A recent post on this blog talked about the sprint to the “climate cliff,” and focused on 350.org’s latest advocacy campaign calling for divestment by higher education endowments in fossil fuel industry stocks. As students return to UConn from the long inter-session and holiday break, some may ask “how can I reduce my personal carbon footprint?” OEP intern Meredith Hillmon, a 4th semester Environmental Science major, researched the EU’s recent study about individual behavioral change options for reducing carbon emissions. She summarizes the report below.
A 2012 European Union (EU) study emphasizes the importance of changing behavior to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Recommendations in the study apply to households and individual consumers, and translate as a carbon-reduction roadmap for UConn students. The report focused on GHG emission reduction potentials ranging from driving hybrid or electric cars, to tele-working, virtual meetings and adopting a vegetarian diet. While purchasing a more eco-friendly vehicle or teleworking may not be immediate options for UConn students, there are still other ways for the EcoHusky in all of us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
In terms of mobility, the EU highlights the use of more fuel efficient cars, carpooling, sustainable modes of transportation and reduced travel distance. Watch for new campus parking fee rates next fall that will provide discounts for students who are ridesharing or commuting in fuel-efficient vehicles. Students can also take advantage of UConn’s car-sharing program, operated by Hertz on Demand. For a low hourly rate, a student can rent one of four Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEVs) stationed around campus.
Another point emphasized by the EU is the importance of being aware of thermostat and ventilation settings. Whenever possible, students should make the effort to reduce the heat in their dorm (or the air conditioning in their apartment) by one or two degrees, and learn the optimized thermostat and ventilation settings for the best heating and cooling efficiency. The water temperature and length of showers can also significantly impact greenhouse gas emissions. When it comes to reducing your carbon footprint, long, hot showers are discouraged.
Switching to a vegetarian diet, or a reduced animal protein diet, is another behavioral change supported by the EU study. Eating more veggies and less meat can be healthier for you and the environment! Red meats have the largest carbon intensity, whereas vegetables and fruits have the lowest carbon intensity. UConn offers plenty of vegetarian, vegan and locally-grown produce options throughout campus dining facilities, especially at Whitney Dining Hall, making it easy for students to reduce their carbon footprint through diet.
Behavioral changes can produce considerable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The EU has illustrated and ranked several doable sustainable options, many of which are available to students at UConn. Each of the following makes a significant impact in the long run. By implementing even one of these behavioral changes, you are already reducing your carbon footprint.
Switching to an electric car/commuting by bicycle
Switching to a hybrid or more fuel-efficient car
Shifting to a vegetarian diet
Shifting to a healthier diet – more seasonal fruits & vegetables, more local & organic foods
Carpooling, taking the bus/using mass transit
Reducing animal protein intake – meat, fish, dairy & eggs
Turning off lights in dorm rooms and bathrooms
Reducing heating/cooling by one or two degrees
Unplug electronics or power cords when not in use
Taking shorter showers with a more moderate water temperature
*Based on the comparative analysis in the 2012 EU study of the carbon-mitigation potential, through 2050, of various behavioral change strategies. Food estimates based on commercial farms and fisheries.
by: OEP Sustainability Coordinator Laura Dunn, OEP Intern Skyler Marinoff, & OEP Director Rich Miller
In the interest of keeping climate change at the forefront of the UConn community’s attention, the Office of Environmental Policy will help coordinate a system-wide interdepartmental “teach in” this upcoming April. Tentatively titled “Our Environment: A Dialogue on Change,” this week-long effort, from April 15-22, is set to continue building on the momentum set by a number of successful Climate Impact Mitigation and Adaptation (CIMA) events in the spring of 2012.
