Freiburg im Breisgau. Sustainable living model

Freiburg im Breisgau. Sustainable living model

clip_image002The City of Freiburg is often called Germany’s "ecological capital" and has been recognized internationally as one of the world’s most livable, sustainable and child-friendly cities. As a national example of sustainable urban planning, ideas developed in Freiburg have been used in countries around the world. What makes this middle sized city in the heart of Europe be so visible on the world map?

On a first glance Freiburg is a typical university city with a population of 220,000 inhabitants located in southern Germany near the Swiss and French borders. Its GDP per capita is 11 per cent above the European average and city has the highest concentration of sunshine in Germany, with more than 1,700 hours per year.

Freiburg shows an outstanding dynamic of new jobs creation for the last 20 years and keeps the top position in the Baden-Württemberg region in comparison with other major cities. Freiburg directory specified that in the last twenty years there was an increase of 22 per cent of new jobs created.

What makes the city differ from the similar cities around Europe is its continuity of the integrated urban planning approach, which over the last 30 years has led to the development of Freiburg as a leading exemplar of sustainable living in a compact car-lite city.

The vision of Freiburg – improving quality of life and promoting environmental sustainability – has been formed in the late 1970s by political approach galvanized during successful opposition to the building of the Wyhl nuclear power station. Powerful team of local politicians, economists and especially University leaders, combined with the local green movement, worked out a value-driven approach to the development of Freiburg.

What has enabled goals to be pursued steadily over decades could be seen as three key factors of the city success: direct citizen participation in the city development, dynamic planning, and consensus. Freiburg’s success owes much to its democratic strength and strong leaders. Active democracy was the first step when citizens worked to oppose the planned nuclear power plant.

clip_image004This early activism has evolved so that citizens are directly involved in land-use planning, the city budget, technical expertise committees, developing public information on sustainability, and as shareholders in local renewable energy providers. Quad Helix approach has been naturally developing in Freiburg over years and today is demonstrated in the city at its best. Active involvement of local community in the decisions taken by local government guarantees clear understanding and support.

Other significant success factor is the “one element – many functions” approach, which ensures that different potential ‘solo’ problems are solved in a joined-up manner, with plenty of creative synergy and with natural involvement of all place actors under cohesive vision “umbrella”.

Examples of sustainable development worth to explore

Sustainable Urban Development

Urban planning and development have always had a special impact on Freiburg.

clip_image006The city was rebuilt from the 1950s onwards, taking note of traditional urban patterns and cultural heritage, but with a focus on sustainable development. Key areas for the long-term plan of urban development included: tramline extension, built before residents arrived so they would not have to buy a car; the expansion of residential areas or how to deal with open space.

The idea of small plots with a high population density (the group ownership model) with affordable flats and a common garden for every four or five plots, as the newcomers were mostly family with kids, was considered as a first solution. These ideas, developed through public consultations, were in the foundation of the sustainable energy-saving land-use plan of Freiburg.


The now widely known districts of Vauban and Rieselfeld were built, taking into account social aspects, energy-efficient design and high-quality open space design. Another remarkable example is “Buggingerstraße 50”, Germany’s first high-rise building renovated to passive house standard. According to specifications it consumes 78 per cent less energy than the original building, with minimal rent increases. The Vauban and Rieselfeld developments were built without any contribution from the city budget. The income received from selling the serviced plots of land to co-operatives, individuals and small builders covered the costs of the land and all the necessary physical and social infrastructure that the city provided.

Sustainable Transport System

In the late 1980s the regional government introduced the Cybernetics Mobility Concept, with the aim of strengthening environmentally friendly means of transport. This strategy involved five pillars of activity:

  • Extension of the Public Transport Network (PTN)
  • Promoting cycle traffic
  • Traffic restraint (30km per hour speed limit)
  • Channelling individual motorised vehicle traffic (in the city core and neighbourhoods)
  • Parking space management


This approach involved significant investment and business innovation in the public transport infrastructure, not only in Freiburg but throughout the surrounding region. The full pedestrianisation of the historic centre has been followed by a comprehensive, and in many ways visionary, land use/transport strategy based on walking, cycling and public transport. The plans aimed to improve mobility while reducing traffic and benefitting the environment. It prioritized traffic avoidance and gave preference to environment-friendly modes of transport.


