An Irishman's Diary

Tue, Nov 30, 2010, 00:00

YOU GET an immediate sense of Freiburg and how it works from the dense clusters of bicycles outside the main railway station.

Above it is an overpass carrying frequent trams on four routes and alongside, at ground level, there are equally frequent buses – all to take people wherever they want to go.

A third of all commuters in Freiburg get to work by public transport, a third use bicycles or walk, while only a third still rely on their cars. And even though the city relatively small by German standards, with a population of only 220,000, it has a 450km network of cycleways. No wonder it bills itself as “the greenest city in Europe”.

In Dublin, by contrast, public transport – bus, train and tram – carries only 21 per cent of commuters while an even smaller proportion (less than 4 per cent) use bicycles and an overwhelming 56 per cent are still travelling to and from work by car.

That’s why the city suffers from unusually high levels of traffic congestion.

In Freiburg, many of the streets in its historic core are reserved for pedestrians, buses and trams – all of which appear to co-exist quite peacefully; not once during my recent visit with the Academy of Urbanism did we hear a tram driver having to ring a bell or hoot a horn to persuade pedestrians (or motorists) to get out of the way.

It rained a lot while we were there, although the city claims to be the sunniest in Germany. That’s why many retired people from the northern part of the country – blanketed by grey cloud for much of the winter – have sold their homes to relocate there, close to the Black Forest. It also has a very high student population of 32,000.

A historic city, with a charter dating from the 12th century, much of its centre was destroyed in November, 1944, by more than 300 Allied bombers – “the Americans during the day, the British at night,” Freiburg’s chief planner, Dr Wulf Daseking, told us. After the war, it was painstakingly rebuilt plot-by-plot, according to its medieval plan.

Architecturally unremarkable apart from the cathedral, which miraculously survived, and other buildings such as the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), the Historische Kaufhaus (old market house) and Martinstor, one of the city’s medieval gate towers (now with a McDonalds sign right next to it), Freiburg still has a lot to offer.

It beat Bordeaux and Valencia for the Academy of Urbanism’s “European City of the Year 2010” title mainly because it was “self-evidently an exemplar for sustainable development”, with a clear and quite lively historic core connected by an integrated public transport network to well-designed neighbourhoods on the outskirts.

Prof Kevin Leyden, an American now based at NUI Galway’s Centre for Innovation and Structural Change, was struck by how hard Freiburg has “worked and planned to be energy-efficient and carbon-conscious as well as creating real neighbourhoods with a sense of place. There is also a commitment to green space, playgrounds and local shops”. Dr Daseking, who has been Freiburg’s chief planner for 27 years, said the “breaking point” came in the early 1980s when the city council decided that big shopping malls on the outskirts would be “zoned out”. As a result, smaller shops had the chance to survive and “people get their daily requirements by walking or cycling, not driving”.

One of the stupid things Dublin did, and Freiburg didn’t do, was to get rid of its trams.

As a result, the city’s tramlines – running from north to south and east to west, with the main station as the network’s hub – were extended to serve new “fingers” of development stretching out in all four directions – including new suburbs like Vauban and Riesefeld.

Housing is socially mixed, with rich and poor living in close proximity, on remarkably quiet streets devoid of through-traffic. Children play in green areas or quite safely on the streets. “By building like this, you can influence the use of cars,” Dr Daseking said. “Freiburg has only 440 cars per 1,000 in population, but in Vauban it’s only 85 per 1,000”.

Riesefeld is as good as Hammarby in Stockholm, and even more inclusive. It even has a dopplekirche (double church), designed by Leipzig architects Kister Scheithauer Gross, for both Catholics and Protestants. Internal concrete walls, nine metres high, can slide to divide the building or open it up for community meetings.

Freiburg’s planners insist that the way it works derives from the culture of its people – and from a political consensus currently led by the city’s Green Party mayor, Dr Dieter Salomon. This dates back to a successful campaign in the late 1970s against plans for a nuclear power station that spawned a series of environmental initiatives.

“We have very special citizens, very engaged in saving energy and other things. It comes from their citizenship,” Köhler explained. “There was an experiment to take 30 photos of the type of shoes people wear here, and they’re totally different to what you would find in Frankfurt. Sandals and hiking boots show the people’s mentality.” Freiburg has now drafted a 10-page charter for sustainable urban planning and development. It does “not purport to be a definitive approach for all cultures, climates or urban planning regimes”, nor do its authors intend that the 12 principles they’ve put forward are “fixed commandments to be slavishly copied by uncritical recipients”.

Dublin City Council’s chief planner, Dick Gleeson, sees a lot of merit in it. “The big thing is that it’s based on 25 years or more of best practice and the evidence of that is on the ground – anybody can go to see it. You’d envy them that continuity, because what’s implicit in it is an embedding of design consciousness in everything they do.”

Cork, a city of comparable size if not prosperity, could learn a lot from Freiburg, and one of its senior planners, Jeremy Ward, was there too.