An Introduction to Freiburg and Smart Cities

Diving into Freiburg and the sustainable measures the town has adopted

Day one in Freiburg and it is already like entering a different world. There are trams and bike paths that fill the city, solar panels on the roofs and natural green areas everywhere. Nothing like my suburban home in Cary, North Carolina with manicured lawns, multiple cars in every driveway, and hardly a bus let alone a tramline or train in sight.

For our first educational day here, we were introduced to Steffen, our instructor and tour guide for the day. In a classroom we focused on a few main topics: history of sustainability in Freiburg, energy efficiency in old homes and municipal buildings, supply and disposal, and finally mobility. Freiburg, known for ten to fifteen years now as a sustainable city, began its environmental movement in 1975 when students and farmers came together to protest the implementation of a power plant in the town. After the 1986 Chernobyl incident, citizens truly united, energy saving became crucial, and renewables a mainstay in the town.

Our guide Steffan teaching us about the history of Freiburg and showing us around the town. Here he is explaining the history of market surrounding the church – it was first a parking lot, but was transformed into a beautiful market square where vendors come every morning to sell food, flowers, and other goods. This both discourages transportation by car and unites the community.

Throughout the different topics, one theme became clear: the importance of engagement at the local level. Citizens own over 50 percent of renewables in the city. Additionally, a convention was held in 2008 on how to make old houses more energy efficient. Architects, financial managers, designers, and many others came together to teach the people what they can do in their own homes. Lessons on waste separation and recyclables are taught in local elementary schools – kids are provided cost free lunch boxes to encourage use of reusable products, and trips to landfills inspire them to be mindful of their waste. Finally, the construction community allows people the option of multimodal houses and cohousing, which allow the people to design their own home while also being efficient in the use of space and improving social and community life.

Steffan walks us over the parking garage, which is discreetly hidden beneath the houses that were built on top of it to save space and make the town more appealing.

While local engagement was stressed throughout the presentation, a tour of the town had the group admiring Freiburg’s success in transportation and mobility. The ticket to decreasing car use was decreasing parking options. As the church parking lot was changed to a beautiful market square, parking garages placed further from homes, car ownership made more expensive, and efficient tramlines and bike paths installed, the city was transformed. There are only about 35 private cars per 100 residents, many of which are not used on a regular basis, and the centrally located train station provides an easy way to get anywhere in the region without stepping into a car.

One of the most interesting places I felt we visited on the tour was a parking garage. No, a parking garage does not sound exciting, but this one was implemented in an ingenious way. First of all, it was integrated into the surrounding area so that I could not even tell it was a garage when approaching. Second, houses were built on top so that no space was wasted. Finally, it served as a noise barrier between the town and the large road that surrounds it so that inside the town all that can be heard are birds chirping and people talking.

Here is the right side of the parking garage, where the noise from cars and other transportation that surrounds the town is masked by the design of this construction. To the left is the houses seen previously, where no car noise can be heard.

As it is the first day, we were left with many questions to look out for in our next adventures. How do less cars change daily and social life? How does society benefit from more public transportation and how does the district itself change? What kind of society arises from construction communities and cohousing? What are the keys to implementing these systems back home in North Carolina/U.S? Up next are bike tours in Rieselfeld and Vauban where we can evaluate these questions even more and look at examples of these initiatives in different towns.

Approaching one of the train stations of Freiburg, a central hub where people can take buses, trams, trains, and rent out bikes in order to navigate the surrounding area.

-Sarah Wotus