All posts by Keegan Barnes


Smart Community Building

How places can help people form more and better social bonds

As the field of smart city planning gains momentum, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture. New technology has the power to make our lives much more efficient, and perhaps more enjoyable. However, it can also have the ability to reduce how connected a community is socially, if the technology leads to greater real-world isolation. It is important, therefor, to be intentional when planning a community and to design infrastructure that will facilitate social bonding. Freiburg’s Vauban district contains many useful examples of community-focused planning.

A small pond in Vauban, Freiburg. Architectural diversity and plenty of green spaces can make urban environments more livable and aesthetically pleasing.

One aspect that isn’t immediately apparent is the effort taken to reduce the natural divisions within Vauban. Social housing and private housing are placed very close together, sometimes even in the same building. This leads to members of different economic classes being more able to interact with each other and share a sense of unity, rather than segregating the city into economically homogeneous regions. In addition, the centrally located Maria Magdalena Church helps to remove walls between separate portions of the population – literally. The building contains both a Catholic and a Protestant place of worship, but merges the two with some creative architecture. Two movable walls can open and shut, allowing both areas to become one large space for the whole community.

The inside of the Maria Magdalena church in Vauban, Freiburg. The building contains both a Catholic church and a Protestant church, which can be either brought together or separated using movable walls (a corner of one is viewable on the right side).

Planning and technology can also come together to create public spaces that generate more opportunities for people to interact with each other. Many of the housing complexes in Vauban were built with large open areas in the center, perfect for community gardens. There are many environmental benefits for increasing the amount of greenery in a city: a reduced amount of carbon dioxide, an increase in biodiversity, and a reduction of the urban heat island effect, to name a few. Crucially, there are also some positive social effects to having community gardens. They give a place for neighbors to meet and talk with one another. By creating a beautiful garden as a group, residents develop a sense of local pride and belonging. Another example of how eco-friendly ideas can have interpersonal benefits can be seen in the transportation infrastructure. Within the area, Vauban is geared towards cyclists and pedestrians. Its location right on a tram stop allows people to go to, say, the Farmer’s Market on a Saturday without ever having to use a car. Not only does this reduce fossil fuel consumption, but it keeps people in closer contact with each other and away from the relative isolation of everyone driving in their own individual cars.

Students view a community garden nested within housing complexes in Vauban, Freiburg. These areas not only increase the amount of green space within a city, but they can bring residents together by giving them a common space and something around which to build community pride.

Our group really enjoyed getting to explore Vauban ourselves. Many of us were struck by how many different smart ideas were packed into the area, some of which it took us a while to figure out. We all should view these as helpful examples of how best to create an urban area so as to maximize every resident’s sense of community and belonging.

-Keegan Barnes

Smart Adlershof

How One Town Reinvented Itself For a Greener Future

Today marked our final travel day of the program! The station, Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, looked quite different today than it did on the day of our arrival; instead of hordes of people armed with brooms to clean up the city following the G20 protests, there were just a handful of quiet travelers with their luggage. Our destination, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, was stunning. A large, glass ceiling and many different levels of tracks gave it the feel of one of the most modern hub of Europe. After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we were off to Adlershof.

The outside of Berlin’s Central Station. With 5 different levels and an exterior of nearly entirely glass, the Hauptbahnhof is the largest and most modern connecting station in Europe.

Adlershof’s history is long and varied, but it has an interesting connection to North Carolina in the form of aviation history. The Wright brothers were the first to fly, doing so in Kitty Hawk, NC. The first German motor-driven flight occurred less than a decade later in Johannisthal airfield, which is modern day Adlershof. The area grew as a hot spot for innovation in flight, and while touring the park we got to see some of the infrastructure that was used to test engines and planes in the 20th century.

This is a former vertical wind tunnel used to test the aerodynamics of various planes. Adlershof has a long history of innovation in the aviation sector, and it was the site of the first successful German motorized flight.

In the early 1990s, Adlershof once again redefined itself and moved to become a center for research and industry. The long tradition of adaptability was quite evident as we toured the area. Walking around, we noticed not only how impressive the buildings were from an aesthetic standpoint, but also how environmentally friendly and smart they were. It was apparent that this was a source of pride for those involved in Adlershof, especially for an area that brings so many people in to produce new and innovative ways of reducing our impact on the climate and finding more sustainable solutions.

The group gets an inside look at what it is like to work in Adlershof. Despite the location being a little far from city center, the infrastructure and resources available are huge attractors to companies, especially start ups.

At the minimum, many of the buildings had passive solar designs. By using windows and window coverings that can either trap heat or deflect it based on the season, the heating and cooling needs are greatly reduced. The “Amoeba” buildings, nicknamed for their wavy shape, used colorful coverings like these that look good while saving energy.

The so-called “Amoeba” buildings in Adlershof. The name is a reference to the wavy, rounded edges around both buildings. They both utilize passive solar and smart insulation to warm them in the winter, cutting down on heating costs.

Other buildings were creative with their use of traditionally forgotten space. Looking out at the rooftops, we saw that nearly all of them were “green roofs”. These have a multitude of important benefits. Firstly, they can help prevent flooding from sudden downpours of rain. The soil and plants soak in much of the precipitation and then slowly release it over the following hours. This helps reduce the peak amount of water in the drainage system, which is a huge help for stopping flooding. In addition, green roofs can diminish the “urban heat island” effect. This is caused when an area has a lot of asphalt and other materials that reflect heat rather than absorbing it, and is the reason why some cities can be 1-3° Celsius warmer than the surrounding areas. The plants absorb some of the heat that would be reflected by traditional roofs. In addition, they can filter the air of pollutants and carbon dioxide.

