Freiburg: From Bikes to Brooms

Walking up the cobblestone streets, our paths cross tram tracks and 30 inch wide waterways.  Other pedestrians move easily through intersections while bicyclists weave through the busy area.  Cars are nowhere to be found as we meander down streets and alleyways of shops.  The city center is marked with a towering cathedral (the only structure in the city that survived the destruction of WWII), surrounded by a market of exuberant colors.  Flowers, fruits, vegetables and hand-made materials light up the square, contrasting the brown exterior of the cathedral.   The city gate arches above the main avenue displaying the old architecture.  Taking it all in we watch a narrow, cobblestone street become a place of diverse interaction.  We are in the sunniest city in Germany.  We are in the city of sustainability and public transport. We are in the European City of the Year 2010.  We are in Freiburg, Germany.

We began our day with a presentation by Professor Wulf Daseking, the chief planner of Freiburg.  His love for the city was revealed immediately; he cited a local saying that living in Freiburg is living in heaven, and that it is better to live in Freiburg without a job, than to live in northern Germany with a job.  He went on to explain the history and current planning of the city, along with the major principles and mindsets that go hand-in-hand with these techniques.  Professor Daseking stressed the importance of continuity in planning; it is important to “bring continuity to life”.  Freiburg has done this through land use and architecture.  The city has chosen to keep the original plots of land as they were historically, rather than expanding the plots of land for larger buildings.  These small plots create areas of mixed-use, with shops on the ground level and residential areas above.  The inner city has also tried to keep the old architecture present.  When the urban planners rebuilt the city after WWII, the city could have easily lost its old architectural taste, but this old style was seen as an important part of the continuity of the city’s existence.  Therefore, Freiburg was rebuilt with this style, continuing the sense of place.  By the end of the presentation we had learned that Freiburg strives to be a city of diversity and transport, a city of neighborhoods, and city of short distances.

After experiencing the tram system and walking around the city in the morning, there was only one more mode of transport we were missing out on, bicycling.  Before I begin describing our bike tour, let me tell you that we biked 15 km.  Yes 9.3 miles.  We only learned about the distance after the bike ride and we were surprised that we had cycled that far.  Cycling in Freiburg was so easy due to bike lanes, bike paths, bike friendly roads, and courteous drivers.

We picked up our bikes in a circular bike garage near the train station; this garage holds 1000 bikes.  It was amazing to see racks and racks of bikes lining the walls.  The large usage of bicycles was made apparent through this simple visual.  We learned that many commuters and locals use this bike garage.  Some commute into the city for work, so their bike is parked there to easily transition from the train station to work.  Some locals commute to other cities for work, and thus bike to the train station, leave their bike, and then pick it up there upon return.

Once everyone got their bikes adjusted and took a spin around the parking lot (to make sure we remembered how to ride a bike), we took off for Rieselfeld.  Rieselfeld is a district of Freiburg shaped like a fan.  The tram runs right down the middle of the district, so that the farthest possible distance a person could be from the main service of public transportation is 400 m. The concept of short distances creates a community of walking and bicycling.  Young children were comfortable walking around the streets alone (something not very common in the US).  The residential areas all integrated multiple families, but each unit was allowed to have its own architect, creating unique structures.  The most memorable part of the area was being able to walk on the green roof of a gym facility building.  The building was shaped like an arc, so the roof became a hill in the land.  From the grass roof you could see a good portion of the district along with wind turbines in the distant mountains.  From this structure we could also see a huge concrete building we later found out was a church.  This church continues the concept of mixed use and integration.  The concrete church is home to both a Catholic and Protestant group, each having its own section/room.  The walls of the church can be moved though, to create one huge room for town assemblies and other larger events.  Therefore the building was designed to be flexible for multiple uses.

After Rieselfeld our group biked over to the Vauban district.  This district is famously known for its solar houses.  The solar district is filled with so-called energy plus houses that produce more energy than they use; the city pays the residents for the extra energy the houses feed into the power grid.  The tour guide explained that this development is the second most visited area by tourists in Freiburg (the Cathedral being first).  So many tourists visit, that the residents complain they feel like they are in a zoo!  Guess we weren’t helping with that issue…

Trekking up the hill, above the solar houses, we finally came upon the famous rotating solar house.  This structure rotates according to the movement of the sun and seasons.  The house catches optimal rays for its solar panels, while shading the windows to keep heat out.  It produces 5x the amount of energy it uses, making it one of the most famous solar houses in the world.

The final highlight of the day was seeing the one and only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (a day before anyone in the US I might add)! A group of us bought tickets earlier in the day, seizing the last possible tickets in the first row.  Leaning back we anxiously awaited the movie, worrying we weren’t in the English version movie. Waiting through German commercials, German previews (of American movies), and five minutes of pure music at the start of the movie, we finally heard the actors speak English.  With a sigh of relief we sat back and relaxed, enjoying our last night in Freiburg and the end of a childhood era.

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Amy Triscoli, Undergraduate Architecture, University of Virginia

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