Sustainable Communities for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Germany’s Freiburg has long been touted as one of the greenest cities in Europe. For many years, I have looked at pictures of Freiburg, read descriptions of its buildings and larger-scale developments, and offered it as an example of positive and sustainable change when giving presentations. At last, in June, 2012, I was there in person to see if Freiburg’s reality matched its reputation.

What I discovered, principally, was that Australia has much to learn from the way in which truly sustainable cities have evolved. Understanding the past, present and future of these cities can help us transform our own cities for the better.


Freiburg im Breisgau, with a population of around 230,000 people, is a 150 square kilometre city in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. It is one of Germany’s oldest university towns and serves as the main tourist entry point to the Black Forest, at the heart of a major wine-growing region.

Known as the sunniest and warmest city in Germany, Freiburg radiates outwards from an old marketplace; the name ‘Freiburg’ refers to its founding, in 1120, as a ‘free market town’.

The design of each European city is interconnected with its topography and history. European cities tended to radiate outwards from the marketplace and the most densely-populated areas in the centre. Transport options – on foot, by horse and cart, then later by tram, train or bus – dictated the distances between work and home and thus the density as well. Other influences, such as the system of sewage disposal in Paris, the position of gates and trading posts in Milan, or the natural geography or rivers and valleys, created shape and character. In Freiburg, the city’s layout was also influenced by the natural ‘bowl’ shape of the land.

In Australia, we have borrowed much from Europe when it comes to the evolution of our cities, but the majority of Australia’s urban development has come during the era of the motor car, resulting in urban sprawl. Freiburg offers an alternative evolution; one based around foot traffic rather than vehicular traffic, and with extensive public transport networks.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the city is the streams of water, known as ‘Bachle’, running through many of the main streets. Originally serving as the water supply, they were also used to fight fires. Although these streams formed part of the city’s basic infrastructure, they now add to the heritage aesthetic and the cooling properties of the running water help on hotter days.

Bachle Freiburg

Image 1: One of Freiburg’s main streets, with the Bachle running down the right hand side.

With so many historical buildings, Freiburg has also done its best to retrofit, restore and improve its existing building stock. Despite heavy bombing during the Second World War, Freiburg has maintained and restored its heritage buildings and is in the process of renewing and upgrading many of the more recent buildings, including its housing estates from the 1960s and 1970s.

These retrofits are instructive. Space has been maximised, with whole floor plates of buildings being altered. The retrofit of the green tower block saw unit size decreasing slightly to allow for an increase from six to nine units per floor. Old balconies have become part of the internal space and new balconies have been retrofitted to the outside of the building structure. The result is refurbished buildings that feel fresh and new.

Refurbished 1970s building Freiburg

Image 2: Upgrades of 1970s residential tower blocks provide more attractive and efficient options

Many of these tired developments are also being fitted with renewable energy sources and sustainability measures; solar panels are being used as façades and shading devices, new insulation is being installed, and balconies are being properly shaded to maximise use throughout the year.


Freiburg’s citizens enjoy excellent public transport, which is complemented by an urban design which is a pleasure for pedestrians. During my visit, I moved around the city with ease. I arrived by train from Stuttgart, walked to the marketplace and then caught trams from location to location. Trams run every seven minutes, and public transport is reliable and efficient. The main centres of commerce are hubs of public spaces, retail stores, university buildings and restaurants, and preference seems to be given to pedestrian and cycle connections in many places and to public transport in others.

Even arriving into the city by train presented a range of integrated options; I could catch a tram or a bus, cycle paths and footpaths were well-signed, and vehicular traffic was not prioritised. This seemed very different from most Australian cities, where ‘car is king’ and public transport, cyclists and pedestrians must fit around cars and their infrastructure. Once out in the quieter residential neighbourhoods, it was noticeable that cars were a rarity; they were there, but you had to look for them.

Many of the commercial and residential buildings throughout Freiburg sported green roofs – and not always beautifully maintained and expensively planted gardens, but meadows of wildflowers with an unkempt charm. The insulating qualities of these roofs would be all the more important in Freiburg’s variable climate. Such widespread acceptance of technology as ‘old’ as green roofs is well ahead of their acceptance in Australia, where such ideas are often greeted with caution, mistrust and scepticism.

Green roofs Freiburg

Image 3: Green roofs within some of Freiburg’s residential communities


Freiburg is already planning for the future. Not content to rest upon its laurels as a ‘green model city’, the people of Freiburg are looking at ways in which their city can reduce its environmental impact and be more efficient, productive and healthy.

The citizens of Freiburg are actively engaged in community-level decision-making about the future of their buildings – how they will be used, transformed and adapted, and in some cases, knocked down and rebuilt to higher levels of environmental sustainability. This level of engagement is something we need to embrace in Australia – and which the new Green Star – Communities sustainability rating tool encourages.

While Freiburg is known for its solar panels, photovoltaic initiatives, solar hot water and wind turbines, some of its retrofitted neighbourhoods are also installing gas-fired cogeneration plants which power the whole area and which have a significantly reduced environmental impact and transmission losses when compared to the mains electricity supply. Many people to whom I spoke said the shift towards decentralised energy solutions was gathering speed.

Solar Settlement Freiburg

Image 4: Rolf Disch’s Solar Settlement

Some of Freiburg’s most famous architectural landmarks, such as Rolf Disch’s Solar Solar Ship mixed-use development, and Heliotrope, one of the world’s first energy-positive buildings, serve as real-world examples of sustainability. Heliotrope rotates to track the sun, and incorporates several energy generation modules including a 56 square metre dual-axis solar photovoltaic tracking panel, a geothermal heat exchanger, a combined heat and power unit and solar-thermal balcony railings to provide heat and warm water. The result is a building that produces anywhere from four to six times its energy usage, depending on the time of year.

Heliotrope building Freiburg

Image 5: Rolf Disch’s famous ‘Heliotrope’ building from 1994

The ability to learn from previous developments has put Frieburg ahead of the game, both nationally and internationally, and has made it a centre of green building and community research for its solar initiatives, energy solutions and transport network.

Australia has much to learn from communities, neighbourhoods and precincts around the world. The people of Freiburg have been applying many of the principles found in the newly-released Green Star – Communities rating tool for decades. Australia now has a golden opportunity to examine our past and our present and plan for a more efficient, productive and healthy future. If the people of Freiburg can do it, so can we.

By Robin Mellon, Executive Director – Advocacy and Business Services Green Building Council of Australia
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