Kicking off in March last year, the CIMA lectures featured university faculty and guest speakers such as independent journalist and author, Mark Hertsgaard, and the Teale Lecture speaker, Michael Mann, an award-winning climatologist. Other events included a panel discussion focused on incorporating various aspects of sustainability, a Climate Impact Expo in the town of Mansfield, and an interactive Eco-footprint exhibition developed by the EcoHusky student group. Very importantly, President Herbst reaffirmed the institutional commitment to UConn’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), which had been approved by her predecessor in 2010, and endorsed a new Climate “Adaptation” section of the CAP that spoke of our dedication to help communities more proactively address the effects of climate change and sea level rise. The reactions of students were very positive, as shown by the overwhelming attendance of the Michael Mann lecture and the passionate participation in discussions during both the sustainability panel and at the close of each lecture or expo.
This year, the UConn community can expect another well collaborated and dynamic CIMA week planned by the organizing committee of student, faculty, staff and town representatives. Given the success of last spring, the committee aims to focus the month of April on the environment in whatever way relates best to each department. In order to reach a wider audience and engage in a broader discussion, CIMA 2 will feature a week long “teach in” in which faculty are provided with pertinent instructional materials that can be incorporated into a class or two during the teach-in. Scheduled for the week of April 15th to April 22nd(Earth Day) this series will also encompass various events focused on the environment and culminate with the annual Earth Day Spring Fling, the annual main and regional campus celebrations co-sponsored by the OEP, Dining Services, EcoHusky and EcoHouse!
Other events planned for April that relate to “Our Environment: A Dialogue on Change” include:
(1) 5 April – Humanities Institute “Day in the Humanities,” (2) 9 April – special lecture on ‘Silent Springs’ by historian, Naomi Oreskes, (3) a “Coastal Perspectives Rachel Carson Symposium” at Avery Point, (4) 12 April – a tentatively scheduled Law School special conference on natural gas and nuclear power, (5) 18 April – a Teale Lecture Series presentation, “The Lost Woods of Childhood” by poet Allison Hawthorne Deming.
Several UConn scientists said it well in a recent Hartford Courant op-ed piece, “…we find ourselves beset by one of the biggest challenges our country has ever faced. No, it is not the fiscal cliff we hear so much about. The largest challenge our country faces is the climate cliff. If we do nothing to address climate change in the next four years, the solutions become more limited, more expensive and more damaging to our country.” Kudos to Doctors Urban, Capers, Likens and Anderson whose clear commentary called for leadership from President Barack Obama to unite Americans and begin a bipartisan fight against this common threat to our national security.
Citing the midwestern droughts, and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, the UConn scientists echoed the world’s leading climatologists and warned, “[n]o one should feel secure when the climate — the very basis of our food and our economy — is shifting. Failure to act now will mean more severe warming, more extreme droughts, more frequent storms and it will mean that this “new normal” we have created will last longer than the hundreds of years to which we already are committed.”
Speaking of food, the economy and climate, Mark Hertsgaard’s article in Newsweek and the Daily Beast, provocatively titled “The End of Pasta,” is recommended reading about how climate change and the discovery of new American oil fields have combined to threaten the future of rice, corn and grains, such as North Dakota-grown durum wheat, used to make pasta.
EcoHuskies will recall that Hertsgaard was a featured speaker last March at UConn’s Climate Impact Mitigation and Adaptation (CIMA) events. In his keynote address at a CIMA program co-sponsored by the Town of Mansfield, he offered excerpts from his latest book about coping with climate change (“Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth”). In his Newsweek article, he describes how “the development of controversial “fracking” technology, which enables drillers to extract oil and natural gas from previously inaccessible underground locations, has given rise to a massive expansion of production” – one that could make the U.S. the leading oil-producing nation in the world by 2020.
What then can we do to stop the acceleration to the climate cliff that will inevitably increase following this surge in production by the oil and gas industry, which Hertsgaard notes is already “the richest business enterprise in human history?”
A new strategy promoted by 350.org and advanced by a few small colleges across the country calls for higher education endowments to divest in fossil fuel stocks. Activist Bill McKibben of 350.org explained the rationale for divestiture in a Rolling Stone article published last summer. Simply put, the amount of carbon contained in the world’s proven oil, coal and gas reserves – the assets that the fossil fuel industry is committed to extract and sell in order to realize full economic value for their owners, investors and shareholders – is five times greater than the cap on carbon emissions that scientists say would prevent a catastrophic global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius. If energy companies could not exploit these reserves, their values would plummet, because they would be writing off, or “stranding,” an estimated $20 trillion in assets.
