Oozing green in Freiburg

We “landed” at Yvonne’s aunt and uncle’s fabulous farm in Denmark a few days back after our longest cycling days of the trip. Our days have been more relaxed of recent. Our bicycles were sold yesterday and we are off to Iceland this Sunday. Yvonne’s mom Betty joined us at the farm and will travel with us through Iceland. We arrive back in Canada June 21st, in time for Kaia to attend her graduation. Yes, clearly that’s a bit cheeky 🙂 It really does feel like we’re coming home, now. Bittersweet for sure.

You will find what is perhaps my most ambitious blog entry of the year below. If you don’t know me well, you will see below that I am passionate about sustainable energy, transportation and urban planning. That is my excuse for the detailed entry. People have from time to time asked us about the intent of this blog. There are many intents. The driving motivation behind this entry however is to share with anyone who is willing to read, the exceptional leadership shown by Freiburg. We, especially in North America, have SO much to learn from cities like Freiburg if we hope to divest ourselves from fossil fuels as politicians around the world are now (and finally) agreeing with scientists that we must do.
Cam

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For those who follow clean tech (green energy, electric cars, etc) and sustainable urban design, Freiburg Germany is rather iconic.  It has entire neighborhoods that are energy producers, and it is home to solar module manufacturing and extensive solar PV research. Cycle and transit use is very high.  This was an obvious destination for our cycle tour, and we were pleased to learn that it was beside the Black Forest which we had also been looking forward to visiting.  Also enticing was the city’s well known old time charm; it was founded in the year 1120 and boasts numerous walking streets.  Although heavily bombed in WWII, the city has rebuilt the downtown core and instead of widening streets for cars, many downtown streets were built just wide enough for trams, bikes and pedestrians.

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A little bit of history is very helpful to understand how this city of 200,000 has progressed so far environmentally.  During the 1970s, a nuclear reactor was proposed about 20km outside of the city.  Germany, like much of the world in the 1970s, was waking up to the bleak global environmental reality, and in particular to the challenges of nuclear power.  A huge public outcry over the reactor took hold in Freiburg and was ultimately successful in stopping it’s construction. 

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Images courtesy of the Innovation Academy

Perhaps even more important than the actual prevention of the reactor though was the political coming of age of Freiburg’s citizenry.  They had discovered their voice, and there was no turning back.  Politicians in Freiburg know now that they must listen to their constituents. Freiburg is what it is because of strong and ongoing grassroots interest.  And because of its very progressive Green Party mayor who has been elected to a second 8 year term.  Alas, democracy is alive and mostly well in Freiburg.  I say this with more than a little envy and resentment after watching just the opposite sort of political (un)accountability unfold in my home town of Peterborough in past years.

The movement away from nuclear energy forced Freiburg residents to answer the “if not nuke then what?” question head-on, and in doing so their commitment to renewable energy  and energy efficiency was born.  Years later, acid rain in the Black Forest from coal produced electricity production and growing concern about climate change strengthened their resolve.  Then along came the national government’s very aggressive green energy policies of the early 2000s and solar power exploded in Freiburg.

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courtesy Innovation Academy

We were very lucky to have connected with some Warm Showers hosts in Freiburg.  Upon arrival in town we immediately cycled over to Peter and Sabina’s flat.  Peter is a transplanted Brit who has traveled the world many times over as a publisher of English as second language learning resources.  His partner Sabina was born in Bremen Germany but grew up in California and now teaches English at the University in Freiburg.  They’ve been in Freiburg for about 5 years now, and open their home to passing cycle tourists through the warm showers network.  Peter gave us a fantastic walking tour of the nearby neighbourhoods.  He understood our particular interest in sustainable urban design so was able to illuminate some fantastic stories that have unfolded in Freiburg.

