A month and a half has gone by since leaving my Black Forest home in Germany. I’m happy to be returning to a college campus, where political engagement is high, discussions are welcome, and disagreement is celebrated as a platform on which to learn. Looking back, however, I still marvel at Freiburg’s energetic social and political engagement. The turnout at Fridays for Future demonstrations, the nearly nightly kitchen talks with my housemates about politics, and the general interest in what was going on made for a great environment to be a part of. As a sort of memento, I’ve hung on to the letter sent out to all students from Clemens Metz, the gregarious leader of the Freiburg Student Union who I had the chance to meet a few times. The letter’s contents concern the Dietenbach decision that was coming up in about a week after the letter was sent.

Students gather at a Fridays for Future demonstration at the “Platz der alten Synagoge.” (Photo: Brendan Reilly)

As a quick refresher, a simple majority of votes “Ja” would protect 25 hectares of farmland north of Freiburg from construction, while a vote for “Nein” allows for the building of a new city district that provides affordable housing amid unprecedentedly high rent prices. Metz prefaces his letter with his foremost plea: for students to vote. After acknowledging the fundamental importance of political participation, he goes on to present his case that ended up being on the winning side of the referendum: the vote to build the new district. The 700 new beds for Freiburg university students and lower rent prices were Metz’ main points supporting the “Nein” vote, a reasoning shared among nearly all of my student friends. 

The pro-build opinion won out with a 60-40 majority, and the construction of the Dietenbach Stadtteil is now underway—but not all were eager to see Freiburg’s expansion. “Ja” voters were more difficult to find, since I was surrounded by Freiburg’s younger population that contributed greatly to the 60 percent majority. I did, however, have the chance to sit down with Dr. Hans Overmann, a “Ja” voter and professor of environmental sciences at the Sprachlehrinstitut (language instruction institute) of the University of Freiburg.

Discussions with an anti-build Freiburger

In a brief interview, Professor Overmann shared his reasoning for voting against the construction of the new city district, as well as some potential alternatives that Freiburg and other cities can utilize in the future when questions of expansion inevitably arise. Overmann stated the problem right away: Freiburg is growing at a rapid rate, and something must be done—continual growth is not sustainable. Environmental harm, encroachment on surrounding farmland and an ever-increasing burden on the city’s residential capacity are among the reasons not to support the construction of yet another city district. This district, as Overmann points out, is different than some of the others in that its construction means the destruction of farmland. Past city districts have been built on existing concrete. The Vauban district mentioned in my last blog post, for example, was built on the remains of old French barracks from their time of Southwestern German occupation after World War II. Even with a carbon-neutral community, the notion of farm displacement for the ground-up construction of buildings is difficult to justify.

Considering the farmers

On the subject of farmer displacement, the farmers at the Dietenbach location are being offered some compensation for their forced migration. The settlement fell at 15 Euros per square meter, which equates to about 60,000 Euros per acre. Though this does not sound too shabby, the landowners considered this a shakedown, accusing the city of trying to “ziehen sie über den Tisch,” or “pull them over the table,” a German idiom suggesting a hefty financial rip-off. Aside from just being on the wrong end of the financial deal, farmers cried out against farmland destruction in their “Rettet Dietenbach” campaign, trying to convince the people of Freiburg that the construction of Dietenbach brings harm to the very heart of Germany’s agrarian culture. 

On their website, the farmers lay out their arguments: small farming is dying, and projects like Dietenbach are speeding up this process; soil is precious in a country like Germany that is only the size of the state of Montana; and city expansion strains the farm-community connection that Freiburg prides itself on. All of the arguments are reasonable. Perhaps the simplest and easiest phrase to remember their arguments is this one-liner: “Essen kommt vom Boden, nicht vom Beton.” The message, emblazoned on hundreds of banners carried through town on tractors at the February farmers’ demonstration, translates to “food comes from soil, not from concrete.”  This stance is one of the accessible reasons for opposing Dietenbach’s construction. However, as of March 1st, the vote to build Dietenbach has been confirmed—and with Dietenbach underway, it is important to consider alternatives when such a debate arises again.

Pro-farmer slogans are paraded through the center of town. (Photo: Brendan Reilly)

Planning for the future

Professor Overmann also brought up some potential tactics for dealing with future questions of expansion. One idea was the creation of a residence catalog, logging the living situations of all of Freiburg’s citizens. This would identify the many older residents living in unnecessarily large apartments and houses, often alone. Rearrangement of residents could save space and perhaps even prevent the need for another district. This brings up questions of personal information privacy, but if enough Freiburgers supported such a decision, expansion could be limited in the future. This could prove vital in Germany, where there is far less room than in the United States. As Overmann puts it, there is simply not room in Germany for the three-garage and a lawn lifestyle that exists in America, and Freiburg should be mindful of that.

Overmann did, however, take some time to give praise to the Dietenbach plan and its incredibly eco-friendly design. Less restriction on building height will make better use of ground space than in past city districts. Some very clever train rerouting will minimize energy used through Freiburg’s streetcar system when transporting residents to the new district. The plethora of green initiatives mentioned in my last post are appealing even to Overmann, whose woes about never-ending expansion are somewhat mitigated by the promises of a green city that Freiburg has made. As Dietenbach is built, we can only wait to see if Freiburg’s promises of a green city district are fulfilled. The benefits highlighted by the pro-build side will, in my opinion, outweigh the negatives discussed here. Either way, the Freiburg I return to in the future will have a slightly larger map and over 15,000 new faces. One thing that I can count on to remain, however, is Freiburg’s unforgettable energy when it comes to civic engagement.