In fact, these assets don’t even account for the new American oil and natural gas boom from shale discoveries made accessible by fracking. And companies like Exxon and Shell are not only ramping up their efforts to search for more fossil fuel reserves but also scaling back or shutting down their renewable energy divisions in order to focus on their “core business.”
Thus, according to McKibben, 350.org’s “Do the Math” campaign aims to expose, demonize and divest in the fossil fuel industry, “…what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
McKibben cites the successful 1980s campaign to divest in companies doing business in South Africa, when 155 U.S. college campuses joined 19 states, exerting international financial and political pressure that eventually led to the end of apartheid.
Unfortunately, odds are against 350.org’s fossil fuel divestiture campaign. According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, colleges and universities are less willing than they might have been 25 years ago to use their endowments as tools for advancing social or environmental goals, or frankly for any objective other than maximizing return on investment. Coming out of a deep recession, especially at public universities where state appropriations have been slashed, most college endowments have set ambitious goals for growth, and fossil fuel company stocks have been and will be among the most profitable.
Let’s resolve that 2013 will be the year for political leadership and non-partisan policies here in the U.S. and around the world to address climate change. The environmental and economic consequences are too severe and likely happening sooner than predicted if we continue accelerating down the road to the climate cliff.
On March 25, 2008 President Hogan signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). This pledge led way for UConn’s Climate Action Plan: a comprehensive outline that strategizes and maps out sustainability initiatives to help UConn reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Carbon neutrality is defined as proportional amounts of carbon released and carbon sequestered. This can be achieved through carbon offsets such as our Co-gen facility or something as simple as planting a tree. Realistically, however, carbon neutrality does not mean a zero carbon footprint. For UConn, the aim is to have the 2050 carbon emissions 86% below our 2007 levels. One of the very first initiatives implemented at UConn to lower GHG emissions was the adoption of our own Campus Sustainable Design Guidelines. These guidelines apply to both the construction of new buildings as well as the renovation of preexisting buildings.
The Sustainable Design and Construction Policy requires a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver certification as a minimum performance standard for all projects that exceed $5 million. The U.S. Green Building Council developed LEED to act as an international green building certification system. LEED buildings offer savings in water and energy, reduce GHG emissions, improve air quality to promote health safety for occupants, and lower operating costs.
Most recently, the construction of two new buildings at UConn, Laurel and Oak Hall, have been completed that fulfill the LEED silver requirement. Oak Hall is set next to Homer Babbidge Library at the site of the former Co-op. Laurel is located where the Pharmacy building was originally constructed. These locations prevented the clearing of forests, wetlands, and other natural environments. There are several sustainable features that are important to note. From the outside, porous pavement reduces storm water runoff and flooding by providing storage and infiltration during storm events and a bio retention basin reduces harmful storm water runoff by collecting and holding storm water. The area is lined with native vegetation that provides habitat and food for local species. To reduce transportation CO2 emissions, biking is encouraged. There are 132 bicycle rack spaces available to facilitate bike transit.
Moving inside the building, the focus is on increased energy and water savings. The bathroom offers dual flush toilets and electric hand dryers to reduce paper waste. The combination of all water efficient features is anticipated to reduce water usage by 48%. The high performance windows both increase natural lighting which reduces energy costs and provide insulation through window glazing which reduce heating and cooling needs. Laurel is expected to have 16% energy savings and Oak is estimated to have 18% energy savings.
Visually speaking, LEED buildings are most notable for the recycled content and renewable materials that comprise their exterior paneling and interior walls and floors. Oak Hall uses bamboo for wall panels, recycled copper for the exterior siding and regional bricks. The bamboo is more sustainable than wood because it only take 3-5 years to harvest, the copper is made up of 80-95% recycled content, and the bricks are produced within 500 miles of campus. Approximately 75% of construction waste was diverted from landfills and reused or recycled.