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This house just down the street was built a few decades ago with a goal of becoming energy neutral. Most solar PV is fixed to rooftops. Some PV panels in fields are mounted on "trackers" that move to follow the sun through the day and the seasons. This house actually rotates to follow the sun! Perhaps it isn't the ultimate solution for residential energy, but certainly is a clear indication of the culture of innovation in Freiburg.
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This "Heliotrope" is a more modern Freiburg version of the house above and is in fact a net energy producer.
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Next to the rotating house is this one - with solar thermal (hot water) and solar PV (electricity). This rooftop was a common sight.

We walked through the district of Vauban which was built in the 1990s on old military barack land.  This area features 3 story blocks of flats that share ample green spaces in lieu of private yards. 

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This shared green space features of all things a wood-fired bread oven!

Cars are not allowed in the neighbourhood. Instead, there are parking garages in the surrounding areas.  But because Vauban is directly connected to town with a frequent tram line, and because Freiburg’s cycling infrastructure is so well developed, most Vauban residents (many with families) choose not to purchase cars.  In fact, car ownership (per capita) is only half of the German average.

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The tram runs right through the center of Vauban
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Cars from the city's car sharing program (stadtmobile - "citycar") are allowed to park in Vauban and are well used. Proponents of the car share program are aware that a very large portion of a car's carbon footprint stems from the materials and energy from manufacture, so reducing the number of cars being used is important. Members of the carshare program are given free transit passes and half price tickets on intercity trains.
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While Canadian cities are just starting to get their heads around car sharing, Freiburg is promoting their "E-car" sharing program. Ha!
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This is the scene in front of one of the Vauban kindergarten/daycares. I think the parked "vehicles" speak volumes.
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This school bus holds about 6 little kids.
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The local public school. Green roof over a very well used bike/scooter shelter. Not bad!

Many of the rooftops in Vauban were covered with solar panels (thermal and PV) and most of the neighbourhood buildings get their heat and electricity from a biomass-fed combined heat and power plant.  This approach of using the “waste” heat from electricity production produces fantastic efficiency results.

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Vauban combined heat and power (electricity) plant. It uses 80% wood chips and 20% natural gas. Heat from the plant is carried underground to the buildings; individual buildings do not have their own furnaces. Photo from the net.

Peter emphasized that Vauban’s sustainable approaches did not happen overnight.  Instead the moves forward underwent extensive and rancorous debate and ultimate compromise between different views and interests.  But importantly the citizens had a meaningful voice throughout.

Adjacent to Vauban is the “Solar Settlement” and Peter toured us through this neighbourhood too.  This community generates more electricity than it uses, and the rooftops in the photos below leave no doubt about how this is accomplished.

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This commercial area is also energy positive. Just as importantly, it demonstrates the compact, mixed us design where residential, retail and commercial land uses are mixed to minimize the need for transportation.

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You can see the commercial/retail (in front) located adjacent the residential (behind). From the net.

One of Peter’s passions is wine.  Perhaps the Brits are not well known for their distinguishing tastes of fine wine, but Peter knows his wines and sits as a volunteer advisor on ensuring continued success for local Frieburg vineyards.

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Freiburg's other little claim to fame in Germany is that it boasts the most "urban" vineyards. This one is a stone's throw from Peter and Sabina's flat.

Peter also volunteers with high school youth at risk and had a meeting with them that afternoon so we thanked him for the tour then set off on our own to discover Freiburg’s downtown.  Many things struck us about the downtown, but one thing stood out more than any other:

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bicycle share program

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Freiburg’s transportation plan explicitly aims to improve mobility while reducing auto traffic and benefitting the environment.  Wow …. a transportation plan that explicitly sets out to reduce automobile traffic!!  The plan also clearly prioritizes environmentally and health friendly modes such as walking, cycling and transit.  Finally, we had arrived at the city we set to find in our German cycling adventure.  Cycling lanes and covered bike parking abounded.  Trams and busses were going by at all times in all directions – usually with lots of folks inside.  Beautiful walking streets were packed with shoppers, walkers and diners.  The city was intentionally planned to be compact so that it was both a) not far from anywhere to anywhere and b) had sufficient density of people to make the investments in transit and cycling infrastructure economical.  We would learn the next day of an amazing transit pass, too.  We were all smiles as we were surrounded at each intersection by other cyclists.  And they were cyclists of all sorts, shapes and dress.  Older folks.  Kids.  Suits, dresses, jeans, chic 30-something get ups, and only a small amount of lycra.  Bikes typically were not fancy.  Many just 1 speed (Freiburg is pretty flat, though).  But almost all had the European styled wrap around handlebars. 

