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Postcard from Freiburg

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?

17 comments to Postcard from Freiburg

  • Max

    A very interesting little article, Peter. My home town in Germany was much more car-focussed, but at least it also had kept its tram system (and was starting to expand it again when I left) and kep at least a 10% bike mode share. Trams though – such a marvellous addition to the city, lets get them back to Auckland too.

    Love the “insurance against car parking” concept. Maybe we should have put that into the Unitary Plan instead of retaining MPRs – though as I heard from some developers, there’s still a strong dislike of “pooled” car parking garages at the edge of (otherwise freehold) developments… shame. In particular for households who only need the car two or three times a week (for the odd longer distance trip or really big shop), those would work great.

    • Peter Nunns

      One issue with the “insurance policy” approach to parking provision is that it may require you to buy and hold land in advance. This could be a bit costly in Auckland, but the consequences would seem to be basically benevolent (another park!).

  • mfwic

    I can’t believe you Godwined your own post!

    • Knowing Peter I think that was probably exactly the point 😉

    • But then it isn’t a Godwin if it’s actually factual, as opposed to hyperbole.

      Kind of like the way it’s acceptable to use the word ‘baby’ in a song lyric when actually referring to a very young child….

    • Peter Nunns

      Nope, not actually a Godwin! The only people I called Nazis were the people running the German government in 1939, who – history alert! – were actual Nazis.

      Now, if I had said that traffic engineers are just like Nazis when they apply MPRs, that would be a Godwin. But I wouldn’t say that because it’s ridiculous and offensive.

      • mfwic

        Peter you are underestimating how thick our skins really are. Nazi Shmazi. If they did invent MPRs then let’s just add it to the Volkswagen list of “things we want to forget who invented” just under the Olympic torch.

  • Sort of.

    Keep those nazi observations coming while on your Germany leg of the vacation. Sarc

  • Ak-Sam

    It sounds like a perfect small city! Are there a number of Freiburg residents who do not wish the city to grow? Certainly a larger city size would lose the ability to be navigable by foot, bicycle or tram (at a casual pace).

    • Peter Nunns

      I suspect that’s a factor – as in just about any city. The city’s Green Party, which is in charge on the council, seems to be fairly pro-growth. Their line seems to be to build more, provided that it’s energy efficient and accessible to PT and cycling.

  • mfwic

    There are blocks of flats in Wellington that are corporations where you buy shares with a right to live there. The problem with them is that banks can be reluctant to lend. Associations might bring the same problem. Banks want something they can take off you and flog off quickly if you dont make payments.

    • If those associations are anything like the ones I am familiar with, you still get a separate title so no issues with lending. The share corporation model was a weird way of getting around the lack of legal structure for multi-dwelling buildings in early NZ. This is now dealt with by unit titles.

      I don’t see there is anything stopping a group of families getting together and building apartment blocks now. Just incorporate a company, issue shares and have an agreement that once built every shareholder gets an apartment.

      It sounds like a bloody good idea.

    • Peter Nunns

      Yeah, Goosoid’s got it right. Housing associations design and build together, but the individual households end up with unit titles that they can sell to others as they please.

      Apparently the German government’s stamp duty policy creates incentives for people to build their own homes. If you buy land and build a house, you only pay stamp duty on the land, whereas if you buy a house from a developer, you pay stamp duty on the land and the build.

      There are also other cultural and political factors at work – Germany has a good tradition of experimenting with different housing models.

  • Interesting about the min parking requirements; wasn’t aware of that. Other than Vauban, the other new suburb development in Freiburg that is interesting to see is Rieselfeld; while both great examples of sustainable development, they differ in how they were developed (essentially privately led vs govt led). More info here: http://cyclingchristchurch.co.nz/2015/08/29/vauban-and-rieselfeld-freiburg-suburbs-for-cycling/

    • Peter Nunns

      Yeah, we didn’t get to see Rieselfeld unfortunately – only had a day in Freiburg. Great pictures in your post!

      One thing I would like to understand more is how community input works in Freiburg. It seems like it’s led to more development rather than less – in contrast to what would happen in most NZ cities.

  • I’ve been to Freiburg im Berisgau. There are a few Freiburgs in Germany. 😉

    The other part I really liked there is the central part of town is almost entirely pedestrian. The only vehicles you’ll see are light rail or commercial vehicles doing deliveries and the like. It’s something I’d love to see explored for the golden mile in Wellington.

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