Day 21: Sustainable Freiburg on two wheels (6/23/2017)

By Kate Green

Our final day was, of course, bittersweet. By this point, I think many of us are very ready to go home and sleep in our own beds and not have to pack and unpack a suitcase every third day. But we have also all made some incredible friends and will be sad to leave them – particularly those at the other school.

The day started relatively leisurely with breakfast on our own at the hotel (but like always, everyone sat together anyways). At 8:45, we walked to the nearby tram stop and took the tram to the main train station (or in German, Hauptbahnhof – a word I think we’ve all memorized by this point). There we met our guide for the morning bike tour of Freiburg. Freiburg Aktiv fitted us to bicycles, handed out helmets, and attached baskets to the bikes of a lucky (or unlucky) few. The baskets were promptly loaded with loose water bottles, cameras, and other miscellaneous items, and like a herd of unbalanced, gangly-legged turtles, we were off. Our line of bikes must have stretched a city block but no one particularly seemed to care – we were just another group of cyclists.

The first stop we made was outside a grouping of apartment buildings along a busy street. Though easy to miss, our guide pointed out details on the building (besides the obvious solar panels that covered the roof and south-facing sides) that allowed less heat to escape and for residents to maximize indoor and outdoor space without compromising passive heating.

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Photo-voltaic showcase project from the early 2000s installed vertically on public housing

Next, we rode through the public housing development we visited on Tuesday. Our guide once again highlighted the success of letting residents choose their neighbors and how that translated into the energy-efficient buildings being well taken care of. Following our same path as Tuesday, we next stopped in Rieselfeld. This district used to be a giant sewage treatment plant but with careful yet flexible planning, it has evolved into one of the most popular – and eco-friendly – places to live in Freiburg. Our guide challenged us to find a ‘for sale’ or ‘for rent’ sign – we found none.

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In the solar village with energy plus houses in the background

On the bikes, we were able to see much more of this area and got to enjoy the car-free zones that are connected with small paths that open up into hidden gardens or playgrounds. Each open area was designed to meet the needs and desires of the families in the houses that surround it. Without the constant hum of cars and roar of trucks and besides the sounds of kids playing outside, our bike tour through Rieselfeld was peaceful.

Next on our tour, our guide navigated us on a 5km ride through winding bike paths, over bridges, past an awesome looking outdoor adventure park, and along a river until we finally came out in Vauban – the very first neighborhood we had visited in Freiburg and the location of our current hotel. Once again, the bikes gave us greater access to this incredible neighborhood. We saw bigger community gardens than the ones in Rieselfeld and even saw an urban farm with a cow, horse, and various chickens and ducks! Again, I was struck by how silent and peaceful this neighborhood was. A few minutes outside of Vauban, we stopped in a solar neighborhood and business park. Every roof we could see was covered in water heating or photovoltaic solar panels.

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Stop in one of Rieselfeld’s many quiet interior courtyards

We ended our tour with a small hill climb to get a gorgeous, sweeping view of Freiburg. The final sight our guide pointed out was a group of eco-houses built for refugees, and then he directed us home. The ride back to the train station was a bit more precarious as we began to integrate back into busy streets with fast moving cars and some oblivious pedestrians – no one can say we took the easy tour. We felt like true city cyclists.

Overall, our tour through Freiburg ended up being a perfect summary of not only our time in Freiburg but also the trip as a whole. We saw social sustainability with the energy-efficient and free-choice public housing and also with the sustainably built houses on the edge of the Black Forest for refugees. We used affordable and environmentally friendlier alternatives to cars to complete our tour. In Rieselfeld and Vauban, we saw not only incredible amounts of green space and car-free zones, we saw environmentally and socially sustainable planning with multifamily houses, community farms and gardens, and water-saving infrastructure along roads and on buildings. To me, this bike tour showed me what could be possible in the U.S. It would be easy enough to turn all of the deserted lots into community gardens. If roads were only slightly widened and trucks and buses designed to be thinner, then it would be possible to have consistent designated bikes lanes. Most of the paths we followed away from the roads were paths shared with pedestrians. If as a society, we can commit to making non-car transportation a priority, I see no impassable obstacles. Imagine New York City with half of the traffic… grass and trees wherever they thrive… bikes taking up one lane of traffic in each direction… It seems like a far-off fantasy world but it is attainable – we just have to want it.

We ended the day with a free afternoon to do some last minute shopping or relaxing and then had a final group dinner at Kartoffelhaus. Like many others, this dinner, of course, took longer than anticipated and there were the typical mix-ups in food orders. Looking back, I think it would have been a shame if our last meal had gone any other way (e.g. as planned). This entire trip has been on the verge of organized chaos with hours and days of incredible learning and awesome experiences tucked in between. We were a large group with many differing opinions, preferences, backgrounds, and ideologies. We had three superb professors, who each brought something different to the table and, together, we made up one absurd and wonderful group.

This has been a trip that none of us will soon forget. We are so grateful for our families, friends, and professors who encouraged us to come and especially for Todd, Suzanne, and Ralph – without whom this trip would not have been possible.

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Sun setting over Freiburg on one of the longest days of the year

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