How Freiburg became a leader in urban resilience

Contributor: Samir Jeraj

The City of Freiburg in Germany has been nominated for an award for its use of long-term planning to create an environmentally and socially sustainable city. The World Habitat Awards are held annually by the organisation Building Social Housing for The Future and have run since 1985. Freiburg is one of ten finalists this year.

Like much of Germany, Freiburg had to be completely rebuilt after 1945. From the start, the City embraced new ideas in planning and urban space. In 1949 the City Centre was pedestrianised, in the 1960s the tram network was retained and expanded, and urban building was separated from green spaces through a concept called ‘five fingers’ [see the video below].

Then, in the 1970s, a proposed nuclear power station gave rise to a powerful anti-nuclear and citizens movement in Freiburg. This laid the ground for the rise of the Green Party in the city and a decision in 1986 by the City Council to develop renewable energy and a sustainable city. The Green Party continues to dominate local politics, but the legacy of the citizens’ movement can also be seen in the democratic culture and structures in the City. Direct involvement and participation by citizens is something which has continued and developed. Residents are directly involved in land-use planning, the city budget, public information, and energy.

Transport policy in Freiburg aims for it to be a ‘city of short distances’, and heavily favours walking, cycling and public transport, with private car use restricted. Five key policies have been enacted to achieve this:

1)    developing public transport;

2)    controlling traffic;

3)    limiting individual car use;

4)    managing parking space; and

5)    promoting cycling.

The public transport network is also connected up. The 30km of tramway network is connected to 168km of bus routes and the railway system. Land use is also strictly controlled; around a third of the land area of Freiburg is used for urban development, with the remaining areas being predominantly forest, agriculture, and green spaces. The amount of green space, use of permeable ground surfaces and green roofs helps save water. In addition to this, property owners are charged a stormwater fee according to how much of their land is permeable.

In areas where the city has developed, such as on the former military barracks at Vauban, housing is built to low energy standards (including Passivhaus) and supplied by renewables and CHP. Vauban itself is estimated to be the largest solar district in Europe. Citizens were involved in the design of buildings through the ideas of the Community Architecture Movement. Freiburg also prides itself on ‘social sustainability’. 80% of its housing stock is at affordable rents, with cooperatives playing a key role in keeping the cost of housing low.

In the past thirty years, Freiburg has become a model of how a sustainable city can be created. The Freiburg Charter was drawn up after it was awarded European City of the Year in 2010. Its aim is to use the experience of Freiburg to help other cities and planning authorities to develop sustainable cities. The charter has a set of 12 principles to guide planning and development and has been used in Germany as well in Mulhouse in France and Basel in Switzerland.

As the UK planning system continues to be dismantled, it may be that the Freiburg Charter could provide a useful rallying point for those cities who want to look to the future.


Samir Jeraj is a Green Party City Councillor in Norwich where he is currently the deputy leader of the opposition. He has worked in local government and the voluntary sector, and recently completed an MA in Development Studies focusing on the rise of the far right in India.

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