Beyond sustainability, LEED buildings also have health benefits. Indoor environmental quality is improved through green cleaning products that are biodegradable, have low toxicity and low volatile organic compound content (VOC), and have reduced packaging. All plywood is formaldehyde-free and adhesives, sealants and paint have low or no VOC. Both Oak and Laurel are definite eye catchers. These buildings are not only environmentally friendly and cost effective but also aesthetically pleasing. It is something to appreciate that sustainability can be characterized as modern and hip. For those interested in seeing how these LEED buildings affect UConn’s GHG emissions, the Office of Environmental Policy is planning to upload energy and water saving dashboards online.
Here are some examples of the sustainability features in Oak and Laurel Halls:
…when people get together to make the world a better place.
The Power of We – Conserving Water Resources at the University of Connecticut
Public awareness of the increasing scarcity of water on a global scale has been growing over the last few decades. The main concerns are water quantity and quality; millions of people around the world have infrequent or no access to a source of clean water. This problem is exacerbated by a growing population with ever increasing demands for natural resources. In contrast, here in the USA it is hard to imagine anything but a tap flowing with cool, crisp, potable water. Too often we take water for granted. Through technological advances in the drinking water industry we are seemingly able to meet the majority of demand for water in our own country. At least, we don’t often hear about when our water infrastructure fails.
Connecticut is generally considered a water-rich state; we have adequate supplies of groundwater and high quality surface water reservoirs. However, despite this perceived abundance of water resources certain sites have been known to overstress their water sources. At the University of Connecticut there is an undergraduate population of around 17 thousand alone. If faculty, staff, and graduate students are factored in there is a daily demand for water to support in excess of 25 thousand people. It should be noted that not all of these will have needs for UConn water during peak demand hours; many live at home and will cook and bathe using separate water sources. Even so, UConn has experienced its share of water supply issues.
UConn receives high quality groundwater from two well fields adjacent to the Fenton and Willimantic rivers. The University must remain vigilant in monitoring the withdrawal rate and water levels of these rivers through its department of Facilities Operations and a partnership with the US Geological Survey. In 2005, a stretch of the Fenton River ran dry due to low precipitation and water pumping from UConn’s Fenton well field. This was a significant ecological hardship for the area and resulted in a redoubling of UConn’s water monitoring and conservation efforts.
UConn’s water supply issues did not stop there; in the spring and summer of 2012 low snow melt and precipitation associated with a nationwide drought stressed its groundwater sources yet again. The university issued a water advisory, mandating conservation efforts, including a limit on lawn watering, car washing, and ornamental fountains. Voluntary measures were suggested in conjunction.
In September, with the return of the student body, water conservation took on new urgency. The mandatory conservation measures had been lifted; however the water advisory remained in effect. Inconsistent precipitation and increased water demand led to an uncertain forecast for our water supply. Upon arrival back to school, one of my first tasks as a student intern in UConn’s Office of Environmental Policy was to implement a water conservation outreach campaign that would target the student population.
I, along with a fellow intern, outlined a schedule of steps that could be taken to promote the importance of saving water to students. Our efforts focused on advertising the facts and importance surrounding saving water and how water supply may affect life at UConn and the surrounding ecological and human communities. Through September and October we created materials to achieve this goal; the message was advertised in the student theater, student union, recreational facility, laundry rooms, and via social media.
Our message focused on what students could do to reduce their water usage. We were able to couple our program with existing programs like the OEP’s “Stop the Drop” campaign, which focuses on promoting students’ role in reporting wasteful infrastructure damages for repair. Our new materials detailed some of the wasteful habits many college students fall into, for instance in dormitory laundry rooms we advised students to restrict usage of washing machines to full loads of clothes. By combining a recognizable slogan and symbol into our work while adding new elements to the theme we hoped to maximize the effectiveness of our message.
