Exploring the world's built environments and seeking sustainable solutions.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back Home

Our Sustainable Cities of Northern Europe class has ended (except for me grading their final research papers), and we have all returned home or scattered across Europe for more travel before school kicks in. It was a wonderful trip. Not only did we all learn a great deal about Europe, a great deal about traveling, and about sustainable urban ideas, but also about ourselves. The students were amazing; I dragged them from train to train to city to city, and from hostel to hostel and neighborhood to neighborhood; and they kept their energy up, their good humor and spirit, their curiosity, and their generous natures. As a teacher, you can’t ask for more.

There are some specific thank yous in order. First and foremost, is my wife, Kerry. She was our trip coordinator extraordinaire, but far more. She was friend, nurse, doctor, mother, big sister, and counselor for all of the students, and there for me every step of the way. I also want to thank our three fabulous grad students: Sasha Wisotsky, Jessica DeLora and Alex Harker. They helped with nearly every blog entry, deftly driving around the computer program, finding the great pictures and making sure we had something to say. For the last few blog entries, the rest of the class also put together the material, photos and ideas. At the risk of embarrassing them all, thank you to the 2009 SCONERS (that is; “Sustainable Cities of Northern Europe in the Rain” – since it rained a lot!):

Cindy and Jenny Bailey, Gary Bladen, Alex Byrne, Dasha Davidenko, Jessica DeLora, Gabrielle Donoff (aka Canada), Ryan Doyle (aka “to Doyle”), Cassie Freitas, Alex Harker, Lynn Hiel, Bryan Hull, Maggie Jacoby, Janice Lau, Alex Lemberg, Kelly Lier, Ryan McCarter, Carmut Me, Marjorie Phan, Adam Rubin, Toni Shapovalova, Gil Valencia, Emmanuel Villegas, Laura Weinstein, Beth Williams, Sasha Wisotsky, Ruth Xochihua, and Joanne Yee.

This will be the last blog for a while. Thanks to those who noticed us; I hope it was interesting, maybe even enlightening, or at least fun. We may pick up the thread and do some blogs about sustainability over the course of the next few months. We may also try to put some of our best video segments of the tour up on the site. So, pop in occasionally and see what we have added and what we are up to. By the way, the group photos (so far) include one shot of the whole class at the European Parliment in Strasbourg, standing where all the dignitaries get their phot shoot; a shot of some class members enjoying the castle at Egiskov near Odense, Denmark; and a shot of some of the class enjoying the sunset at the Slossberg, overlooking Freiburg, Germany.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Freiburg on Foot

Our weary legs may be an indication of how walkable (or not walkable!) our latest ‘home’ city of Freiburg is. In the past four days, we have been exploring the city on foot and discovering how pedestrian friendly Freiburg truly is.

The compact and high density core creates a center which meets local and tourist needs. People of all ages venture out on foot to reach cafes, shops, markets and other services within a short radius of their starting point. With no automobiles allowed within the core, the tram system is heavily relied on to further explore Freiburg. The central train station is right next to the core, bringing travelers directly in to the city.

The walking surface itself is to be admired- the entire core is cobble stone, pattered to divide pedestrians and cyclists, and mimic the river which flows through the city. The stones themselves are split river stones that provide a more uniform surface than traditional cobblestone. Despite all there is to see between the beautiful landscape and buildings, it is worth keeping your eyes to the ground to catch the mosaic markers in front of commercial spaces. Traditionally, these mosaics matched the goods sold inside, for example scissors for a tailor or a pretzel for the bakery.

For those who need to escape the bustling city, the Dreisam river is easily accessible due to its multi-use paths and many crossing bridges. The Black Forest also borders the city and is connected with nature trails and trams.

Thanks to all this walking, I think we deserve some Black Forest cake!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Freiburg: A River Runs Through It

The Dreisam is a river that runs straight through a large portion of the city and is diverted around town for a variety of purposes. The river, which has been artificially constructed away from its original flow in the late 1800’s is surrounded by greenery and excellent bicycle and pedestrian pathways. The city has an unusual system of gutters (called Bächle) that run throughout its centre. These Bächle, once used to provide water to fight fires and feed livestock, are constantly flowing with water diverted from the Dreisam. These Bächle were never used for sewage, as such usage could lead to harsh penalties, even in the Middle Ages. During the summer, the running water provides natural cooling of the air, and offers a pleasant, gurgling sound. It is said that if you fall or step accidentally into a Bächle, you will marry a Freiburger, dor 'Bobbele'.

The river contributes to drainage for the city helping the water flow through parts of the city easily (no flooding due to diversion)
People along side the river use it for irrigating their plants, crops, and gardens
There are many areas for recreation such as swimming, biking, walking, exercise for people and their pets, and a calm place to sit
It is also a prime area for artists to perform graffiti and “rock art” giving them creative spots away from buildings and downtown
Not much of a use but it is aesthetically pleasing to view in downtown areas
Another possible use although I did not see any might be fishing

Frequent access points make the river accessible from many places along it.
A paved path on one side eases in bike, roller blade and wheel chair use, making pedestrian traffic safer on the unpaved side.
All stairways on the paved side are equipped with ramps to facilitate wheeled travelers.
Clear signage makes it clear where bikes and mopeds are allowed and forbidden.
A variety of vehicles and travelers were seen, including different kinds of bicycles, mopeds, Nordic skiers and service vehicles.
The river itself was easy to access from the paths, and many people were seen sticking their feet in, rinsing their hands, and wading to their ankles.
Although there were a few benches along the way, there could have been more places to sit.

