Freiburg: a model of sustainability


Many locals consider Seattle a ‘green’city – and compared to most of the country (sadly) it is. Unfortunately, the steps required to achieve carbon neutral don’t seem appealing to most living here. So it has been very encouraging to see the development of a city like Freiburg, where CO2 reduction is more than just pandering, where public transportation is done effectively and efficiently, where low-energy housing is taken seriously and near-zero development for public buildings is even mandated.

Although Freiburg may not be the greenest city or even the first to reach carbon neutral by 2030, it does provide a strong model for green policy. While Vauban, saw a lot of press in the last year, the rest of the city – including the development of another eco-neighborhood, Rieselfeld – seems to have been largely ignored. This post attempts to shift the focus to some of those qualities that make Freiburg a livable and green ‘solar city’.

Green Roots


In the last few decades, Freiburg has been pushing the eco-theme rather successfully. In part, this has been due to the highly educated populace – AlbertLudwigsUniversität  had been the largest employer after the war. Public transportation policies in the early 1970s set the stage for environmentally-friendly transit options. In 1975, a nuclear power plant planned for the village of Whyl, 25 miles northwest of Freiburg, caused a large uproar as citizens protested and occupied the site for months until the project was scrapped. In the ensuing energy vacuum, numerous solar research institutes such as the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy, relocated or were founded in the region. By the mid 80s, the city had passed progressive initiatives to make Freiburg a leader in sustainable energy and in 1996, new buildings on city-owned land would be built to meet niedrigenergie (low energy) standards (max. heat energy of 65 kWh/m²a). Recent laws require new buildings to meet passivhaus standards (15 kWh/m²a) and remodels to meet niedrigenergie standards. Today, green energy industries & research in Freiburg employ nearly 10,000 people.

Green Energy

Freiburg has more sunny days than any major city in Germany, which is one of the reasons solar has been so dominant in the region. By 1996, there were over 200 photovoltaic installations within city limits. Private companies teaming up with public entities have resulted in large PV arrays being installed on municipal buildings, schools, the local brewery, new trade hall and even the soccer stadium (yes, Freiburg has a soccer team – SC Freiburg!). While living there in 2003-04, we saw a number of houses with solar collectors or photovoltaics. During a visit in 2009, we were stunned at the number of private installations – it seemed to be almost every other house. The city has even set up an online database for suitability of roof top solar installations – many cities could benefit from a similar tool.

While solar is heavily visible in Freiburg, it only provides a small fraction of the electrical needs – wind is also a viable option for the region. In 2003, five windmills were installed – although these have become quite contentious. Additionally, regional legislation has made it difficult for private development of wind power, causing Baden Württemberg to lag behind most other Bundesländer. Without wind power, the city will be hard pressed to meet their renewable energy goals of 40% CO2 reduction by 2030.

Reiselfeld and Vauban both have cogeneration plants and are among the 90 small-scale combined heat and power plants (CHP) supplying 50% of the city’s electricity.

Green Transportation

Quick and efficient tram and bus lines (V.A.G.) allow for rapid movement around the city and surrounding suburbs. Regional transportation lines cover 1,900 miles of network and nearly 2/3 of residents live in the catchment area of a tram stop. Renewables are utilized to power the trams (80% hydro/20% solar + wind). The city center is a Fußgängerzone (pedestrian zone) and has been car-free since 1973. Instead of parking spaces for cars, heavily patronized cafes and shops spill onto sidewalks and streets. Nearly 90% of the 30,000 university students take public transportation or bike. Freiburgers really enjoy biking, which is easily accommodated by over 300 miles of bike paths and bike-friendly streets, as well as over 8,000 bike parking spaces in the city center. And yes, we know lots of bikers that fell while trying to ride between the rails (ourselves included).

Green Living

While the NYT made Vauban seem like an enclave of uber-rich suburbanites, this isn’t exactly the case. Nearly 1/3 of the residents are students, residing in the first phase of renovated barracks. Vauban includes a number of passivhaus projects and plusenergie projects and two fairly interesting ‘solar garages’. While touring the newer projects in Vauban, we saw 2 separate tour groups of architecture students.

Rieselfeld is almost three times as large as Vauban, but doesn’t have the same diversity of projects. Many of the housing blocks seem rubber-stamped (and may have been) but the neighborhood is more diverse and has more cultural activities, including a pretty amazing concrete church complex for both Protestants and Catholics.

The car-free zone in the central district was a great place to live. We have incredible memories of the time spent there, and if the opportunity to go back ever presents itself – we’d definitely be interested. Freiburg is a strong case study in what it takes to make a thriving, functioning green city. Perhaps all we really need to kickstart Seattle’s post-LEED movement is for Olympia to propose a nuclear facility in Laurelhurst.


7 responses to “Freiburg: a model of sustainability

  1. Pingback: Freiburg: A Model of Sustainability | test title

  2. “In 2003, five windmills were installed ”

    Not quite — see “postcard” on my website. And you might also be interested in what I have written about Vauban & Rieselfeld on my blog. Just enter the terms in the search box

  3. Craig, according to this article (PDF), there were 6 installed in 2002, so I’m not sure which is correct anymore… I remember 3 on Rosskopf and 2 on Schauinsland. But will verify.

    Also your points on Vauban are dead on, there has been a lot of misinformation out there, especially regarding the studenten- and sozialwohnungen, parking spaces and whether cars were allowed, etc.

  4. It’s four on Rosskopf (see my “postcard”) and 2 on Schauinsland – not sure of the year, ciao

  5. I’m at Duke teaching a course in sustainable design “Green Architecture” Living Green/Building Green. (I didn’t name it.) I need finished pics of the Rammed Earth project. I miss you guys, and am glad to see you are pursuing some exciting stuff.

  6. Yes, there are 4 wind generators on Rosskopf + 2 on Schauinsland…but there are many many more around !! + you forget to mention the 90kW hydraulic plant on Dreisam river.
    Although Freiburg is nicknammed the Solar City it’s sustainable development strategy embodies much more. Freiburg’s Best practices are currently presented at the world expo 2010 in Shanghai through the The Green Building
    Our architecture office receive many people from around the world to visit the new green district of Rieselfeld in Freiburg. Feel free to contact-us.

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