Freiburg – the grass is always greener

February 13, 2008

I had the delightful experience of welcoming in the New Year in Freiburg. Freiburg im Breisgau to give it its full title is a charming medieval university city located on the edge of the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) region in the southern most corner of Germany close by to France and Switzerland. For many the region region conjures up traditional images of mountains, woods and cake (the dessert of choice for many a 1970’s dinner party!). For me this stereotypical image does not ring true due to its progressive newly developed sustainable suburbs.

This area of Germany stands apart from others because of its credentials as an eco-city, and I can certainly vouch for Frieburgers’ obsession with both recycling and cycling! But the city’s green qualifications surpass these basic principles. Its politics are firmly entrenched in environmentally responsible activities and policies, the origins of which are generally attributed to be the mobilisation of farmers, students and citizens to protest against the building of a nuclear power station in the region during the 1970’s; objections reinforced by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. This movement laid the foundations for active citizen involvement in Environmental politics. The result was a resolve to ensure that contemporary planning and decision-making have an emphasis on sustainability. These policies can be seen in fruition in two new suburban developments which have been built in Vauban and Rieselfeld.

It is in one of these districts where I had the pleasure of spending my new year with some ‘friendly locals’. The Vauban district, a former French barracks in the south of the city, is a remarkable example of what can be achieved by motivated grass-root organisations, a supportive planning framework and an engaged city administration working alongside one another. It seems a far cry from the south-east London suburb were I live. In Freiburg this youthful suburban development has been growing since 1993 and in that time has become home to over 5000 people. The area is not simply a residential quarter and hosts an increasing number of businesses. What makes the district interesting is the aim of the planning project “to implement a city district in a co-operative, participatory way which met ecological, social, economical and cultural requirements” (Vaban.de, 2008). On the basis of this scheme, a number of key environmental, social and economic objectives for the suburb were identified the suburb contains a mix of residential, business, schools and neighbourhood centres.

My first impression of the Vauban district was that it was more peaceful, cleaner, healthier and exceedingly greener than my suburban neighbourhood in London. The almost total absence of cars on the roads, which seemed very well connected, stimulated a social space which was vibrant and actively used by children and adults alike. This was a refreshing change compared to the roads I am familiar with, which are first and foremost the domain of the car owner, and certainly do not encourage or provide a safe environment for social activity. I later discovered priority is given to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport and privileges are awarded for car-free living. Indeed driving within the suburb, with the exception of dropping things off, is prohibited. A parking garage is provided at the edge of the suburb for those who do have a car. Reversing the normal priority given to car over pedestrian-cyclist created an excellent environment for generating social activities together with space for cultural activities. What stood out to me was the ease within which one could move around the local neighbourhood and the larger scale city.

Also distinct within the neighbourhood was the quantity of solar panels on the roofs. Each building was distinctive, colourful and the architectural style is heterogeneous. Furthermore, inside the buildings there was an absence of central heating but I did not feel the cold because of ‘passive heating’ whereby insulation, solar gain and the internal fabric of buildings maintain heat even during the mid-winter. Whilst having been to Freiburg many times, the experience of staying in an eco-suburb left me wishing there were suburbs like this in London. There are a few such eco-towns in the UK and Gordon Brown has expressed a desire to build 5 more, and of course there is the BedZED development in the south, but there is much to learn from the fully integrated success seen in Freiburg.

Vauban District  - Freiburg

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