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The 'Green City' of Freiburg

January 16, 2022

Climate Minister Robert Habeck wants to make Germany climate-neutral by 2045. The southern city of Freiburg is already close to achieving his vision.

Panorama of Freiburg with the Minster in the foreground
Freiburg, Germany's "Green City"Image: Wolfgang Frank/ EIBNER-Pressefoto/picture alliance

When Robert Habeck's election campaign came to Freiburg on September 10, 2021, he was very much on home ground. The Green Party's motto is "Ready – because you are." So where better than this Green stronghold to take the lead on sustainability and help Germany achieve climate neutrality as quickly as possible?

In 2008, the Black Forest city of Freiburg (population: 230,000) rather grandiosely adopted the title of "Green City." It likes to describe itself as the environmental capital of Germany. With 1,800 hours of sunshine a year, this southwestern city is a big promoter of solar energy, in line with Habeck's plans.

It already boasts a great many showcase projects: Freiburg's new city hall was one of the first in the world to be conceived as a zero-energy building, with 800 solar panels on the facade. The new soccer stadium has a world-beating solar installation on the stadium roof. The archdiocese of Freiburg aims to be the first in Germany to reduce the church's CO2 emissions to zero.

As the new climate protection minister, Robert Habeck wants to make Germany climate-neutral by 2045. And, as so often, Freiburg is ahead of the game: It hopes to achieve this seven years earlier, in 2038.

Freiburg: solar energy pioneer

Franziska Breyer works in the climate neutrality department at the Environmental Protection Office. She's probably one of the best people to explain how Freiburg has come to lead the field on climate protection. A trained forester, and a child of the anti-nuclear movement, she will be setting out Freiburg's climate protection policy to other cities as part of an online conference on Monday. "We're one of the top ten cities in Germany in our commitment to climate protection," Breyer says.

Franziska Breyer from the City of Freiburg's climate neutrality office
"Climate protection is not just an environmental issue; it must be taken into consideration at all levels" - Franziska BreyerImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

From 2023 onward, Freiburg intends to pump €12 million ($13.7 million) a year into additional climate protection measures, regardless of the budget constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Robert Habeck wants to make it a requirement for commercial buildings in Germany to be fitted with solar panels. In the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Freiburg is located, this is already obligatory.

The city is also creating a new neighborhood. The Dietenbach district in western Freiburg will provide homes for around 15,000 people – climate-neutral homes, of course. "Nothing will be burned there anymore; no biomass, no pellets, no oil, no gas," Breyer explains. "The whole district will be heated by heat pumps and waste heat from a sewage canal, and the energy will be supplied by photovoltaic panels."

More cyclists than drivers

As with so many of her fellow Freiburgers, climate protection is in Breyer's DNA. She proudly reports that Lonely Planet, the well-known publisher of travel guides, puts Freiburg at number 3 on its list of top travel destinations for 2022, just after Auckland and Taipei. "The charismatic, environmentally conscious Black Forest metropolis can show many of us a few more tricks on how to live responsibly," it reports.

Seeing Freiburg by Bike and Longboard

Breyer illustrates one of these tricks with a diagram about the modal split, or mobility behavior. 40 years ago, just 15% of Freiburg's residents used bicycles as their main mode of transport. Now, it's one in three. Over the same period, the proportion of car drivers dropped from 39% to 21%. "That puts us ahead of all other German cities. But we still have too many cars being registered – we still have too many cars."

Vauban: A model neighborhood in the model city

Take the streetcar from the city center, head south for quarter of an hour, and you'll get a taste of how well city life can function almost without cars. Freiburg's model district of Vauban was built on the site of a former French barracks, named after an architect who worked for the French Sun King, Louis XIV. The lifestyle enjoyed by its 5,600 inhabitants for more than 20 years may soon become the German standard.

View down a residential street in Vauban with no vehicles in sight
Almost car-free: Freiburg's model district of VaubanImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

Vauban is Freiburg times ten: even greener, even more ecological, even more bicycle-friendly. There are brightly colored "passive" (ultra-low-energy) houses with solar panels on the roof, while a wood-fired thermal power plant supplies all the residents with electricity. Vauban has wide pavements and cycle paths, as well as designated play streets – a paradise for children. The few residents who own cars literally hide them in one of the two parking garages on the outskirts. At Expo 2010 in Shanghai, Vauban was named one of the 60 best neighborhoods in the world to live in.

Excellent transport links, and everything within reach

Andreas Konietzny was one of the first residents. The Düsseldorf-born architect moved to Vauban in 2001 and has never regretted it. "My sister was living in California at the time; once, when she was visiting, she made a note of how many steps she took to get to the supermarket, the stream, the elementary school. Her American friends didn't believe her when she told them it felt as if everything here was only 400 meters away. There, you have to get in the car to do everything."

