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More Freiburg Views

If you’re looking for an enlightened place to be, they say you need look no further than Freiburg. Having heard all about the place at an RTPI Scotland annual Geddes lecture and blogged glowingly about it, it seemed only right to finally make a visit.
dscf5176Freiburg has a well-earned reputation for environmentalism, people-friendly streets and welcoming spaces. It’s known as a town that cares about design, sustainability and renewable energy. It’s a place where decision makers have taken decisions and got things done, rather than fudged and fumbled and left future administrations to deal with the consequences. We’ve been talking for decades about the possibilities of public sector-led advance infrastructure. They’ve been doing it for decades, including social facilities like schools and nurseries.
It sounds so different to our typical experience at home. The strange thing is, at face value it doesn’t look that different – it’s just a town, albeit an attractive and highly functional one. It has streets and spaces, parks and shops, historic buildings and new ones. People go about their business. At first glance you might think it’s a lot like your own town.
Pretty soon, the differences dawn. A main street with a fully shared surface, filled by cyclists, pedestrians and what we would think of as deadly trams. There are few cars but to spice things up there are open water channels a foot wide and a foot deep weaving along the streets. The local population (and visitors) seem to avoid falling down these bächle – historic water supply and fire fighting features. Instead, kids sail boats in them, pull strings of colourful plastic ducks or paddle in them in summer. The trams and cyclists and pedestrians continue on their way. It’s a traffic engineer’s hell. A health and safety officer’s hell. A car driver’s hell.
dscf5188Elsewhere, a back lane of recycling workshops, themselves built from recycled huts, trailers, camper vans and buses is a hive of activity, employment and social exchange. It looks like a Jane Jacobs dream come true. A tax inspector’s hell. A building inspector’s hell. A planner’s hell. It works. You wouldn’t get away with it here….
The housing neighbourhood we stayed in had a communal space – a simple courtyard with some seats, a few trees and loads of bicycle stands. It functions as a multipurpose local square for kids play, mini-markets, music events, local festivals, bike repair workshops, whatever, whenever. We have plenty similar spaces here, although many of them are a sop to open space standards. It takes more than the space to make this activity happen. It’s a state of mind.
That state of mind may come from confidence amongst those who live in and visit Freiburg that this is a town where quality of life matters. It’s a place where many people seem to feel like they have a share in the vision and a personal responsibility to deliver. It’s what the drive for community empowerment in Scotland is all about.
Then again, many people we met seemed happy just to get on with their lives, as if this really was just another town. And like any other place, there’s still dissatisfaction with politicians, public servants and private interests. Some things are the same everywhere.
But still, some things are different.