Widely regarded as Germany’s ecological capital, Freiburg im Breisgau is located in Baden-Wuerttemberg, in the Southern part of the country. This region is otherwise known as the “Germany Tuscany”, due to its sunny climate and beautiful scenery.
With a population of about 230,000 people, Freiburg has positioned itself as a Green City, with particular focus on in the areas of transportation and energy. Over the years the city has been awarded several sustainability prizes. Due to the increased popularity of this region in recent years it has actually seen it’s population growing, in stark contrast with the country’s recent demographic trends. As we shall se, this trend poses problems for the sustainability of Freiburg.
But how did a traditionally quiet and rather conservative city like Freiburg turn itself into a thriving capital of sustainability?
The answer lies in the region’s recent past, and is a combination of factors. The city has a well renowned University, providing fertile ground for a culture of sustainability and conservation. The catalyst, however, appears to have been a series of ecologically motivated protests in the 70’s against the construction of a nuclear plant nearby and chemical factory just over the French border. These events fostered an increased awareness towards green issues.
The proximity of the French nuclear plant of Fessenheim, which operates in a very densely populated region, was another factor that helped to raise concerns about nuclear power and promoted the early adoption of renewable energy.
It was also between the end of the 60’s and the beginning of the 70’s that Freiburg unveiled its first integrated traffic management plans, drastically modernizing public transport. Around this time the region also began developing its cycle path network (today a staggering 400 km long ) and converted its city center to a pedestrian area.
The year 1986 was another turning point for Freiburg. The commotion following the Chernobyl disaster reinforced opposition to nuclear power and helped the adoption of the concept of local energy supply. Freiburg, in fact, was one of the first German cities to take measures of this kind.
Politically speaking, Feiburg is still considered a Green stronghold. It is home to leading ecological institutions like the Freiburg Institute of Ecology (Freiburger Oeko-Institut), the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE), the International Solar Energy Society (ISES) as well as several companies operating in the field of solar technology.
The brilliant management of the transportation system is probably one of the most noticeable features of Freiburg for visitors. In addition to its impressive cycle path network, today the city boasts 170 km of city bus routes, which are connected to the 30 km long tramway network and the regional railway system of Baden-Wuerttemberg. Public transport is easily accessible to almost all citizens and is extremely cheap, as well as reliable.
Pedestrian areas, together with the adoption of strict speed limits, were also instrumental in reducing traffic and encouraging the use of public transport in Freiburg. In most streets the speed limit is 30km per hour and in some streets cars cannot exceed walking speed (7kms per hour). In this way, children are able to play safely in the streets.
With this favorable environment, cycling has literally boomed in the last two decades and now accounts for an amazing 28% of the city’s volume of traffic.
The suburb of Vauban is considered to be the most significant showcase of Freiburg’s commitment to sustainability. Its colorful solar powered houses are the most visible symbols of a community that proudly declared open war on harmful emissions and nuclear power.
The idea behind this project of sustainable urban design was to efficiently integrate all social and business functions into a single urban environment, saving as much space and energy as possible in the process.
Conveniently linked to the city center (just 5 minutes by public transportation, no more than 15 minutes by bike), Vauban also contributed to set new standards in energy, water consumption and reduction of waste.
Thanks to this and several other projects launched in the last twenty years, since 1992 Freiburg has been able to reduce by 14% its greenhouse gas emissions. It aims to out perform the notoriously ambitious goals set by the European Community, by reducing emissions by to 40% before 2030. This serves as a lesson to many other European cities, that, while helplessly coping with the current crisis, seem increasingly mired in the swamp of their own inertia.
At the end of our journey, as we imagine ourselves peacefully walking in the graciously rebuilt medieval center of Freiburg, we realize that Freiburg’s message was that another world, a better world IS possible and that the real comparative advantage that allowed Freiburg to reach these goals was represented by its own people. Normal people, like you and me. More food for thought.