Freiburg vs Ploieşti? Cities with few similarities apart from their population size

By Cristina Iancu (Jurnalul Prahovean)

Ploieşti = 200,000 inhabitants (more or less)
Freiburg = 200,000 inhabitants.

Ploieşti = industrial city, (unofficially) one of Romania’s most polluted cities. Source of pollution: three refineries, plus several factories
Freiburg = Europe’s first green city. The city that said no to nuclear power

A few days ago, I took part in my second media study tour, organised by adelphi on behalf of the Ministry for Environment in Germany. This time the topic was “reducing polluting emissions”. This topic was extremely interesting for a journalist coming from Ploieşti, one of Romania’s most polluted cities.

We made one of our stops in Freiburg, a town very similar in size to Ploieşti.  Yet, they are about one hundred years ahead of us (as my friend, Sebi Ignat, would say).

Freiburg was bombed heavily during the Second World War (just like Ploieşti).  Yet, they rebuilt their city based on new rules.  The old streets were broadened, but not to allow for more cars, but for more trams.  According to official information, the citizens of Freiburg have a tram stop every 0.6 km, and if you are on you way to a concert or a sports event in Freiburg, there is no fare!

Moreover, the town’s down-town area is entirely pedestrianised and citizens are encouraged to use public transportation and not to own private vehicles.  This is quite a challenge, but when local authorities use their brains, you get to have what Freiburg is today: a green city!

While walking around Freiburg, alongside fellow journalists from Eastern Europe, I was impressed by the so-called passive houses that are capable of reducing their heat consumption by 80 to 90% and that use body heat or cooking heat to warm apartments.

There were also so-called “plus energy” homes that generate more heat and energy than they consume, and home-owners are able to sell their surplus on the electricity market (which would be quite complicated in Ploieşti, where citizens will only expect subsidies from the authorities!).

Lots of bicycles and scooters are parked outside the neighbourhood school.  A freckled girl warned us quite firmly to stop taking pictures of her.  We carried on along the neighbourhood’s narrow streets.

Signs painted on the street pavements informed us that children could play without restriction in that area. The apartment buildings were quite colourful and there were lots of flowers planted out in front of them. The photovoltaic panels installed on the rooftops served as a constant reminder of the city’s green credentials. This is the city that chose trees over pollution. A playground was built behind some old fir trees. Kids aged two to three years old are playing in the sand under the supervision of their parents. They have wooden toys and getting dirty seems to make them quite happy. We didn’t see on their mothers’ faces the despair that you would usually see on the faces of Romanians who fear mud and diseases.

The concept of a low-traffic neighbourhood has proven quite succesful. The Freiburg authorities report that the neighbourhood’s 500 households own only 172 vehicles, which is probably the lowest figure in Europe. People have various transport options, meaning private vehicles are not a necessary evil. In addition to that, there’s car sharing, a concept that is used all over Germany (which I will cover in a separate report). In Freiburg’s Vauban neighbourhood, streets are used as playgrounds and as a meeting place, with vehicles parked beyond residential areas. The neighbourhood covers 41 hectares and was built on the site of a former military camp used by the French army until 1991.

Actually, I was quite astonished by the busy tram timetable during my stay in Freiburg. I believe you can expect a tram to come at least every five minutes and, as I just wrote, the stops are very close to each other.

The university is Freiburg’s largest employer, and you could therefore say that this is a city where intelligence prevails.

Freiburg is living proof that smart things can be done.  And that an environmentally friendly life is possible when citizens and authorities decide to cooperate in order to improve quality of life.
In their rush along the globalisation trend, local authorities (and Ploiesti is a good example) forget to give precedence to actual quality of life.  Progressivism, as it has been implemented in Vauban, proves that smart action can be taken, yet it needs the will and support of citizens.

Anyway... Vauban is actually living proof that change is possible and that green cities can exist. Perhaps the authorities in Ploiesti will one day understand that it is quality of life, and not people’s egos or private welfare that should prevail in a modern society.

I would like to see, for instance, some daring measures to cut pollution in Ploiesti; although tough, such measures would eventually improve the quality of the air that we are breathing in.

Original article in Romanian