Traffic avoidance was achieved in conjunction with urban planning that made Freiburg a city of “short distances”—a compact city with strong neighbourhood centres where people’s needs are within walking distance. In 1973 the entire city centre was converted to a pedestrian zone (shown in white on the map to the right).

Today 70% of the city population lives within 500 meters of a tram stop.

clip_image014Besides working to make public transport convenient, fast, reliable and comfortable, the city administration also made it cheap, by introducing a RegioCard in 1991. The RegioCard allows passengers unlimited use of not only Freiburg’s urban transit but also public transport in the whole region, plus the tracks of the German Rail. Any ticket for a concert, sports event, fair, or big conference also serves as a ticket for public transport. Freiburg’s administration has developed over 400 km of cycle paths.

This includes bike-friendly streets, street side bike paths, and separate bike paths, e.g., along the river Dreisam. About 9,000 bicycle parking spaces were also developed, including “bike and ride” lots at transit stations. As a result of the above policies between 1982 and 1999 the percentage of bikes in the total volume of inner-city traffic rose from 15 per cent to 27 per cent and public transport rose from 11 per cent to 18 per cent, while the percentage of trips made by car fell from 38 per cent to 32 per cent (City of Freiburg).

The city was rewarded for its efforts in 1995 with the award of the “European Local Public Transport Prize”.

Climate protection and Energy Supply.

clip_image016According to the city vision climate protection, energy supply and urban development are inseparable from each other, another good exam of the creative complex approach addressing city development. Freiburg has been considering energy related aspects in the development of urban districts for many years.

The City Council succeeded in attracting as many other stakeholders, including companies, energy providers, private households, the university, on board to support the implementation of a climate-neutral city plan and climate protection is perceived as a shared responsibility for all city actors.

A basic procedure for „climate protection in land use planning“ was developed to transfer the experience gained to new districts Vauban and Rieselfeld: „Solar optimisation of the development plan“, „Study of energy supply alternatives“ and „Compliance with Freiburg building standards“ are some of the approaches applied in the new residential district of Gutleutmatten. A local heating system incorporating solar heating and combined heat and power is also being built there in a pilot project, the only one of its kind in Germany (City of Freiburg).


Freiburg has an ambitious goal to become “climate neutral” by the year 2050. The interim results are also remarkable: in 2010 the city has achieved a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions and 40% reduction is planned to be achieved by the year 2030. According to official brochure of GreenCity Cluster “The renewable energy industry delivers technology and expertise for the rapid phase-out of nuclear power and for Germany‘s alternative energy policy, often referred to as the „Energy Revolution“, which is emphatically driven forward in Germany – according to the Federal government, it will invest up to 550 billion EUR in this by 2050.


Freiburg follows the path to get „100 per cent energy from renewables“ in order to contribute to regional value creation: according to this study, some 3 billion EUR in investment is needed for renewable energies and some 12 billion EUR for building renovation in the Freiburg region. Regional businesses, trades and employees will benefit greatly from this. The associated ecological target thus serves as an economic stimulus programme – a win-win situation for both ecology and the economy” (Regional Indicator).

Freiburg is regarded today as a model for the reconciliation of ‘’soft’’ ecology and ‘’hard’’ economics. Its city brand is based on the four key differentiators that make Freiburg special:

  • A city that takes on big challenges and strives to be a world role model in environmental sustainability
  • A city that works together.
  • A city that is hungry to experiment and rethink conventional ways of doing things.
  • A city with pragmatic determination to do things better

All of these factors make Freiburg a successful model of sustainable city development worth to explore and to follow.

1 comment

  1. Having lived in Freiburg for two years as a student, I can confirm that it is one of the most liveable places I’ve seen or visited – so long as you are happy with its slightly remote location and small city feel. Not very cosmopolitan but instead surrounded by wine regions.. 🙂

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