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Our straight-bar mountain bikes were certainly not earning any style points against these beauties!

We will have much more to say about cycling cities in later blog entries when we share what we saw and learned in Amsterdam, Groningen and Copenhagen.

The big catholic church downtown was breathtaking.  It mostly survived the WWII bombings.

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These are all wood carvings above the main entrance.

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McDonalds ... really!?
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Doner shops ("donairs" in Canada) are ubiquitous in Germany. That's just fine from our perspective.

Freiburg actually has created a self guided “green tour” so we set off on our bikes to take in a few sights with what remained of our afternoon.

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Solar research institute at the university.
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I am standing in front of 13 stories of "building integrated" solar PV at the train station.

One of the stops we didn’t get to was the large football (soccer) stadium whose roof is literally covered in solar panels.  This idea apparently came from the football club itself, and fans who donated money to cover the cost got 1st dibs on (limited) seasons tickets. 

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Freiburg football stadium.

Wow.  Similarly, many university roof-tops are covered in panels that were financed through a scheme that allowed profs, staff and students alike to be share holders in the green energy venture. Another innovation in Freiburg is the solarization (is that a word?) of the full (and closed) landfill site.
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In addition to a heavy dose of solar energy, Freiburg draws from six wind turbines. This part of Germany gets more sun and less wind than northern Germany, but the community wanted to increase its renewable portfolio, and these turbines are actually communally owned (citizens invest and receive energy producer dividends).
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With our heads buzzing with inspiration we cycled back to Sabina and Peter’s to find dinner ready to go on their backyard wood BBQ.  Drinks, salad and sausages went down so well over some great conversation with these very engaging hosts.

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They have a lovely terrace with a garden shed (that Kaia and Yvonne slept in) above and behind their building.
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Kaia and Jake impressed our hosts with their refined culinary skills ... that is golden brown roasted marshmallows. Sabina understands North American campfire culture and had the marshmallows ready to go.
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This is the heating system for Peter and Sabina's building. It is actually a small scale combined heat and power system. They generate their own electricity (from natural gas) then use the waste heat from the generator to heat the air and water for their building. These small but VERY efficient systems are promoted through Germany's Feed in Tariff program and are becoming increasingly popular in Germany. I had never seen one before.

The next morning brought some pretty awful continuous rain so we enjoyed our comfortable surroundings with our hosts and got caught up on some blogging.  We were very relieved to see the weather break because our green tour in the afternoon was on bicycle.  We had contacted the “Innovation Academy” the day before because we had learned they knew very well the green ins and outs of Freiburg.  I don’t think they had ever been contracted by a family before, but they were more than happy to share their wisdom … for not an insignificant price.  The first part of the tour was actually a 40 minute PowerPoint overview of the city’s initiatives and some stats on their successes.

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In this slide Steffen from the Innovation Academy is showing us the exponential growth of solar PV in Freiburg.
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These figures are impressive from a North American point of comparison. Recent stats were just about to be released that had the modal share of cycling even higher, and auto use lower.
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The city's carbon reduction goals are notably more ambitious than national and international levels. And unlike Canada, they actually have reached their interim goal, even though their population grew significantly!

The presentation was actually excellent, and Steffan kindly gave me a pdf copy to use in my teaching.  He touched on energy, transportation, planning and waste management, all of which Freiburg excels at.

