Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
The final week of my spring semester abroad, I set off to Freiburg, Germany, renowned for being the most environmentally friendly city in the nation. There you can find a solar settlement where houses produce more energy than they consume, another housing community that practices sustainable living, convenient and reliable public transportation, and many bike paths.
I first learned about Freiburg's environmental initiatives in the spring of 2009 when I took a class on contemporary German issues at St. Lawrence. After conducting research for one semester I realized just how expansive the topic is, and considering today's need for environmental conservation, I knew I wanted to learn more. Teaming up with the German Innovation Academy in Freiburg, a non-profit organization that organizes tours and seminars about Freiburg's environmental projects, I arranged to take a tour of the two main environmental settlements located on the outskirts of the city. The solar settlement, or "Solarsiedlung," is comprised of 58 houses with solar paneling. Apart from producing more energy than they consume, the roofs are engineered to allow the maximum amount of sunlight to hit them, thus optimizing the amount of energy produced for household use. The architect of this solar settlement, Rolf Disch, even designed his house so that part of the structure can rotate to follow the sun's rays.
The second settlement I toured, devoted entirely to sustainable living, is known as the Vauban district. This community is composed of renovated army barracks. Here the people of Freiburg took it upon themselves to create a space that utilizes fewer resources and requires less energy consumption. First, land is conserved because of the minimalist apartment structure of the settlement. The members of the community also participate in a local food and goods market to reduce the number of trips required to go into the city. Thus the environmental impact needed to produce these products is lessened. Car sharing is more common than not, and many individuals that reside in this community don't even own a vehicle! Also, located close to the settlement is a factory that converts its waste product, such as heat energy, into other usable energy forms.
In addition, Freiburg is home to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems which is the largest solar research institute in Europe. Many stores and housing structures also have solar paneling. The inter-city tram tracks allow grass to grow in between rails so rainfall can be absorbed and become ground water for human consumption. This may seem like a small detail, but each small example of water and energy conservation adds up to create an environment that is self-sustainable.
Apart from the tour I was fortunate enough to have a few extra days to explore the other wonderful aspects of the city. The town is lined with cobblestone paths and small boutiques that crowd the pedestrian area of the inner city, or "Stadtmitte," of Freiburg. Freiburg is very quaint in this respect while innovative in environmental matters. Surrounded by cafes that serve the local cuisine and the stalls of the local market, the Münster Cathedral lies in the heart of the city. Daily, tourists and villagers gather to partake in the market where local produce and products are sold.
The experience to learn something new is always a great opportunity. I will be forever grateful for the grant I received and to the German Innovation Academy for helping me expand my understanding of Freiburg's environmental initiatives and acquainting myself with the cultural variances of this enchanting German region.