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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not surprisingly, residents of Reiselfeld are keen to take advantage of the ample sun in this part of Germany.
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?
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.
Thanks for your leadership, Freiburg!