Signals of Sustainability Transitions or a Natural Follow-up from the Past? Energy and Mobility in ‘Green City’ Freiburg, Germany

Signals of Sustainability Transitions or a Natural Follow-up from the Past? Energy and Mobility in ‘Green City’ Freiburg, Germany

Source: City of Freiburg

Source: City of Freiburg



As part of the international master program Environmental Governance, 12 students conducted a study on the urban sustainability transitions in the fields of mobility and energy in the university town Freiburg (South-West of Germany, with around 220.000 inhabitants). The goal of the study was to find out whether there is a shared vision between the variety of actors working in each socio-technical system.

As such, the success of sustainability-oriented attempts to transform the energy and mobility systems were assessed.

Based on our findings, I argue that there are possibilities for changes towards more sustainable energy and mobility sectors in Freiburg. However, this trend seems to stem more from past and national developments than it is a direct result of current sustainability-oriented initiatives.


Freiburg has a long standing history of environmental movements and green politics supportive of environmental conservation. The city has established its image as a green city in front of the international community through various initiatives towards sustainable development. For example, in the early 1970s, the anti-nuclear movement was vocal against the planned power station in Wyhl. 30.000 people demonstrated actively against the power plant, which lead to withdrawal of the construction license.

The protests against the planned nuclear power plant in Wyhl (KKW = Kernkraftwerk Wyhl), 1974, Manfred Richter, Badische Zeitung

The protests against the planned nuclear power plant in Wyhl (KKW = Kernkraftwerk Wyhl), 1974, Manfred Richter, Badische Zeitung

Also, the city houses solar-run buildings (Solarsiedlung) established in the 1990s, which characterize the city. Furthermore, Freiburg nourishes an active bicycle culture and there are trams that continuously run through its main streets, of which many are car free zones.


Following the rhythm of our master program, we had two weeks to conduct interviews with important political, business and civil-society actors and analyse relevant documentation on the urban sustainability transitions in the mobility and energy sector of Freiburg. The results showed that there were many overlaps between visions on how the future of Freiburg should look like.


The analysed actors believe that for a sustainable energy sector in Freiburg, there is a need to:

  • take measures of energy saving;
  • increase the share of renewable energy;
  • and increase energy efficiency (especially by making buildings more efficient).

These elements were supported by shared frames of references, namely the German Energy Transition (so called “Energiewende”) and the image of Freiburg as a Green City.

This all sounds appealing, but it is questionable whether these elements are far-reaching and recent developments. As our teacher, dr. Philipp Späth wisely commented: “weren’t this the goals 20 years ago too?”

However, when we look at the pathways to achieve the vision, actors become more specific in their approaches. Whereas the Energy Working Group of the Green Party, a group of 10 engaged Green party members that have expertise in the energy sector, sets their targets at a share of renewable energies of 80% by 2050, the business association 100 Percent Renewables Regio Freiburg aims for 100% renewable by 2035.

The energy supplier in the region, Badenova, refers towards the creation of an energy culture:
“An energy culture encompasses careful handling of the environment, efficient use of means, fun and enjoyment of conscious energy saving and increase of the individual’s quality of life”[1] (Badenova’s Ecology and Sustainability report 2013)

Clearly, there are softer and harder approaches to reach the visions of the future. Interestingly, the municipality focuses in their Green City Freiburg brochure on housing, involvement of local actors and energy efficient infrastructure. They are thus positioning themselves in the centre of the discussion, although receiving criticism from the other actors that developments are moving too slow.

There are different measured proposed by actors for implementing the visions.


In the field of mobility, it was advocated that there is a need for a more eco-friendly mobility system and a shift away from private car use. Also here, the actors varied in how radical this vision should be achieved. Some actors argued for a fierce reduction in car traffic, others, for example the municipality, were stressing managing the traffic while addressing all transport modes. This implies an underlying assumption that cars will remain a central part of mobility in the future.

This image shows the mobility split of means of transportation: pedestrians, bicycle rides, public transportation, multiple car-users and individual car use. The municipality’s goals for 2020 are also represented here. The goal is to have 28% bicycle ride by 2020, according to the transportation development plan.

Modal-Split Innercity Freiburg from //,Lde/231648.html [03-09-2014] (For 1982, other forms of transportation is missing to add up to 100 percent and 2020 is a prognosis from the Transportation Development plan)

In my opinion, this is not very ambitious. It would only increase by 1% since 1999, whereas bicycle transportation is on the rise in many cities around the world. It can still be considered high comparing it to Berlin, where about 13 percent of all trips citywide are by bike (2010 Mobility Report). However, in this city 30 percent of the trips are already made by foot and 26 percent by public transportation. Comparing it to the equally sized Munster, where bicycles constitute 37.6 percent of traffic, Freiburg seems to be lacking behind.

This modal-split does not showcase all visions that are present in Freiburg. There are more ambitious plans around that argue for a car free Freiburg as soon as possible. However, there were clear differences in how actor’s visions would in comparison to the municipalities’ view. Whereas the regional public transportations supplier, VAG was arguing for a multi-modal mobility system, other actors would like to see a car free Freiburg as soon as possible. As a locally based international association ICLEI’s vision is more in line with the municipality. They argue for an overall shift towards a “green” (assumed to be climate-neutral) multi-modal mobility system, consisting mainly of cycling and public transportation.

The most conflicting views become visible when discussing what should happen with the space that should be regained from cars. Where Greenpeace Freiburg would aim at creating more green space, the VCD (the transportation club Germany) advocates for more public spaces, communication and space where children can play.


There are many actors involved in the energy and mobility fields in Freiburg and we only interviewed a bunch of them. Still, there was coordination between the different actors visible. This could be a result of the relatively small size of Freiburg and many civil-society groups that create a strong network. However, there are strong differences between visions and measures to reach the visions. Such an eclectic approach could be fruitful though.


Because the actors that we assessed often referred to past experiences and developments inside Freiburg, one could argue that the sustainability efforts in Freiburg are stemming more from the past and national development than recent development.

One can ask whether the current sustainability efforts reflect a break with the past that signals a radical change or just a continued greening trend inside Freiburg.

Both seem desirable to me. It looks like both radical change and a continued green trend that is less ambitious are being advocated in the mobility and energy sectors of Freiburg.


All of our interviewees from business association 100 Percent Renewable, The Energy Working Group of the Green Party, Öko-Institut, Greenpeace, the municipal public transport provider, VAG and the transportation club Germany (VCD), who helped us and were willing to be interviewed in within very limited time (one week). Also, the people that came to present on their work in class: Klaus Hoppe (consultant), Diana Sträuber (fesa e.V.), Frank Uekermann (GuT, deparment on gardens and infrastructure of the municipality), Andreas Hege (Bicycle activist, Greenpeace Freiburg), Andreas Markowsky (Oekostrom)..


[1] Own translation. Original phrasing: „Der sorgsame Umgang mit der Umwelt, der effiziente Einsatz von Mitteln, der Spaß und Genuss am bewussten Energiesparen, die Steigerung individueller Lebensqualität.“ (p. 11)

Next Post:
Previous Post:
This article was written by

Student Environmental Governance in Freiburg, Germany interested in transitions and cities.

There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Pingback: Lebt Freiburgs Ruf von Öko-Nachwehen oder befinden wir uns auf dem Weg zur Transition Town? | zündstoff – Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>