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On Solarpunk #9
Discovering utopia in Freiburg, Germany
Hi there! I started this newsletter with the intention of writing relatively short, frequent updates on all things Solarpunk. Yet over time, my posts have become longer and longer, which has made it hard to keep up with any regular cadence. So to ease back into things, here’s a brief travel report from Freiburg. I’m thinking a lot about housing these days, so I may do a deeper dive into co-housing and utopian communities in the future. But for now, enjoy these pretty pictures of inspired neighborhood design.
Last month, Agatha and I spent three days in Freiburg. Freiburg is a small city in the south west corner of Germany. It hosts just over 230,000 people and is known as one of the most environmentally friendly cities in Europe. We decided to visit after listening to Michael Eliason’s glowing podcast episode about the city.
The entire city has a long-standing reputation for eco-friendly design and living, and the German Greens political party has long led the city government. In the 1990s, two new sustainable districts were designed and built by the city—Vauban and Rieselfeld. We chose to stay at the Green City Hotel in Vauban, and the neighborhood deeply affected and inspired us.
Vauban is an 80 acre district which was originally a French military base. The city of Freiburg purchased the base in the 1990s and put together a plan for a model sustainable neighborhood. They focused on building energy efficiency, minimizing the usage of cars, and district heating infrastructure. Plots of land were sold to a mix of developers and co-housing groups with a bias towards mixed age groups.
Today, over 5,600 people reside in the district. Many of the buildings comply with the Passive House standard for energy efficiency, and others are “energy plus” buildings that produce more electricity (via on-site solar) than they use per year. Only about 15% of residents own cars, and cars are parked in garages on the periphery of the district.
There’s an abundance of green space, walking paths, and community gardens. While walking around, we even came across a paddock full of horses!
A near-silent, electric tram line runs through the middle of the district that residents can use to get to the middle of Freiburg in just 15 minutes, and there are multiple schools and businesses integrated into the neighborhood.
Many of the buildings are architecturally similar, but each one has some sort of quirk or design feature that makes them unique.
Overall, it’s a wonderful place to live and spend time.
What can we learn from Freiburg?
Housing—especially housing inaffordability—is a hot topic today. So why don’t we see more districts like Vauban?
For one, we may be suffering from a lack of public imagination when it comes to housing and community design. In the US, single family homes are idolized. Families have a particular idea of wealth and desire their own yards and driveways and cars.
I don’t think that’s because every family has visited Freiburg and Phoenix and chosen sprawl over utopia. I think it’s because most families (and developers) do not know about alternatives.
There are a handful of projects in the US that adopt some of the same features as Frieburg. Ithaca’s Ecovillage is a co-housing development with 100 eco-friendly homes and 220 residents. Culdesac Tempe is a new car-free neighborhood in Arizona. And Devon Zuegel maintains a list of walking-friendly developments, many of which happen to be in the South. But these projects are rare and relatively unknown.
In the case of Vauban, an organization called Forum Vauban was formed to advocate for community issues during the development process. Forum Vauban started as a small group of environmental and housing experts as well as future residents of the district. The group was instrumental in making Vauban what it is and put forward some of the early concepts for “an ecological, socially just and self-organized city quarter with lots of green space and affordable housing.” (Read more about the Vauban development process in this excellent case study.)
Close to home
I live in the Hudson Valley, and we’re experiencing a severe housing crunch—like many communities. Demand far outstrips housing supply, yet housing developments have a bad reputation because they often replace farms and green space, which are key to the character of the place.
There’s one particular example going on right now. My town of Red Hook, NY, recently purchased a large farm within walking distance of the center of our village. The goal is to keep the farm out of the hands of conventional developers and preserve the land as farmland and green space. In total, the farm is over 220 acres—almost three times the size of Vauban! As of now, the town intends to sell only a 12 acre parcel of the farm to an affordable housing developer for 12-18 units, but otherwise the land will be preserved as parks and farmland.
I’ve joined with a small group of residents to propose more housing for the farm—in particular dense, dignified, walkable, eco-friendly housing in the style of Freiburg or Ithaca’s Ecovillage. It’s an uphill battle, but visiting places like Freiburg gives me hope and something tangible to strive for.