A university town, Freiburg is full of students. One of the largest towns in Bavaria, Freiburg is full of tourists. Known for its high standard of living and eco-friendly politics, Freiburg is full of middle-income, environmentally conscious families. Add it all up and it’s clear: Freiburg is full of hippies. Better yet, (some of you will understand this) surrounded by forest and hills, it’s the Athens, Ohio of Germany!
I went to visit my globe-trotting friend, Katrina. She was nearing the end of her study abroad experience in Freiburg, which conveniently for me is just five and a half sleepy hours by train from Milan!
Waking up in Freiburg, I stumbled from the train station onto the clean brick streets. Trams came and went, bikes sped by and people chatted in a not-as-harsh-sounding-as-I-expected German. The only thing missing were the cars. It seems the farther North you go in Europe, the more bike friendly a city is, and though Freiburg is in Southern Germany, it’s far north compared to Italy and the bike trend was unmistakable.
It turns out, this city doesn’t just seem green, but actually is green, both mentally and politically. After being largely destroyed by bombs in WWII, the city was rebuilt with the environment in mind. Energy-saving principles were introduced in all construction projects such as “passive” houses that naturally regulate the temperature with little to no use of heating or cooling systems, as well as highly-prized bike lanes and recycling systems.
Today, Germany’s environmental political party, ingeniously called “The Greens,” has a stronghold in Freiburg, and its largest national support comes from the tiny town.
Many of Katrina’s friends were living in a neighborhood just south of the town center in Vaubon. As we took the tram there the traffic thinned, bike numbers rose and the amount of people wearing shoes declined.
Built in the mid-1990’s, the young neighborhood was planned to be “a sustainable model district.” All houses are designed to fall under a low energy consumption standard, either as passive houses or heated with solar panels and other mixed-energy methods.
We walked from the tram station past colorful, welcoming homes. Porches and balconies were strewn with hammocks, strings of lights and potted plants. Right behind Vaubon is the Schönberg hill where families hike with their children past vineyards and fields to find the Shneeburg ruins of an ancient castle or enjoy the view of the city below. When we went a day camp group was having a scavenger hunt among the hills. The children wore tennis shoes and hats and were thrilled to be outside.
Though not as small as I had imagined, Freiburg’s small-town community feel is noticeable – it runs through the city like the famous Bächle gutter system.
It’s true that being eco-conscious in this city is also being politically-conscious, and thus comes with its fair share of issues, as this article mentions. However it’s also true that the air is pure, the people are thin and nights spent drinking in augustinerplatz don’t end with bottles broken on the streets, but instead carefully collected to be recycled in a local grocery store for some money back. At the very least, the push towards an environmentally friendly city seems to have also made a civically conscious city – one that any traveler can feel welcome in.