Saturday, August 10, 2013

From today's Vancouver Sun: Some thoughts on Freiburg, which some say IS the greenest city in the world!

German town the picture of renewable energy

With commitment to initiatives, Freiburg im Breisgau reputed to be greenest city in the world

By Michael Geller, Special To The Sun August 10, 2013

Since Vancouver often talks about becoming the greenest city in the world, I decided to finish a recent tour of Germany with a visit to Freiburg, considered by many to be the world's current greenest city.
The trip did not start off well when I discovered shortly after arrival that while I was in Freiburg, my hotel reservation was in Freiberg! Who knew there were two cities in Germany with the same name? However, when I saw a Freiburg GREENCity Hot Spots map in the Tourist Information Office, I knew I had come to the right place.

Freiburg im Breisgau is the largest city in the Black Forest, a vibrant university town surrounded by mountain peaks and acres of vineyards.

Many of Freiburg's sustainability success stories are related to renewable energy initiatives. This is evident in the extensive use of solar panels on buildings and wind turbines on nearby hills.

The community's Cluster Green City initiative has brought together more than 120 companies and institutions active in energy-efficient design and construction, environmental technologies and sustainable transport. I very much enjoyed strolling around the historic old town, which features a system of "bachle" or open streams first built in the 12th century to keep the city clean and help fight fires. Today, they help keep the city cool in summer and provide enjoyment for young children.
I also spent time touring Quartier Vauban and Rieselfeld Urban District, two master-planned sustainable communities located at the termination of tram lines to the south and west of the city centre; and Bugginger Strasse 50, the world's first highrise residential building to reach Passive House energy standards through renovation.

Quartier Vauban is a neighbourhood with 5,000 residents, approximately four kilometres south of the Freiburg town centre. Started in the early 1990s, it was built as model sustainable community on the site of a former French military base.

The community is connected to the city centre by a tram that runs through its centre so that all homes are within easy walking distance of a tram stop. Transportation is primarily by foot or bicycle. I was told approximately 75 per cent of the households had chosen to live without a car.

Most of Vauban's residential streets are described as "stellplatzfrei" - literally "free from parking spaces." Vehicles are allowed down these streets at walking pace to pick up and deliver, but not to park, although I saw cars parked in many areas.

Each year, households are required to sign a declaration stating that they do not own a car, or if they do, they must buy a space in one of the multistorey "solar garages" at the periphery of the community.
On the main street leading into Vauban is the colourful Sun Ship, a large integrated office/retail building designed by architect Rolf Disch. Behind it is the equally colourful Solar Settlement. It claims to be the first housing community in the world in which all homes produce more energy than they consume. The solar energy surplus is sold back into the city's grid for a profit on every home.

Also by the entrance is the recently completed Green City Hotel. When I asked at the front desk what features made it particularly green, the staff looked at each other with a look of bewilderment.
With its cooperative lifestyle, fading wood-clad buildings, green roofs, extensive greenery growing everywhere, and generally unkempt landscape, Vauban felt very much like
a high density version of Hornby Island.

Rieselfeld had a much more conventional feel about it. In German, the word Rieselfeld means sewage farm, and this was the early history of the site.

It, too, is located at the end of a tram line that runs through the centre of the community. Construction of the first homes began in the early 1990s and the overall plan calls for approximately 12,000 residents in 4,200 apartments. In addition to housing, the community offers a wide range of social, cultural and educational facilities, including a church that is half Protestant and half Catholic.

The community plan devotes great importance to green spaces, playgrounds, bicycle paths and trafficcalmed streets where children are encouraged to play. It was wonderful to see so many scooters and children's bicycles parked outside the kindergarten and elementary school.
Like Vauban, nearly all housing is developed in three-to six-storey townhouse and apartment blocks.

Many of the buildings are quite small and were co-operatively developed by small groups who purchased land from the city. Unlike Vauban, cars are much more accepted and parking is provided in surface lots, underground garages and along streets in special areas identified by pervious pavers.

The community includes a mix of market and non-market housing for sale and for rent. It is interesting to note that a higher percentage of Germans have traditionally been prepared to rent, rather than own, especially when compared to North Americans. Like Vauban, all buildings are required to meet stringent energy codes with a reliance on renewable energy. I was told most of Vancouver's greenest buildings would not even meet minimum energy standards in Germany. While photographing a townhouse complex, a large truck pulled up and loaded something into the basement. It reminded me of the oil trucks that delivered to my house as a child. While I could not tell what this truck was delivering, I subsequently learned it was wood pellets for heating.
Most new buildings had large, prominent glass-walled stairwells, not unlike older Vancouver walk-up apartments, to encourage healthy exercise. Perhaps this is a feature we should reinvent.

One building had large photographs of people incorporated into the balcony designs. When I asked if they were residents, I was told they were the workers who built the project.

There is no doubt that Freiburg's designs focus on healthy living. There are higher energy standards and the city, like the country as a whole, is much more successful at integrating transportation and housing. These are lessons from which Vancouver can learn, especially if we truly want to become the greenest city in the world.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer. He also serves on the Adjunct Faculty of Simon Fraser University's Centre for Sustainable Community Development. Photos of German architecture can be found on his blog at and he can be reached at

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun


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