Architect Andreas Konietzny outside a café in Vauban
Architect Andreas Konietzny enjoys the peace and quiet of life in car-free VaubanImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

In this neighborhood of short distances, which has everything except cars, Konietzny shares a car with another family. It's parked in the underground garage 300 meters from his house, and sometimes it waits for him there for weeks. Streetcar number 3 goes right to the city center – one every minute. Every year Vauban is visited by tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world. They like to stay at the sustainable Green City Hotel, which has plants climbing the outside walls and interiors decorated with local wood.

The cost of a climate protection paradise

However, there is a downside to the dream of an exemplary green life in Freiburg and Vauban, and it should not be underestimated. It's incredibly expensive. Only in Munich and Frankfurt do tenants pay out more in rent than they do in Freiburg. The main criticism of the German climate protection minister's ambitious proposals is that, for many Germans, they're simply unaffordable.

Entrance to a children's adventure playground in Vauban
Children's adventure playground in Vauban: The district has one of the highest populations of children in Germany.Image: Oliver Pieper/DW

Vauban does now have some blocks of affordable student housing, but the majority of residents fit the pattern of well-heeled, well-educated, environmentally aware citizens. "A lot of teachers and architects, like me, live here now, and the flip side of this is gentrification," says Konietzny. "In the beginning, there was a different mix of residents. It's sad to see that people with less money can't afford to live here anymore."

Can Germany do more on climate protection?

Rolf Disch has been eagerly awaiting Robert Habeck's climate protection initiative for a very long time. A pioneer of solar technology, an award-winning architect and visionary, his office in Vauban is in a building fittingly named the Sun Ship.

The colorful Sun Ship office building, with a series of sloping roofs covered in solar panels
The "Sun Ship" office building in Vauban, designed by the architect and solar technology pioneer Rolf DischImage: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Disch, now 77, is every bit as passionate about the transition to renewable energy as he was in the 1980s, when he developed the world's first solar recharging station, became a world champion solar car driver, and drove across Australia in his 100%-solar-powered vehicle. "I've been saying for a long time that Germany could be climate neutral as early as 2030, if it wanted to be," he points out.

Political fiasco in the solar industry

From his balcony, Disch gazes down proudly on the 59 colorful wooden houses that make up Vauban's Solar Settlement – his baby. They're all "PlusEnergy" houses, a design the architect came up with in 1994, meaning that they produce more energy than they use. It's quite shocking to see how advanced Germany was in terms of climate protection almost 30 years ago, yet how carelessly it squandered this advantage. It was only recently that PlusEnergy houses were awarded the highest level of subsidy: €37,500 per residential unit.

Rolf Disch (left) and a colleague on the roof of the Sun Ship, overlooking the Solar Settlement
"People always describe it as paradise when cars are deprived of their dominance in a neighborhood. So why don't they build more paradises?" - Rolf Disch (left) Image: Oliver Pieper/DW

Ask Rolf Disch about Germany's climate protection efforts, and he gets very worked up. He has been pleading with politicians for decades to increase their focus on renewable energies. He takes out a petition in favor of PlusEnergy that he sent to Chancellor Angela Merkel 12 years ago: It garnered 4,500 signatures.

However, this too had no success. On the contrary: In 2012, the German government decided to curtail support for photovoltaics, and the market collapsed by 80%. "They destroyed an entire industry and thousands of jobs," says Disch. "We almost collapsed here in Freiburg, too – despite being a world leader in solar technology. To this day I still don't understand it."

Clean and cheap: Solar's winning formula

PlusEnergy houses still far from standard

But Disch has bounced back. He's currently working on his next project: Four PlusEnergy houses, comprising a total of 83 apartments, are being built in nearby Schallstadt, south-west of Freiburg – financed by Disch himself. "I don't yet know how this is going to work economically, how it will pay for itself. We're doing it because we believe in it."

It's this kind of conviction that is all too often lacking, Disch believes – even in the city of Freiburg. He's a bit like a teacher who isn't satisfied when his student gets a B because he didn't do everything in his power to get top marks. "The environmental protection office really does mean well," Disch says. "But you don't get the feeling it's doing everything it could. Even here in Vauban, it was more a case of the people carrying the city along with them."

Germany still investing in climate-hostile technologies

Freiburg may be an exemplary student when it comes to climate protection, but in Disch's view there's still a lot more it could do. The architect stresses that construction and housing should be a main focus, as this sector accounts for 40% of total energy consumption. If Rolf Disch could give Robert Habeck one piece of advice, he would tell him to be even more radical in pushing ahead with the energy transition – and to cut ties with industries that stand for the past rather than the future.

Robert Habeck pointing to a chart showing greenhouse gas emissions
Determined to bring down greenhouse gas emissions: Germany's minister for climate action, Robert HabeckImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

"In Wismar, the federal government wants to spend €600 million on saving a shipyard from insolvency, so it can build cruise ships. This is nonsense!" Disch declares. "Once one of those things gets underway, it requires vast amounts of energy. We urgently need that workforce to build solar and wind energy plants and renovate houses instead."

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.