Public Art In Underpasses & Connection To Biodiversity:
Along and inside the river, it is easy to spot formal and informal art installations. From sculptures to graffiti, there is evidence that the Dreisam incorporates art into public spaces.
In the core of the city, the sculptures emerge midstream in the Bächle or punctuate the end of a Bächle path. See pictures of the crocodile and hands & feet in the slideshow for examples of this.
Alongside the river, train tracks and road overpasses are host to a variety of murals and graffiti pieces. These walls are thickened by an unknown number of paint layers beneath the current (and temporary graffiti) murals at the surface. We learned that the City of Freiburg issues graffiti permits to some artists, allowing graffiti in certain areas of the city. Some of the graffiti pieces are more artistic and sophisticated than others, but at minimum, the use of color in all of the graffiti provides a pleasing compliment to the interplay of natural and urban landscape.
Some murals seem to reflect on the uses of the river, with one saying, “Keep it Cool,” perhaps referencing the river’s ability to act as a natural cooling system for the city.

Physical/Social/Psychological Benefit:
The Dreisam river not only contributes to the aesthetics of the community, but to the physical, psychological, and social health of the citizens as well. One can find individuals strolling, sitting, and splashing around in the river at all hours.

Physical health:
Contributes to an active life style
Walking (alone, with a friend, dog)

The soothing rushing of the river allows individuals to unwind and relax. There are numerous benches conveniently dispersed along the river bank; giving people a place to sit and meditate.

Psychological benefit
Relax, unwind, meditate (after day of work)
Quick getaway: free, close in distance.
Reconnect with self/personal growth

The river bank is also a great place to hangout with friends and family, contributing to the social health of the city's citizens.

Social benefit
A place to come together with friends/relatives and chat/hangout
Nurture relationships

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Comparison of Rieselfeld and Vauban

Vauban and Rieselfeld are new districts of the City of Freiburg, Germany. As of 2008 there are 6,500 residents in Rieselfeld compared to the 5,000 residents in Vauban. Both districts were planned to be sustainable urban developments along tramlines. Despite their similarities it is amazing how site locations and decisions made during the planning resulted in two very different developments.

Rieselfeld felt underdeveloped despite having a higher density than Vauban. There are several explanations for this. Rieselfeld has a past as a sewage leach field. For this reason, there were no existing trees and hence all vegetation is new and almost insignificant in comparison to the built structures. It is anticipated that once the trees mature they will fill many of the currently vacant feeling areas. Less pedestrian oriented, Rieselfeld is too large to be a comfortable human scale. Over the next two years approx 1,000 more units will be added, so the additional units might ultimately change the feeling of the space.

Vauban is a former military area for the Nazi and then French army. Much of the existing vegetation, including mature trees, has been preserved and the residents have been proactive about planting. Even the main street along which the tram line runs is carpeted with grass. The grass provides a practical solution for reducing up to 50 percent of the noise from the tram line. The result is a lushly vegetated district.

A Rieselfeld generic and homogeneous architecture has led to a sterile environment. A primary reason that Vauban is characterized by more diverse spaces and architecture is because of what Germans refer to as “construction groups.” Construction groups offer an alternative to standard developments. Babette Köhler, the Director of Urban Development for the City of Freiburg, explains construction groups as follows. If a group wants to develop they make a contract between each other and then present themselves to the city to request a site. Such groups get priority and the city tries to meet any special needs they might have. After the land is purchased from the city they are free to build. At Rieselfeld the buildings are 20 percent construction groups and 80 percent developer based versus the reverse at Vauban. A comparison of Vauban and Rieselfeld shows how construction group based housing can lead to a more architecturally diverse district.

The disadvantage to construction groups is apparent in terms of social housing. When developers build social housing, they get financial support from the city. Construction groups are less likely to incorporate social housing. There is about 10 percent social housing in Rieselfeld and less in Vauban.

At Rieselfeld there are a lot of parking under structures. It is required that there be one parking spot per household according to the residential contract. At Vauban, the contract was written so that 40 percent of people agreed not to have cars, and so no parking had to be built for them. These Vauban residents were possibly motivated by the $40,000 cost of buying a parking space.

It is apparent that there are many young families in both districts. Green space and reduction of car traffic has lead to children appropriating more areas as play space. As one Rieselfeld mother commented, parents feel safe letting their kids run around. Both had swales for storm water management. According to Wulf Dasseking, the Planning Director of Freiberg, the primary motivation for on site infiltration is to reduce flooding in local creeks. Both districts have standards for energy consumption with a focus on energy savings. Both developments provide a refreshing alternative to standard suburban developments.