My seven months abroad have flown by–I can count the days on my fingers before I leave Freiburg, the mid-sized city in Southwest Germany. As I prepare to take my final exams and leave my Black Forest life, the farms to the northwest of town remain unscathed by the bulldozer’s touch. However, 2020 will see the start of construction for the new residential district of Dietenbach, planned to be built and ready for its first tenants by 2022. In my first blog post, I introduced this socio-ecological dilemma that has been taking place here: a debate between those seeking to preserve the nearby farmland and those in favor of construction to alleviate steep housing prices. In this post I explore the side of the issue in support of construction, examining what the positive aspects of a new city district are, and how Freiburg’s pro-Dietenbach residents present their argument.
During the initial debat, both sides of the argument carried a lot of weight. Choosing between the preservation of existing farmland and the need to provide housing for the ever-growing Freiburg population was no easy decision. Freiburg prides itself on a close connection with the surrounding land, and the prospect of expanding into the surrounding countryside was not taken lightly by voters on either side. On the other hand, Freiburg’s burgeoning population needs housing, and Germany has been the site of strong movements against unfair rent prices. Through a 60-40 split in a city referendum, the city of Freiburg was given the green light to build the new district of Dietenbach.
I hadn’t been living in Freiburg quite long enough to participate in the vote, but I would have leaned slightly more towards the pro-build side of the decision. I’ve come to know Freiburg as a second “Heimat,” a beautiful German word that represents the place, and often people or things, around which someone feels at home. New friends, connections, a valuable internship experience, and a newfound love for Baden-Württemberg all contribute to ideas of returning someday. With such plans comes the necessity of finding a place to live, and so I sympathize somewhat more with those in need of affordable housing than those facing the struggles of farm relocation. And though I was at first struck by the prospect of bulldozing the beautiful farmland of southwestern Germany, the eco-friendly advancements found in Dietenbach’s planning (green roofs and facades, an efficient transportation network, and energy recycling) show the promise of a responsible future for the land being taken from farmers to benefit others.
I discussed the benefits of a new city district with Rose Pohl and Felix Pirmoradi, two students at the University of Freiburg. Like me, they recognized the difficulty of the situation. Few find it easy to justify the paving of farmland, especially in a day and age where farmland is frequently sacrificed to construction sites, and the urban sprawl seems to grow like bamboo. Both natives of Baden, the greater area in which Freiburg lies, Rose and Felix sympathized with their local farmers, but also pointed out the severity of the housing issue in the region. Apartments have become increasingly difficult to afford in the past decade. This is a particularly large problem for a city like Freiburg, where nearly 20 percent of the population is under 30, making it the sixth-youngest city in Germany.
Many of those are students, drawn to the city by the historically high-ranking and culturally important university. During the first four years in Freiburg, paying rent is not typically a problem as Freiburg’s student housing is very affordable. After the eight semesters of eligibility in student housing, however, students frequently face difficulty in finding a place to live. After several years of developing connections and discovering opportunity in the Freiburg sphere, leaving for a more affordable town is a reluctant choice that many are forced to make. As Rose nears the end of her dorm tenancy, she falls to the side of the “Nein” vote, saying no to the preservation of farmland and supporting Dietenbach’s construction.
The issue of affordable housing is perhaps more extreme for the families of Freiburg. In contrast to students, families often have kids and jobs that make relocation a more difficult endeavor. Larger apartments are also necessary for these families. As a student, I was comfortable paying rent for just one room of a larger apartment during my first month in Freiburg, and even that arrangement was already quite difficult to secure. With population growth, Freiburg requires around 1,000-1,500 new apartments each year, a goal difficult to reach without the building of a new city district.
Politically, Freiburg has had tremendous party support, where the dominant party is “Alliance 90,” the German green party. As part of their program for the European Parliament Elections in May, Alliance 90 stated ecological innovation in Dietenbach as a primary goal. Freiburg’s mayor, Martin Horn, also stood strongly for Dietenbach’s construction. He can be seen here standing on Dietenbach’s future location, discussing (in German) why Freiburg needs Dietenbach: its social, sustainable profile will serve the heart of Freiburg and quell its housing hardships.
The environmental woes that come with city expansion are somewhat alleviated by the ecological model that Dietenbach is to be built upon. Freiburg is known as Germany’s green capital, and this is a particular point of pride for its residents. By 2050, Freiburg hopes to be climate-neutral, ultimately contributing nothing to environmental degradation. Progress would seem to be harmed by the construction of homes on top of farmland, but Dietenbach will draw from high volumes of solar panels, solar facades, and energy efficient houses to ensure that it supports Freiburg’s dream of climate-neutrality. After two successful “green zones,” the city districts of Vauban and Rieselfeld that were built in the past few decades, Dietenbach is set to be Freiburg’s most green construction project yet. The fact that it is being built as green as possible is comforting to those wary of urban expansion, and without these green initiatives the referendum surely would have gone differently.
Ecological promises and the idea of returning to a more affordable Freiburg tipped the scale towards the pro-build side for me, as it did for many voters. Each of the pro-Dietenbach Freiburger residents that I’ve spoken with has recognized the difficulty of this issue, however, and all were very aware of the unfortunate element of farmer displacement. Rather than overlooking this side of the debate, most simply weighed the two issues and decided that affordable housing was the more important of the two. Despite the harm the 25-hectare construction site may cause, the benefits will be worth it. Many families, students and other Freiburgers in need of housing will celebrate the eventual construction of Dietenbach, Freiburg’s newest Stadtteil.
At the same time, however, a significant minority of voters fell on the opposite side of the issue. In my next post, I’ll look into the perspective of those who feel that new housing does not warrant the conversion of soil to concrete. The displaced farmers’ future locations and their compensation, the narrowly unsuccessful “Save Dietenbach” campaign, ecological implications and issues with city growth will all be examined as we explore the other side of Freiburg’s biggest debate.