Our efforts were rewarded when water usage for September showed that UConn used 7% less water than a year earlier. One of the greatest successes and largest contributors to these results was progress in a continued leak detection and repair program focused on UConn’s water distribution system. Retro-commissioning projects have resulted in improved system efficiencies and controls, and the combination of outreach on the parts of our office, Facilities Operations, and a variety of campus and university stakeholders managed to reduce the water demand beyond our expectations.
With infrastructure improvements underway, the outreach component of this issue must persist. In fact, the water conservation program should ideally be perpetual. With growing populations this conservation mindset must continue to spread and flourish if we are to maintain our quality of life and preserve our natural environment. Hopefully, through continued efforts we can help change our culture into one that puts a high value on our natural resources. We have a semester-long plan to continue our water conservation program and have begun to work with student organizations, like EcoHusky, to address this issue from multiple sides.
The events at the University of Connecticut over the last few years have demonstrated how a community can change its practices in order to responsibility utilize its available water supply. Throughout this process UConn has looked to other institution for guidance in its water supply plan and we hope that other groups will be able to learn from our experiences. Although UConn is a small speck on the global water budget, it may prove that a widespread change in practice and thought process on this micro-scale may prove to be effective in conserving the Earth’s precious water supply.
It’s hard to compare the “Green City” of Freiburg, population 220,000 and home to Freiburg Uni (enrollment 23,000), with the small community of Mansfield, Connecticut, home to UConn’s main campus in Storrs, where the town’s population literally doubles when 22,000 students return in late-August for the start of the academic year. In fact, it would be difficult comparing any town or city to Freiburg, with its unique blend of historical charm, natural surroundings, ecotourism and green technology cluster. After my self-styled “International Sustainability Exchange,” which, thanks to a professional staff travel grant from UConn’s Office of Global Programs, consisted of two weeks of: (i) meetings and interviews with university and city officials, (ii) a guest lecture and conversations with graduate students studying Renewable Energy Management, and (iii) guided and self-guided tours of the campus, city and surrounding sights, I left Germany reassured that UConn deserves its lofty #5 position in the Sierra Club’s 2012 rankings of America’s greenest colleges, yet inspired by Freiburg to envision how we can do even more to improve campus sustainability.
The Freiburg town hall (center), where I met with local officials, including the mayor’s environmental director, and found “Green City” tours and information.
Beyond Freiburg’s strengths in renewable energy, mass transit and bicycle friendliness, (see Parts 1-4 of this blog), here are some takeaways based on my sustainability exchange experience.
UConn can do more to promote its natural assets. The 440-acre Fenton tract of the UConn Forest, adjacent to the Agricultural/East Campus is certainly not as vast and scenic as the iconic Black Forest, which overlooks Freiburg and the University’s campus, but there is plenty of natural diversity for UConn students and local hikers to experience there. About eight years ago, student environmental organizations, led by EcoHusky and the Soil and Water Conservation Society, installed trail head signs on the East Campus, marking access points to Fenton forest hiking trails. Still, when I ask for a show of hands during one of my guest lectures, I’m always amazed that most third- and fourth-year students, even in environmental majors, have never been on the blue-blazed Nipmuck trail along the Fenton River, or walked through the Fenton tract to see the remnants of the University’s long-abandoned Horsebarn Hill ski lift, or its special forest areas featuring stands of old growth trees and the Oguschwitz Meadow. Similarly, there’s not widespread appreciation among students, faculty or staff for the North Campus’s 64-acre Hillside Environmental Education Park, with its 2 miles of hiking trails, including boardwalks and observations decks over restored wetlands.
In contrast, from anywhere in Freiburg, there are constant reminders that the Black Forest or “Schwarzvald,” is nearby – it’s a centerpiece of Freiburg’s vibrant ecotourism business and self-described identity. Freiburg has also created rest stops and embellished attractions that draw people of all ages up the hillside trails and into the forest, like benches, picnic areas, playgrounds, public art displays, historic monuments, an observation tower and, of course, a beer garden (this is Germany after all) overlooking the city.