We then headed outside to meet our cycling tour guide Luciano.  Luciano is involved in many aspects of sustainability planning and was able to take us to key representative sites around the city to better appreciate the strategies.

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Luciano. Born in Chile he had lived in Luxembourg and now makes his home in Freiburg
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We started at the main transportation center, where tram, train, bus and cycles converge, to allow for easy transfer between these modes. In this photo, bus on left, train tracks on right, and tram runs across above. Huge cycle garage is just out of sight to the right.
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City tram riders connect on these stairs to the regional (commuter) and inter city trains.
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You need to have an electronic access card to get into this secure, dry, and multi story parking garage.
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Yes, this goes right around in a circle ... on two floors!!!
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OK, this one is pretty hard core ....
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Luciano is telling us about the city's transit pass. For about 50 Euro ($60 Cdn) per month, you can travel on any mode of public transit within the city and within a 60km radius of the city, 7 days/week. Equally impressive is that the card is transferable - you can hand it (legally) to your friend or family member to use at any time. Clearly, Freiburg is serious about helping people to get out of their cars!
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This old bridge is adjacent the transportation hub. 1st tram, then car, now VERY busy cycling bridge.
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This very visible counter measures bike traffic across the bridge above and the corresponding amount of CO2 reduced by not driving (some assumptions have been made, obviously). Simple math suggests that there are, averaged for the entire year, 3000 trips/crossings per day!
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The four of us have at times really struggled with our bikes up and down stairs - especially when they are loaded. These simple enhancements made a big difference. Put your tires in and then roll .....
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Cycle route signs are ubiquitous in Freiburg (and most of Germany, for that matter). As tourists they were SO helpful.

Luciano then changed the focus of the transportation story to road design.  Like North American cities, Freiburg’s urban planning catered to cars in the 50s and 60s.  But over the past few decades planners have changed the profile and nature of many of Freiburg’s streets to decenter the cars and provide for safe walking and cycling.

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Notice that ultimately bicycles are being separated from pedestrians (these collisions can be serious too) and that four lanes give way to two, with on-street parking. This model is being used around town, but is not universal or without its critics.
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Many cycling accidents happen at intersections so it is important to clearly delineate bike lanes here. Notice that even in this rather wide street profile, only two lanes are dedicated to auto traffic.
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Here is one street about 50 years ago.
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Here is the same street today. Cars are allowed to drive only up to the same speed as bicycles (30km/hr). Trees were added, and sidewalks widened. Less road space for driving. Traffic has been calmed

When most people think about “greening” the energy system, they think of renewables like solar, wind, hydro and biomas. But the “low hanging fruit” of green energy is not energy production, but energy conservation and efficiency (that is, it is cheaper to save energy than build new generating capacity). Freiburg has been REALLY ambitious in both retrofitting the old building stock and creating very high efficiency standards for all new buildings. Through incentives/subsidies entire neighbourhoods have been insulated, windows upgraded, air leaks sealed etc. The poster child for Freiburg’s retrofitting though is a very nondescript apartment building in the Weingarten district from the 1960s.

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This apartment had become so run down and energy inefficient that it was slated for demolition. But energy specialists stepped in and used it as a demonstration project for efficiency. The building was gutted and heating/cooling systems and windows replaced. Heat from the sun (passive gain) was maximized. The building is now very popular among the lower income tenants of the area because utility costs are so cheap.

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All this listening and cycling was hard work 🙂 Time for Bavaria's best snack - a fresh pretzel! (OK, Jake will no doubt remind me that Freiburg is NOT in Bavaria ... but they still serve up pretzels here)
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This combined heat and power plant (CHP) was built to service the retrofitted apartment building and other neighbourhood buildings.
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Most of these energy standards are national standards. You can see the tightening of expectations through time. But note that Freiburg's standards are now notably tighter than the national average, and that in fact the newest standards have houses producing or otherwise gaining (through glass) as much energy as they consume. Wow.

