Freiburg green city

Posted on March, 01 2012

Integrated leadership = sustainability leader 

Integrated leadership = sustainability leader

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.

Keywords: integrated urban planning, sustainable transportation, sustainable land management, participatory planning

Cities need space – and people need to access the city. But spatial and transport planning are tied together with a range of other vital choices for ecological footprints and nature conservation. How much land will be used, and how much left for nature and agriculture? How much energy will be needed and what energy sources will be used? What kinds of emissions into air, water and soils will result?

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.

Famous car-lite 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.

Compact 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.

Freiburg’s success is credited largely to its democratic strength. Three keys are direct citizen participation, dynamic planning, and consensus. Active democracy was the first step when citizens, many from the university, worked to oppose the planned nuclear power plant. It 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 (e.g. solar, wind). The broad base of involved citizens is credited for Freiburg’s development of a consensus on sustainable development across the major stakeholders. This has enabled goals to be pursued steadily over decades. After clear and ambitious goals are established, Freiburg uses dynamic learning-by-planning or policy learning processes that give a lot of freedom to stakeholders in how to achieve these goals.

Jeffrey Kenworthy, 2006, “The eco-city: ten key transport and planning dimensions for sustainable city development”, Environment and Urbanization, Volume: 18 Issue: 1

Preston L. Schiller, Eric C. Bruun, Jeffrey R. Kenworthy, 2010, An introduction to sustainable transportation: policy, planning and implementation, London: Earthscan

Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, Heather Boyer, 2009, Resilient cities: responding to peak oil and climate change, Washington, DC: Island Press

Key data are retrieved from the UN Demographic Yearbook 2011,

Text by: Aaron Thomas

Street of Freiburg
© Werner Kunz
Map Freiburg 2
Freiburg Green City graphics
© FWTM/Cluster Green City