View of Freiburg from a hillside trail in the Black Forest
A popular hillside restaurant and beer garden helped attract people onto the Black Forest trails.
It was a short hike into the Black Forest to this observation tower, which was built as a civic project with financial support from company and individual donors. Below is the view of Freiburg from near the top of the tower. On a clear day, the Swiss Alps would be visible from this vantage point.
It was also remarkable to be able to reach Freiburg’s many parks and natural attractions on foot or by bicycle, along well-marked bike paths. Leaving from the city’s centralized “Mobile” bike station, I pedaled for 30-40 minutes along the Dreisam River trail to reach Freiburg’s Seepark, a beautiful public lake, surrounded by open space and playing fields. It was a nice day and there were pockets of people, their bikes nearby, swimming or sunbathing on the grassy lakeside, but no parking lots for motor vehicles anywhere in sight. I biked on the trail that looped around the lake and stopped for lunch, a tasty Weisswurst, at the waterfront beer garden (this is Germany after all).
The lake at Seepark was easily accessible by bike from the inner city and Freiburg Uni’s campus.
I thought about a comparably-sized swimming hole near UConn’s main campus in Storrs, the Mansfield Hollow reservoir and picnic area. It’s probably about the same distance from Storrs as Seepark is from Freiburg’s inner-city, but getting to Mansfield Hollow by bike on the most direct path from the main campus would be along Route 195. With posted speed limits of 45 MPH in sections, no designated bike lanes and often narrow shoulders, Route 195 is the main drag into and out of UConn’s campus and one of the busiest state roads in Connecticut. In other words, Mansfield Hollow is not as easily connected to the campus or well-used by most UConn students.
Recycling made easy. UConn is now a single-stream campus (with a large inventory of dual-stream bins purchased just five years ago), while Freiburg Uni is decidedly multiple-stream. At UConn, students can use any recycling bin for any recyclable item. The green outdoor single stream bins are plentiful throughout the core campus and usually coupled with black trash containers, so that recycling is as convenient as trash disposal. At Freiburg, there were separate bins for separate colored glass bottles: green, brown, yellow or clear, alongside separate bins for different types of paper, and separate bins for aluminum cans, and separate bins for plastic bottles. Sometime these multiple-stream recycling bins were coupled with trash cans, but often they were not. While both universities receive a small financial incentive from their haulers for delivering clean streams of recyclables, UConn’s contractor separates items at its transfer station, which makes recycling more user-friendly and efficient on campus. Also, as a land grant university, with agricultural roots, we also compost nearly 5,000 tons of organic waste a year at our state-of-the-art facility, constructed in 2010.
Sustainable stormwater management. Not too long ago, at the start of UConn 2000, a $2.3 billion state bond-funded capital improvement program that has successfully transformed the University’s campuses, we had our share of problems managing stormwater, particularly from construction sites. UConn has responded over the past 10 years by becoming a national leader in on-campus low impact design (LID) features, such as rain gardens, bio-retention swales, permeable asphalt parking lots, porous paver snow shelves and terraces, and green roofs. By infiltrating rainwater, LID features maintain a site’s natural hydrology and ease the volume and velocity of runoff into conventional storm drainage systems, which can cause downstream erosion and carry sediment and pollution directly into rivers, lakes and ponds. All of our on-campus LID features are part of the landscape and designed to be seen by thousands of students every day – some have signs describing their environmental benefits.
I was told by a reliable source that Freiburg Uni has several green roofs, but none of them appear to be easily visible or accessible to students. I photographed one green roof which was shown to me from the third floor of an administrative office building. The city of Freiburg has plenty of impervious cover (IC), which usually correlates to water quality problems. However, I’m not sure that’s the case here.
