Freiburg visit: Should we try this at home?

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CAUSE’s Rosie Pearson visited Freiburg in southern Germany, to see if it is a model for growth that we should consider copying in north Essex. CAUSE has cited it as an alternative for strategic growth since the garden communities reared their heads in 2015, when we first submitted a consultation response to our councils.  Freiburg has grown and developed to benefit all of its residents, in conjunction with residents and has addressed problems associated with growth. It has not done so by drawing three new blobs on a map and attempting to find evidence to make a pre-determined approach work…

Freiburg is a university town not dissimilar in size to Colchester. It was faced with growth pressure and took the decision to prioritise public transport, cycling and walking and to grow through compact, well connected urban extensions: Vauban and Rieselfeld. Transport planning is integrated with land use planning.   Freiburg is internationally renowned for being ‘liveable’ and green and is thought of by many as the ‘holy grail’ of planning.  (For more info please read: )

First some photos and impressions, and then some facts.


It was lovely to see cyclists are everywhere, and there are plenty of segregated bike lanes (450km of bike paths) and lots of bike parking (50 bike parks in the town centre).  Houses in the new developments are provided with lockable bike garages like the one below.  Distances are short because the town has avoided low density sprawl of the kind that we see around Colchester and proposed in the garden communities.  (Some readers may remember that to demonstrate this I walked across the ‘area of search’ of West Tey last summer and it took an hour.   From the edge closest to Colchester took another 1h30m.)  When we weren’t using the trams in Freiburg, we walked.


Public transport is cheap, frequent, regular and easy to use.  We hopped on and off and we didn’t have a tram map but the signage and instructions were clear.  (Our three day travel pass included all the local trains, trams and buses and cost 28 Euros for one adult and two children.   It even covered a 45 minute return bus ride to the Black Forest). Fifty-six bus routes and eight railway lines are included in the system

FreiburgTramsBlack Forest hinterland, accessible on public transport.  The surrounding countryside is valued and cherished and planning policy reflects this:


In the new residential areas, cars are separated or speed is controlled.   It’s quiet, the air is clean, it feels safe and it encourages walking, playing and cycling.    Public transport is close by all the time:


Vauban and Rieselfeld are teeming with vegetation:  trees, flowers, shrubs, living buildings, gymnasium and other buildings with grass roofs.  It is so different from English suburbs, which are generally bleak and treeless.   You can even run across the top of the domed gymnasium in Rieselfeld (but you’re not allowed to ski or toboggan on it…):


There are lots of interesting, natural and well designed play areas and green spaces.   We saw toddler groups, dog walkers, families, senior citizen exercise groups using them.  My children loved this aspect of Freiburg – play areas integrated rather than an afterthought.   Those in Vauban were designed to be within shouting distance of the overlooking houses:


Rieselfeld was the first urban extension. It’s green, spacious, quiet, with a tram running through the heart of it.   There are a variety of styles of building and the layout is simple, grid-plan (no roundabouts and cul-de-sacs as favoured in English, car-dependent suburbs). Rieselfeld does not feel like a commuter suburb.   It feels like a community.  The design principles/aims involved were;

  • To plan a high-density compact residential area
  • To solve the conflict between landscape protection and the recreation demands of the residents
  • To meet high ecological standards (climate, soil, water, energy etc.)
  • To create a residential area suitable for families, women and elderly people
  • To develop a forward-looking transport concept with the priority on public transport and non-motorised modes.

(More info:

FreiburgRieselfeld Vauban is the more recent new quarter, completed in 2006. 5,000 inhabitants, 600 jobs,  38 hectares. Like Rieselfeld, it is grid plan design and so aids the sense of community.  We visited mid-week in the morning and it felt like a community not a dormitory settlement.   It is very easy to get to Freiburg centre – a tram runs through the heart and it is about half an hour by foot, less by bike.   There is lots of shared green space.  There’s even a delivery of honey by electric bike, with an honesty box: FreiburgVaubanFreiburgHoney

The town centre shouldn’t be forgotten.    The heart of the town is car free and so walking is appealing, as is eating out in one of the many cafes with terraces on the street.   Again, there are plenty of trees and public transport is frequent and easy to use.  The whole town, seen from above, from a tower on a hillside is green:




National picture

  • Federal government sets high taxes on car ownership (much more expensive than in the US for example).  Car taxes used to pay for new roads.  Now transport strategy is about more than roads.
  • The states must have an Integrated Transport Plan. If they do then Federal government match funds public transport (or cycing etc) projects capital investment (if it complies with local Land Use Plan). Most transport innovation is local.

Transport Plan

  • Freiburg achieves 68% public transport/bike/walking
  • Car ownership in Freiburg 420 cars per 1000 inhabitants.   In Vauban,the new suburb, only 150 cars per 1000 inhabitants (people must pay £25k for a garage at the edge of the development).   Germany average: 560 cars per 1000 inhabitants.
  • 65% of residents and 70% of jobs are 300m from a light rail stop.
  • The plan focuses on public transport/cycling/walking, with traffic calming, parking management and higher parking fees.  Public transport is both integrated and attractively priced.   Car use is restricted and public transport promoted.
  • Financial viability is relatively high – only 10% of costs are government subsidised (vs 30% rest of Germany 70% in US)

Land Use Plan

  • The Land Use Plan focuses development along transit routes, with high density development sustaining local centres and with mixed use.  It coordinates with the Transport Plan
  • Freiburg’s population has increased by 17% 1990-2007 (vs 3% rest of Germany)
  • There has been broad citizen participation
  • Citizens even asked for higher density development and more mixed use
  • Land outside town is restricted from development
  • New development is compactly laid out, mixed use, mixed tenure, lots of green space and eco-friendly
  • Central development is favoured
  • ‘Big box’ out of town  retail  is banned

*taken from a paper “Sustainable Transport in Freiburg: Lessons from Germany’s Environmental Capital” by Ralph Buehler1 and John Pucher


Should we do any of this in north Essex?   A resounding yes.