Activists around the world often find themselves advocating for initiatives and policies that will make their communities more livable and sustainable. But what happens when different progressive values animating such work come into conflict with each other? A recent case from Germany brings this question into sharp relief.

Years of German study and a desire to see the fairytale-inspiring Black Forest region of Germany led me to Freiburg, a mid-sized university city tucked in the southwest of Germany. After arriving in early January, I spent two months as an intern at a cultural institute, and recently began the summer semester that will finish in late July. This part of the country is full of tradition, old and new. Timber-framed houses and white wine vineyards follow every train ride through the pine-topped hills of the Schwarzwald, and the streets of Freiburg are bursting with the youthful, alternative, engaged energy that Germany has become known for in recent decades.

Freiburg is somewhat of a hidden gem in the tourist world, often overshadowed by its Bavarian neighbors to the east and by the northern cultural capital of Berlin. Freiburg nevertheless provides a taste of all the elements of German life that I’ve learned about and yearned for. Two of these, close ties with nature and a vibrant modern cultural scene, are particular sources of regional pride. A short walk from downtown can bring you onto hiking paths in the hills, and the town has been known as a great place to live for families and young people (many of whom are students and recent graduates from Freiburg University), with historically affordable housing.

A controversial decision

A recent referendum, however, brought these values into the ring. The “Dietenbach Decision” was mentioned daily for the first month and a half after my arrival–and with good reason. The town had reached out to the citizens to decide whether or not to bulldoze adjacent farmland to build a new housing sector, offering both public and private housing options. This proposed residential neighborhood, to be called “Dietenbach,” would replace 25 hectares of farmland with housing for around 15,000 people.

I’ve set out to dig deeper and learn both sides of the argument. In a 3-part series, I’ll be investigating the ways Freiburgers have responded to the referendum, looking at public posters and demonstrations, and hearing from some of the voices of Freiburg citizens. An all-angle approach will help construct a comprehensive understanding of Freiburg’s values–what is most important to their hearts and to their visions? What are they willing to sacrifice?

Conflicting values?

Before the investigation can go deeper, some preliminary knowledge is needed. In this first part of the series, I’ll provide some historical context to the values at hand. The first set of values, which involve green living, close ties to the land, and a strong and sustainable environmental lifestyle, has long been strong in Southwestern Germany. In the German state of Baden-Württemberg, in which Freiburg lies, green politics have long been paramount–both the Minister President of the state and the mayor of Freiburg are members of the German green party. The region pioneers many green policy initiatives, including the deconstruction of nuclear power plants, development of solar and wind power, and streamlining of effective recycling systems. From the governmental down to the individual citizen, Freiburg and Baden-Württemberg are environmentally-minded.

Green pride also exists in the sustainable agriculture around Freiburg, which can be enjoyed from within the city through the local “Bauernmärkte.” The various “Stadtteile,” or city districts, host their own unique farmers’ markets on designated days throughout the week, and the grand Münstermarkt is held six days a week on the courtyard surrounding Freiburg’s gothic cathedral. Rain, snow, or shine, hundreds of Freiburgers come to the town center for an array of more than 60 stands selling produce, meat (including the famously delicious Black Forest ham), herbal tea, honey, mushrooms, and more–all from local and sustainable sources in Baden-Württemberg. Shopping at the Münstermarkt provides a completely locally-sourced diet, and its convenience has attracted many Freiburg residents to use it as their primary grocery store.

Townsfolk perusing the Münstermarkt on a January morning. (Photo: Brendan Reilly)

This lively market, which gets more and more crowded with the springtime warmth, is a binding source of identity for Freiburg–and is tightly connected to the pride that the city has in its local agriculture and farmers. In a country that is known for its recent drive towards a greener future, Freiburg is a particularly green city.

The “ideal green settlement”

A fifteen-minute ride on Freiburg’s S-Bahn tram system brings you from the reconstructed medieval town center into Vauban, a village on the edge of the city lines. Nowhere is the green dream more alive than in this solar-powered, foliage-bedecked paradise for the environmentally-conscious. It’s been praised as one of the most successful green community projects in the world, and is a great point of pride in the hearts of Vaubanites and Freiburgers alike. More than two-thirds of the Vauban residents live without a car, many contribute to community gardens, and even human waste is converted into usable biogas for cooking.

Though Vauban represents the ideal green settlement, it is also a hub of alternative lifestyles, and is beloved for its affordable housing options. Students have access to cheap apartments in former French soldier dormitories, living communities, or Wohngemeinschaften (WG for short), are ever popular among the young community as a way to split rent and save money, and there are even a few radical housing projects. SUSI, a housing project started in 1993, houses 200 people in city-subsidized apartments as well as in old cars and trailers that line the streets of Vauban, a lifestyle maintained in far more glamorous fashion than one might expect. This kind of housing is integral to the Vauban identity, and to that of Freiburg as a whole.

A pro-housing poster bearing the slogan “Never was a ‘no’ so family-friendly!” (Photo: Sebastian Müller)

In the next two posts, I’ll dive into both sides of the debate, looking at the various ways Freiburgers have sought to make their voice heard on the public stage. Included will be some of the various posters that appeared throughout town, a demonstration in the city center, and the opinions of some Freiburg natives in interviews. Freiburg needs houses, especially affordable ones–this point is unavoidable when considering the Dietenbach decision. A family friendly city, and a university town to boot, Freiburg demands sufficient affordable housing options. How this fact will reconcile with the environmental pride of Freiburg will help illuminate where the heart of this town lies, and the decision will likely require sacrifice.


Banner image: Local Dietenbach farmers line up their tractors outside the university library. (Photo: Sebastian Müller)

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