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Photovoltastic! Or: Ponies, Really?

September 30, 2011

As I mentioned in the last Lernen to Talk Show, this was to be my last week in Radolfzell. But, thanks to an error in my favor, I have found myself with a few extra days on my hands before I move to Duisburg on Tuesday. With this bonus time I finally got my act together and rode a train to the beautiful Black Forest city of Freiburg. I’d been talking about making this trip since before I arrived, and I’d all but lost hope of it happening.

As many of you may know, one of the main reasons I’m here in Germany is to learn more about Passivhaus design, i.e. energy efficient home construction. The first time I mentioned this to Jean-Claude, he insisted I visit Freiburg, as it is the center of all things solar in Germany. He’s a big fan of solar. All the hot water I’ve been using the last nine weeks has been heated by electricity generated by a few panels on the roof over my head.

Shortly after my two hour train ride, I found myself in the office of a company called Futours, which unfortunately was unable to give me their famous renewable energy city tour on account of me not being a group of eight or more people. Nevertheless, the man there was eager to give me tips about where to go, even giving me a short history of how Freiburg earned it’s reputation as “The Green City“. Legend has it, or perhaps just his own memory had it, that in 1975 Germany decided to build a nuclear power plant just outside the city. But the Freibürgers wouldn’t have it! They protested with all their might until the plans were discarded. But mere victory wasn’t enough to satisfy their entrepreneurial hearts! They needed to back up their bark with alternatives. In 1981 the the Institut Solare Energiesysteme (ISE) was founded. Fast forward to today, and it is the leading solar research institute in the world!

I also was interested to learn that the Freiburg area has at around 5% the lowest unemployment rate in all of Germany. With the recent announcement that Germany will close all nuclear power plants by 2022, this number is not expected to climb any time soon. Nuclear energy has been a pretty hot topic for discussion since I’ve arrived here, and I’ve yet to form a rock solid opinion on the matter. But I must say it is exciting to see a country make so bold a declaration. Even if this objective isn’t met, I look forward to seeing the progress that it will undoubtedly stimulate.

Easily the most exciting part of Freiburg was the glimpse into the future that may await Germany in 2022 offered by the “village” of Vauban. I’m a big fan of reading about plans for new and exciting urban developments (like my good friend Joseph’s recently award-winning Brooklyn Fish Farm and Maze, Fin’s Labyrinth), but it’s rare to ever actually see what comes out of these plans. Today over lunch I somewhat disbelievingly read the almost utopian abstract of Vauban’s development. It talked of terraced housing, divided by automobile-free paths and open rainwater channels, all coming together to offer diverse living arrangements ideal for children. The kind of stuff you see in any old development proposal. But this time, as soon as I finished reading, I took a bike ride around Vauban and found that it was exactly as the paper had promised!

Terraced housing

Open channel trough system!

The look of the place was a little startling at first, but after walking around for a while the architecture really grew on me. It was definitely unusual, but it was tied together in all the right ways. And boy, were they right about it being kid-friendly. Everywhere you look is a slide or a treehouse or a swing set. Plus, with the virtually car-free roads, kids on bikes and scooters pretty much have free reign of the streets.

Textbook Treehouse.

After a while I saw what looked like a girl’s birthday party happening at a picnic table. No sooner had I observed to myself that, “wow, this place would really be perfect for a kid’s birthday party,” than I turned a corner and saw this (any readers may want to shield their daughters’ eyes):

And he’s even friends with a goat!

A PONY. There is a pony farm literally attached to this place. You can go there and feed the ponies and pet the ponies and ride the ponies. My skepticism of Vauban’s goals of family friendliness was officially obliterated. This place truly did seem like the perfect place to raise children. Does that have something to do with the environmentally friendly layout? I’d like to think so. Just like how Freiburg’s unemployment rate is so low, I think that when a group of people work together towards some value, benefits will appear in surprising ways.

Provocatively named street for a solar village, no?

Solar Parking Garage!

These are the Surplus Energy Houses. They produce more energy over the course of a year than they consume. They were across the street from the other houses though, and somehow less lively.

Surplus Energy Houses

The coolest ivy I’ve ever seen.

Hatred of atomic energy is alive and well in Freiburg.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Priya permalink
    October 5, 2011 01:33

    Yay Freiburg! 🙂

  2. October 24, 2011 03:36

    I don’t know if you saw this, but I did a radio piece about Bensonwood a few months back. You’d probably be interested in their stuff. They work directly with German companies, among others. It might be worth reaching out to Tedd and tell him what you’re interested in. Maybe he can give you some contacts there.

    • October 24, 2011 18:06

      Hey thanks! I actually did start listening to your report and found it really interesting. I couldn’t listen to the whole thing then for whatever reason, and meant to go back and finish it… Thanks for reminding me! And yes, I’m in the midst of my internship search now so I’ll definitely send him an email just to see if he has any tips.


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