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Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Europe's Greenest City

Four out of five EU citizens inhabit metropolitan areas. So where's Europe’s greenest city? Likely suspects include Reykjavic in Iceland, Malmo in Sweden and Barcelona in Spain, all of whom were quick off the mark in instigating radical green reform. As the green city concept develops political cache, other metropolii are catching up, and nowadays many cities don’t just want to get green, they want to be the greenest of all. Events like the 2003 European Sustainable City Award (the winners were Ferrar, Heidelberg and Oslo) highlight the air of competitiveness that is beginning to seep into local environmental politics, while London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone chose this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos to publicize his commitment to making London “the undisputed world leader” in tackling climate change. But in Filtnib's humble opinion, the green crown must go to Freiburg: situated in Germany’s Black Forest, the city’s long-term embrace of all things green has single-handedly raised the eco-city game.

Freiburg is crucially a green party stronghold: in 2002 Mayor Dieter Salomon sailed into power with 65% of the vote, making it the first large green-governed city in Germany. But the burg’s eco-credentials go further back, and this is what makes it unique: in 1969, revolutionary transport regulations prioritized cyclists, public transport and pedestrians; the following year cyclepaths were introduced (they now run to 500km); and while most of Europe phased out its trams, Freiburg’s network was bravely being expanded. To put this in context, it's instructive to remember that right around this time, in 1971, French President Georges Pompidou was declaring, “the city must adapt to the car”. Good old Freiburg clearly wasn't listening: two years later the town centre was completely pedestrianized. Roll on 1991 and there's even a treat for the exercise-shy: a low-cost “environment public transport ticket” -just 44 euros a month will get you unlimited access to buses, trains and trams throughout the town and its 60km radius. Incredible. Mayor Salomon told me the highly successful scheme has since been copied across Europe, aswell as attracting research delegations from China and Japan.

Transport is just one element in the town’s sweeping eco-strategy. After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 the council energetically pursued alternatives to nuclear power. Freiburg is now known as the solar capitol of Europe, hosting the headquarters of many solar research companies aswell as a Solar Training Centre. An innovative “solar village” has just been built within the new Vauban district of ecologically designed homes, where 50 solar houses all produce more energy than they consume. In 1996 the town had 274 square metres of solar cells; a decade on, solar panels span a colossal 11,223m. The 19 floor façade of Freiburg’s central station consists of 240 solar panels and the council even boasts a dedicated “solar information desk”.

Freiburg’s landscape is literally green, too: 42% of the surrounding area is under conservational protection and, as of 1992, any new construction on Freiburg’s municipal land must comply with a stringent low-energy standard, which caps the permissable energy requirement of a building at two thirds the national limit. Mayor Salomon argues that individual action is vital: "The real difference comes when people change their lifestyle, and this is also the real challenge. Thirty years ago in Germany there was only a small minority of people that lived in this way, and the majority laughed at them. Today, lots more people are thinking about it seriously." He adds that Freiburg isn't only concerned with limiting further damage; they’re now planning for a warmer world: "Freiburg will get a lot warmer, but we'll also have a more extreme climate. We expect flooding and storms".

One of Freiburg's favoured methods of mitigating the effects of climate change sounds somewhat like a new dance move: “greenroofing”. Fast becoming Germany's favourite home improvement, the process basically entails transforming roofs into vegetation layers that allow stormwater run-off, reduce energy costs and mitigate the urban heat-island effect. Freiburg's other big coup is a scrupulous recycling scheme: each household has 4 separate bins, and even kitchen and garden waste is composted. Consequently, waste disposal has more than halved since 1988, allowing Freiburg to win “best recycler” in the EU’s 2001 “Urban Audit” (80% of Freiburg's waste was recycled, compared to the European average of just 19%).

Despite the incredible achievements of this smallish town in the Black Forest, Freiburg's Head of Energy Klaus Hoppe isn't complacent, saying “There’s still a lot to do.” New targets are being set each year; right now Hoppe’s concerned with raising the 1.6% of power sourced from bioenergy to 2.7% by 2010. “Freiburg” literally means free city. The town’s eco-logic demands a lot of rules, but in the long-term it’s securing a more important freedom: that of future generations to inhabit a sustainable city. How long will it take for the rest of us to catch up?

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