The World’s Greenest Cities: Freiburg, Germany

The World’s Greenest Cities: Freiburg, Germany

The World’s Greenest Cities: Freiburg, Germany

Freiburg is widely considered the single best city for sustainable urban development. Starting early, in the 1970s, Freiburg has tackled energy and climate change, transport and land use, urban liveability and safety, and democratic issues – all using a highly integrated approach. In two separate learning cases we look at this integrated work in Freiburg, and at Freiburg’s integrated renewable energy concept, Freiburg Solar Region.

Freiburg, the green southern German city located in the area between the Upper Rhine and the Black Forest, has a good reputation. It is said to be Germany´s ecological capital, situated in the sun belt of the country, the 'German Tuscany'. In fact, many things were achieved here in the ecological field. But 'environmental capital' actually only means that the global processes of destruction in Freiburg proceed a little slower than elsewhere.

The city of 230,000 inhabitants (among them 35,000 students) was frequently awarded environmental prizes, e.g. the titles 'Ecological capital' in 1992 and 'Sustainable city' in 2004. Freiburg won several times the 'national solar league' (there are 1,800 annual hours of sunshine in Freiburg).

No to nuclear energy

Based on the successful 'No' to nuclear power and the early 'Yes' to sustainable energy sources, regional networks of environmentalists came into existence. Important ecological institutions like the Freiburger Oeko-Institut [Institute of Ecology], the BUND [Friends of the Earth], the party Die Grünen [Greens] and today´s environment and energy companies have their roots in the initial ecological conflicts in the Upper Rhine area for years critical and dedicated people have been generating the political pressure necessary to achieve ecological progress. Freiburg´s ecological spirit influences the city´s election results as well.

After the Chernobyl disaster and at the same time menaced by the French nuclear power station Fessenheim, in 1986 Freiburg was one of the first German cities to adopt a local concept of energy supply in order to protect the climate. The programme included the reduction of consumption of energy, water and resources. Further issues were the use of renewable energy sources and the application of new energy technologies.

The interconnectedness of accessibility and mobility with other issues is demonstrated by a city that started – earlier than most in the 1970s – with a decision to save energy. Citizens in Freiburg, a German university city, did not want to accept a planned nuclear power station. That first decision led to the development of Freiburg as a global first-rank model of sustainable urban life – for its leading solar industrialisation, high quality of life via energy-saving spatial and transport planning, and nature conservation, etc. Freiburg sought energy sustainability, and identified transport choices and urban sprawl as key factors.


Freiburg Germany1

Green transport

Freiburg has a strong orientation to walking, bicycling, and public transport, with car-free areas and high levels of accessibility for people of all ages (i.e. also the elderly, and children). Freiburg’s development of sustainable transport involves three major strategies:

  • restricting the use of cars in the city
  • providing effective transport alternatives to the car
  • regulating land-use (e.g. sprawl) to enable public transport, cycling and walking

Freiburg has also preserved and expanded its light electric rail network. This was against the trend in many cities to remove trams to make space for cars. Freiburg has reaped benefits like better air quality, quiet transport, space efficiency, and the possibility to power its transportation with clean renewable energy.

Freiburg’s city centre is almost entirely pedestrian-friendly. This is one of the strategies that led to public transport growing by some 50% and bicycle traffic by 100%, but car trips only by 1%, in the 15-year period 1976–1991 (see also Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Zürich). In 1999, 50% of all daily trips were walking and cycling, and public transit use is high for a small city. Freiburg has also worked with pricing to get people to eschew car-travel. After a one-third cut in the price of the public transport pass, there was a 23% increase in use the first year, rising later to more than 100%, with public transport use more than doubling.

Freiburg promotes biking and walking, which have become increasingly popular means of alternative transit in the city. Freiburg features a pedestrian-only zone in the city center, where no cars are allowed. Biking accounts for over 1/4 of all transportation in the city. Over 300 miles of bike paths in the city help to reduce automobile use. In order to help make alternative modes of transit even more attractive, all streets, other than major roads, have a max speed limit of 50 km/h. The city offers the Regio Card (Regiokarte), which enables residents full access to all of Freiburg’s trams, streetcars, trains, and buses. Increasing city residents’ ease of access to Freiburg’s mass transit options, 70% of the population live within 1/2 km from a tram stop.

Green urban design

In Freiburg, new development must meet strict urban design guidelines. Like most European cities Freiburg uses master plans to ensure high-quality development. Freiburg is a city of short distances largely because of spatial policy that insists on an arrangement of services that enable sustainable transport and prevent sprawl (see also Portland and Vancouver). Two-thirds of Freiburg’s land area is devoted to green uses. Just 32% is used for urban development, including all transportation. Forests take up 42%, while 27% of land is used for agriculture, recreation, water protection, etc.

Green urban planning is paramount in Freiburg; and the city has designated green areas as a priority in land-use decisions. Almost half of the city remains protected as parks, forest, or green landscaped spaces- a big reason why biking and walking remain so popular in the city. In the city district of Vauban, entire neighborhoods run on energy provided by rooftop solar panels, as well as a municipal biomass plant. Careful urban planning helped to create a city layout in Vauban which lends itself to cycling as the primary mode of transit. The terms “filtered permeability” and “fused grid” refer to a plan that ultimately means connected streets throughout the town, as well as plenty of pedestrian and bike paths. Residents primarily live in co-op buildings, such as the “solar ship”, a large area of co-op buildings that run strictly on renewable energy.


City Park of Freiburg Germany


Green Building and Alternative Transit

Freiburg remains at the forefront of green building technologies, mandating that all new construction runs on a low energy output. Energy conservation is central to all new building in the city, and energy efficient retrofits are being applied to existing structures. Residential recycling programs go beyond standard measures, as compost is also collected in the form of kitchen and garden waste.

Renewable Energy – Solar (and biomass) in Freiburg

Freiburg is known as Europe’s “solar city”, installing more solar PV than any other city in Germany, and more than many entire European countries. Solar energy in Freiburg has guaranteed feed-in tariffs (thanks to Germany’s Renewable Energy Act). Vauban, a city district in Freiburg, in which the majority of homes run on solar and solar thermal energy generated on-site, is known as the most sustainable city district in the world. The city of Freiburg was home to the Solar Summit 2013, an event for investors, scientists, utility executives, and officials from various governments, in which new solar thermal technologies were featured.

In addition to using solar power as a major energy source, Freiburg uses biomass, wind, and hydroelectricity for the majority of the rest of the city’s energy needs. Most significant of the renewable energy sources Freiburg relies on besides solar is biomass; Freiburg turns garbage into biomass energy to power residences and businesses. Biomass plants in Freiburg rely, most significantly, on methanization; a process which turns organic matter (in this case mostly the garbage of residential/ commercial buildings, agricultural/ forestry waste) into biogas. Methanization-based biomass plants at the edge of the city are fed with separately collected organic waste (over 36,000 tons per year) provided by city residents (mostly farming, kitchen, and garden waste). Wood is burned, in addition to waste, in the biomass plant in the city district of Vauban; landfill gas and waste are both used in the other biomass plants in Freiburg. These biomass plants, along with another biomass plant in Freiburg that uses mostly rapeseed oil, work to create combined heat and power (cogeneration) to supply district heating and electricity in the city.

Freiburg has a goal of achieving 100% renewable energy for the entire city by 2035.

The citizen´s engagement in environmental politics over the past decades has been profitable ecologically and economically. Leading research institutes of solar technologies are based in Freiburg, as well as a multitude of small and medium-sized companies dealing in various ways with the promotion and application of regenerative energies.