enertgy building. The low energy consumption of the building is based on the use of geothermal, solar heat gain and use of process heat from the production sites."

The solarserver says that "the world’s largest solar thermal vacuum tube collector system provides power for the largest adsorption cooling system worldwide" there.

According to this it further got the "green roof of the year award" from a German green building association.

I don’t know how many spaces the car park building has, and what percentage of employees travel by car. The company intends to expand further onto this field and adjacent allotments):

This will be a case where green space will have to go. In the vicinity of these monstrous industrial buildings, that have several storeys below ground - so I was told - and indeed everywhere between the densely built up and populated areas of this region there is free space, consisting of arable fields, allotments, forests, vineyards and “Streuobstwiesen” (orchards).

No one is allowed to build there, unless it is necessary to open up new areas for specific uses. These are always adjacent to the already existing built up areas, which in most cases have grown around old village and town centres. This has led to visible historic and spatial continuity and connectivity. Residential areas have individual character, they do not look the same everywhere, and are mainly of two types: low and medium rise buildings. Because space is scarce, building sites are dear. People with less money buy or rent flats or Reihenhaeuser (terraced houses) rather than build single houses (Einfamilienhaeuser = one family homes). These have nothing in common with Irish one off houses, but are also close to each other with small gardens, and in most cases individually designed. Residential built up areas are accessible by car and by foot to walk through. Through this orderly development over time, and the connectivity and closeness with the existing and older settlement, the various parts of Esslingen still have village character.

There are strategic roads linking these "villages". New industrial and retail buildings are usually located near these at the outskirts of built up areas, but where they interfere least with green spaces. These green spaces are either only accessible by foot, or, where they consist of agricultural land, only landowners have the right to access them by car. Forest paths and small roads in the arable areas are intensively used for recreational walks, especially at weekends.

Here are a few pictures taken within a kilometre from where I stayed:

A stretch of the Neckar and power station visible at the back:

Around Esslingen are larger areas of green spaces. There are agricultural fields on the “Filder”, vineyards and Streuobstwiesen at the slopes of the Neckar valley, and a large forest area (Schurwald).

picture: www.fernweh.com

On the other side of the Schurwald is the Remstal (Rems valley) where I lived before I moved to Ireland, at the foot of this hill:

picture: www.photohomepage.de

The nearest town there, smaller and already more provincial than Esslingen, is Schorndorf, the birthplace of Gottlieb Daimler, which you see here:

Further afield the landscape becomes less populated and there are rural areas with small villages only. But nowhere will one find residential one off houses, apart from established farm houses which are also often clustered. No one over there would even think of building a house “wherever he wants” in green areas or in the country side.

The city of Esslingen is part of the Landkreis Esslingen, which is a larger administerial area comprising several more towns and their areas. The Landkreis Esslingen has an area of 641 squaremiles and 514 500 inhabitants. Of this area

152,83 km² are built up, this includes roads
191,10 km² are agricultural land
186,49 km² are forests
6,17 km² are water
22,42 km² are nature reserves (3.5 %)
92,42 km² are water protection areas (14.4%)
284,30 km² are landscape protection areas (44.3%)

From its beginnings Esslingen was a trade and industrial centre. Like in Schorndorf, many old mediaval buildings of Esslingen were already medium rise. The old town centre is very beautiful and alive. Here are some pictures of it.

The Alte Rathaus (old council house):

and its older back facade with the "Swabian Man" formed by the timber joists and beams, reaching up his arms:

The main market place with vineyards in background:

The Kielmeyer house used to be home to the wine presses of the important St. Catherine’s Hospital:

One of the small streets and places in the old town:

One of the oldest "Fachwerkhaeuser" in Germany, built between 1328 und 1331 :

The Kessler house, currently home to one of Germany's oldest wine cellars for sparkling wine

This is called Klein Venedig (Small Venice) by locals:

The new Neckar Forum, a culture and convention centre just adjacent to the old part of the city, with the"castle" wall and towers in the background.

Here is a little tour around the old town (in English) with more info.

I felt a great sense of place, community and belonging in Esslingen during my visit. This also becomes evident in the variety of cultural and community events. I personally particularly miss the festivals held in town and village centres, and even in vineyards, and the good and “gemuetliche” gastronomy.

A lot of community activity is organised by volunteers, members of various “Vereine” - a special form of voluntary community organisations - which cover all sorts of activities from sports, music, culture, heritage, nature to care. Interestingly forty unsalaried councillors are elected for a term of five years into Esslingen's district council, which represents the citizens. Over and above this is the Lord Mayor, who is both the head of the district council and a voting member.

Social infrastructure such as schools, nursery homes, kinder gardens, play grounds, seem good and imaginative.

Certainly not all can be perfect there. But it is amazing what has been achieved in such a densely populated industrial city. This could only happen with good planning, and by working with and for the community, by realising the various functions of the city for its people and businesses and by creating over time a settlement that corresponds well to these, whilst estimating, preserving and fostering the towns heritage, the historical and traditional manifestations of functions and activities of earlier times, and carrying some of them through to the present day, at the same time caring for and aiming to preserve the natural environment for its intrinsic and recreational value, such as for example the preservation of the orchards.

One of the early activities and functions of this area is still very much alive: Producing and trading food and wine. This, and consuming it, is indeed part of most of the festivals, such as the onion festival. Apart from trading stands, craft stands, activities for kids, music, flea markets etc. there is always cold and hot local food and drink, which you can enjoy sitting together with others around tables in the streets. You can guess that there is no alcoholphobia, nor is binge drinking common. The Swabians call drinking wine "Viertele schlotzen". Schlotzen is also the word for the way you eat icecream or a lolly, slowly and with pleasure.

I can’t finish without this story:

"The people of Esslingen got the nickname "Onions", or "Little Onions", from an old folk tale. The story goes that, in the Middle Ages, a market-woman tricked the devil into leaving Esslingen. The prince of hell had demanded an apple, but the cunning market-woman gave him an onion instead. The devil took a bite, cried out and spat: "You mean these are apples?! You people of Esslingen are ridiculous! These are onions, sharp-tasting onions. Therefore, from now on you should no longer be known as citizens of Esslingen but as ‘onions’!"

Please find more info about Esslingen here (English).

I wish to add info about the proposed new Festo buildings and a great picture of the area which I found here.

First the picture:
Picture by Wagahai

The picture is funny in that it makes the area appear flat, as the step down into the Neckar valley is not visible from this perspective. To the left is part of Nellingen, to the right part of Berkheim. Behind Festo is Zollberg, one of the new settlements created at a time of huge population growth. Esslingen had for example an influx of 15000 people from the former German territories after World War Second. I'm a descendent of these by the way.
Here is the new Festo proposal, the location is not wholly visible, would be more to the medium right in the above picture.:

Copyright: gmp Architects

The fact that Streuobstwiesen are "picturesquely" used here trying to ameliorate the impact of the proposal with its 10 storey tower does not achieve to hide it. The company finally aims to employ a further 2800 people there, and the proposal is hailed as a perfect solution. It is said that the foot and bycicle traffic, mainly by students, between Berkheim and Zollberg will not be affected. This sounds ironical to me. A solution for car access to the new complex seems still to be unclear. Whether the proposal will go ahead seems to depend on the new regional development plan, and probably also on the worldwide economic development? The regional plan as far as I understand intends to concentrate these kinds of developments near the airport, where it would seem more appropriate. It is said that Festo has threatened to move to China if it cannot build here.
IMHO this proposal will break the pattern.

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