The final focus of our green tour was urban planning. Progressive cities the word over recognize that it is smart for reasons economical, environmental and quality of life to plan compact cities where people can live, shop, and work without having to get in their cars. Connections to the city center are provided by frequent transit. Sometimes referred to as “New Urbanism”, these medium density neighbourhoods typically feature retail on the ground floor, commercial on the next floor, and then two or three floors of residential. Green spaces are shared. We all had a big but dark chuckle during the initial PowerPoint presentation when Steffen was explaining this concept. To help us understand, his presentation showed international photos of the opposite to compact design, and up came sprawling Toronto! Any of the newer subdivisions in my city of Peterborough could easily be substituted. Steffen then remembered we were Canadian and apologized. That’s OK Steffen … no apologies necessary.

We had visited Vauban earlier with Peter, so with Luciano we went to the newer neighbourhood of Reiselfeld. Whereas Vauban emerged through a rather messy, citizen driven process, Reiselfeld was planned by the city government.

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Note that the tram was constructed at the outset, and that virtually all residents live within 400m of the tram.

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The tram in Reiselfeld. Freiburg (or maybe someone else?) discovered that trams are much quieter when they run over grass. Luciano had us listen to the difference as the tram moved from grass over a road then back onto grass. Wow!!

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Reiselfeld's main intersection. It's a bit hard to see in this photo but there are cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores etc etc all along the street level. And of course ... there is a bicycle shop!

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The residents above this large grocery store don't need to worry about borrowing eggs from the neighbour. Food is only steps away.

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Cycling is such a great way to do a city tour. It is so easy to get around, things pass in slow motion, and it is easy to stop and chat along the way.

One of the key aspects of this neighbourhood design is the concept of shared public spaces. Instead of people having their own private yards (discourages interactions), green spaces are shared. There is enough room for being social and for quiet contemplation. Apparently this is one of the main reasons for residents reporting very high levels of quality of life.
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Jake was happy to not have cycle bags on the back of his bike when we discovered this bmx/skateboard park.
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There are fabulous play structures tucked into this playground.

Not surprisingly, residents of Reiselfeld are keen to take advantage of the ample sun in this part of Germany.

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Notice the use of green roofs here. Green roofs dramatically reduce heating and cooling needs, reduce storm runoff and help keep neighbourhoods cool.

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Vacuum tube solar thermal (hot water).

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Unlike Vauban where cars are kept to the outside perimeter, the approach used in Reiselfeld is to have residents share the transportation corridors. Speed limits are kept to 30 km/hr. From our experience of 60 minutes riding around, this approach seemed to work very well. That said, car ownership and use within Reiselfeld is well below national averages.
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This rather innocuous photo has very important symbolic value. Planners in Freiburg recognize that "hard" city limits are needed - to protect forests, wetlands and farm fields, but also to discourage the sort of urban sprawl that is rampant in North American cities. We are on the outside boundary of Reiselfeld, gazing across the city limit. Land on the other side is protected from development. This hard boundary was difficult to negotiate politically, but apparently citizen voices in Freiburg carried the day against low density developers' lobby. Yes, I am envious.

Vending machines in Canada usually sell candy, chips, or soft drinks. We were disappointed to see many cigarette vending machines through much of the rest of Germany. But what is sold out of vending machines in Reiselfeld?

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Yes - bicycle tubes, to keep people on the road. The different colours represent different wheel size and thicknesses. OK ... I am NOT in Canada!

And so ended our green tour with Luciano. He knew his city, knew the environmental story, and was an excellent communicator. It was SUCH a rich 3 hours we spent with our two Innovation Academy hosts.

All four of us were pretty wound up after this tour, and were again buzzing with stories and questions when we arrived back at Peter and Sabina’s to make our Mexican dinner. Freiburg hosts an incredible “density” of sustainable living and if you have managed to read all the way to this point (I doubt it!) you can appreciate that we are now full of ideas and many real examples to share with our Peterborough community and any other that is interested.
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Thanks for your leadership, Freiburg!

Cam

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