After Paris we spent a day and two nights in Freiburg before heading on to Switzerland to meet Stu Donovan and go skiing. By the time you read this, we will be on the slopes! Here are a few thoughts and impressions of the place.
Freiburg is a small city of about 220,000 people near the Black Forest in southwestern Germany. It’s gained an international reputation for being one of the most sustainable cities in Europe. What this means, in practice, is that it seems to combine the best of both big cities – on-street vibrancy, especially around the historic downtown – and small towns – quiet, safe neighbourhoods that are good for young families.
According to our hosts, the city’s cycling mode share – for all trips, not just commuting – is roughly equal to its car mode share. About 30% of trips are on bicycle, and 30% are in cars. The remainder is split between the city’s light rail system and walking.
But it hasn’t always been thus. Freiburg was headed down the road to motordom in the 1950s and 60s. But, like many Dutch cities, it took a different direction in the 1970s, expanding its tram system rather than pulling it out, and starting to build cycleways. They’ve got 420 kilometres of bike lanes, including separated cycling highways, 36 kilometres of tramways, and expansions in the works.
Freiburg’s public transport system has roughly the same level of patronage as Auckland – almost 80 million trips a year. (And, apparently, a farebox recovery ratio of over 80%.)
So far, so good. But Freiburg is growing quite rapidly – a consequence of its attractiveness as a place to live, I suspect – which is putting pressure on housing. Rents are apparently rising, and the city council (which is led by the local Green Party) has to plan for this growth. Freiburg is already a midrise city – three to five storeys in most places – so it is debating its next steps.
In line with past practice, this means a bit of up and a bit of out. New apartments are being planned for some parts of the city, and the city’s negotiating with farmers to buy some more land at the edge. Hearing about the options, and the constraints, I was struck by how familiar it all would seem in Auckland. The farmers were holding out for higher prices for their fringe land. Heritage preservation policies in the old parts of the city make it difficult to build up there. It’s not possible to develop in biodiversity areas or in the Black Forest. Minimum parking requirements add significant cost to new housing.
Wait, minimum parking requirements? In the sustainable city of Freiburg?
Apparently, yes. MPRs in Germany were imposed by a federal law in 1939 – perhaps the earliest example on the books, which would make them literally a Nazi invention. They are still generally in force today, although there’s been a trend to devolve control over minimums to local governments. In Freiburg, the minimums have recently been reduced from one parking space per dwelling to 0.6 spaces per dwelling. (In Berlin, by contrast, they have been removed entirely.)
However, there have also been some innovative ways to get around MPRs. For example, the suburb of Vauban was developed as an energy-efficient, car-free neighbourhood. Requiring one carpark per home would have undermined the concept pretty badly, so parking was instead provided in three garages at the edge of the development.
However, one of those garages was not actually constructed. Instead, everybody in Vauban who didn’t want a car bought into an association that had the option to develop the underlying land for carparks. In effect, rather than buying a carpark, they bought insurance against the possibility that they would need one. Apparently this saved car-free households around 18,000 euros. And the third parking garage still hasn’t been built – the land is still being used as a playground.
The word “association” seems to be an important one when it comes to housing development in Germany. Germany law and tax policies make it easy and advantageous for people to club together to develop multi-family dwellings. A lot of the apartment buildings and terraced houses in Vauban were built this way. Basically, get together with some friends, buy a bit of land, and hire an architect to design an apartment building for you. You’ve got to comply with some high-level rules about bulk and form, but other than that the design is up to the occupants.
I would be interested in learning more about this model. It could be really compatible with New Zealanders’ aspirations for housing – we have a preference for designing (and even building) our own houses, but Auckland’s high land prices make it costly to build standalone dwellings. Midrise apartment buildings could fill the affordability gap, but the current developer-led model doesn’t suit everyone. So perhaps look to Germany for an alternative model?