The “green roofs” in Adlershof. These help to lower the peak amount of water in the drainage system during downpours and can also help cool down the area and reduce the urban heat island effect!

Finally, we were struck by just how many solar photovoltaic cells we saw. Many were set up on top of the buildings and thus were usually out of sight, but there were some that were creatively installed around the façades. For instance, workers eating in the café were shaded by a semi-transparent array of PV cells adorned on the front outer wall. Another building had a concave array, which we learned was a great breakthrough when the technology was created.

Housing for students attending Humboldt University. Compared to our living spaces in Chapel Hill, we were shocked at how affordable these units were. We also learned about how the floorplan was specifically designed to try to increase social bonding between students.

Adlershof was an interesting look at how smart communities can successfully integrate multiple different institutions: industry, government, and higher education. In some ways, it was the perfect representation of both main topics of interest for our program: renewable energy technologies and smart city planning.

-Keegan Barnes

Industry and Sustainability

How two German businesses are innovating in the field of Sustainable Agriculture

We spent the first part of our day visiting Rinklin Distribution, a business which ships goods around the Rhein Valley. The business is part of the German Mittelstand, the mid sized, family-owned businesses which make up the brunt of the country’s economic force. Rinklin has been active in the region for decades. Another feature of Mittelstand companies, it has been in the family for multiple generations and represents a long term investment rather than a means to procure a quick profit. Rinklin began as a small, single-man operation hand-delivering goods directly to customers. At the time, the product lineup consisted of a pushcart loaded up with a handful of vegetables and fruits.

Bottles are loaded up to be sorted and returned to the suppliers for cleaning and reuse.

The company has grown substantially, and with 12,000 products and 250 total employees, the warehouse contained both clear organization and a buzzing energy. The interaction between the values of the company and the decisions on the business side was very interesting to note. Rinklin is very involved with each step of the process; this begins by working closely with suppliers to make sure the products are of an acceptable quality and ends with their own systems of ensuring the used materials are properly reused or recycled. For instance, we were shown a large area full of infrastructure built to sort used bottles to be sent back to the suppliers for reuse. A 100,000 Euro investment in a machine that compresses corrugated cardboard for more efficient transportation to recycling centers was framed both in terms of the business cost analysis (the machine paid for itself in about 2 years) and the environmental benefits of increasing the proportion of recycled material.

The loading ramp for the cardboard compressing machine. The 100,000 Euro machine paid itself off in just two years.
The outside of the Rinklin biomart. Everyone taking a brief rest before the trek to Breitenwegerhof farm.
The inside of the Rinklin biomart. Our group had a chance to load up on tasty, organic food after seeing the ins and outs of its production!

Sustainability remains an important tenet of Rinklin, with multiple innovative attempts at reducing the energy dependence on fossil fuels. Cooling the store room for their refrigerated products generates a lot of heat, typically viewed as a waste product. However, Rinklin uses this heat to warm their offices, helping them cut down on their usual heating costs. Also worth noting is the ongoing process of reducing the amount of diesel used by the fleet of delivery trucks. Recently, Rinklin outfitted some of their trucks with photovoltaic solar panels. The energy those panels provide goes towards maintaining a suitable temperature for the refrigerated products, energy that traditionally would have come from burning diesel. It is important to point out that this is an ongoing process, and that the company hopes to eventually have trucks that use renewable electric energy not only for cooling, but also for driving. The market for such vehicles is still trying to find solid footing, but many are hopeful that the electric car market will see a large boost in volume within the next 5 to 10 years.

One of Rinklin’s shipping trucks. This particular truck is part of a new section of their fleet devoted to sustainability. The truck has solar panels on the roof which keep its contents refrigerated while en route.
Photo by: Forest Schweitzer

Lastly, we visited a local farm called Breitenwegerhof. On its surface, it seems very similar to many of the other farms nearby. There are cows, woolly pigs, and over 200 hens, all raised in very humane conditions. The farm also makes its own cheeses and yogurts using the milk from the cows, also producing eggs and various meats. Sampling a few of the cheeses let us confirm that the Breitenwegerhof way of production – keeping everything organic and relying on skilled individual farmers – makes for some delicious and flavorful cheeses. That aside, this farm was particularly interesting because of the financing behind it. They, as well as many other local farms in and around Freiburg, are backed by Regionalwert AG, which means that the farm is owned by over 500 shareholders. This unique set-up helps to support smaller farms with the expensive initial costs of land and other resources. This is important as it helps to bring balance to a practice that can be dominated by large scale, machine-dominated factory farms. Many of the sustainable practices we witnessed at Breitenwegerhof are not employed in factory farms, and so finding economic structures able to support the smaller local farms is a step in the right direction; this is especially important to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as agriculture remains one of the largest contributors to overall emissions.

Luciano addresses the group at the entrance to Breitenwegenhof. Shortly before this picture was taken, a farmer passing by waved and chatted with Luciano. The farming community here is a supportive bunch.
The group getting to know the woolly pigs. They’re quite cute, however their meat is considered a delicacy.

-Keegan Barnes