Although IC is the antithesis of LID, one can hardly argue with the intricately inlaid brick and cobblestone walkways, roads and plazas that are integral to the historic charm of Freiburg’s Old City or “Altstadt.” Then there’s the bächle – a system of narrow canals continuously flowing throughout the Altstadt with some combination of stormwater, surface water and ground water along those brick and stone roads and walkways, then between, under and through courtyards and buildings. The bächle also help cool the surrounding buildings and neighborhoods. Were these canals part of the same geothermal system that cools half of the Freiburg Uni campus? Although I’m sure they once also served as the city’s sanitary sewer, I was told there is no longer any sewage discharging into the canal system. In fact, the water looked clean. Parents let their kids play in the canals and pet owners let their dogs drink from them. I wish I had learned more about how the bächle worked. Is it a complex system to operate and maintain year-round and what is its role and relative effectiveness in managing stormwater and improving water quality? I’d be curious to know what sorts of things have been lost and found in the bowels of the system. I accidentally fumbled a map into a rapidly-flowing bächle and it quickly floated down the canal, dropping and out-of- sight into a catch basin before I could retrieve it.
The bächle (above and below) is a narrow canal system that collects stormwater and flows throughout Freiburg’s Altstadt and portions of the University’s campus.
Landscaping and gardens. Freiburg, including the University’s campus, has several meticulously-maintained gardens, featuring manicured lawns and colorful flower beds around courtyards with statuary and fountains. In stark contrast, the landscape in other parts of Freiburg’s campus and city side streets was poorly maintained. Patches of lawn around many buildings had given way to tall weeds that looked untouched by a mower all summer. There were potholes, fallen debris and overgrown hedges along the sidewalks. I’m not sure if this was a concession to budget cuts or a more natural approach to landscaping, or a little of both.
Flower gardens at the Anthropology Museum in Freiburg.
Well-maintained, traditional landscaping at the entrance to the hospital on the Freiburg Uni medical school campus.
Friends of mine who are organic gardeners have eliminated or minimized lawn area in their yards. They add wildflower seeds to a meadow mix and extol the virtues of clover. By late-summer they end up with a lot of crabgrass but they’re content because they haven’t used herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. That kind of approach to landscape maintenance is a tough sell on college campuses.
UConn employs integrated pest management techniques on its lawns and landscaped gardens, and our newest classroom building features xeriscaping, bio-retention swales, a green roof and even edible plants, like blueberry bushes. Like other campuses in colder climates, winter takes its toll on our landscaping and a dry summer can turn our lawns brown in a few weeks, especially since we conserve potable water by limiting landscape irrigation to new plants, gardens or turf. We’ll complete construction soon of a new centrally-located academic building, which includes a large underground cistern that will be used to collect rainwater for irrigating the lawn and gardens around one of our busier outdoor common areas, the Student Union quad.
Farm-to-Table. Freiburgers value locally-grown food, locally-brewed beer and local wines from area vineyards. Signs in an inner-city grocery store identified local dairy products and produce, which were fresh, relatively inexpensive and very good. Every morning in the Altstadt’s central plaza, the Munsterplatz, a farmers’ market bustled under a dozen or so tents. On my bike ride to Seepark, I came across acres of community gardens divided by fences into small rectangular plots, some with elaborate sheds or makeshift greenhouses, and all very successfully growing everything from flowers, to herbs and vegetables.
A small section of the lush community garden plots on found my way to Seepark – there were micro-scale wind turbines on the roof of the building in the background.
Part of the local Farmers’ Market held every morning in the Munsterplatz. Below, an evening festival held in the same plaza featured local wineries and breweries.
UConn has also embraced locally-grown food, which is sourced and promoted through Dining Services’ Local Routes program. Whitney is the original sustainable dining hall at UConn, and has specialized in, among other things, locally grown, organic, veghan, vegetarian, fair trade, free range and rainforest alliance items. Small placards in Whitney tell diners where their food came from, like the honey from UConn’s apiary or veggies from the 1.4 –acre Spring Valley Farm, cultivated by students living in two off-campus farmhouses that are part of UConn’s EcoHouse living and learning community.
In the final analysis, it’s fair to say that I found more similarities than differences between Freiburg Uni and UConn, the two sister universities that partner for study abroad and other global exchange programs. Freiburg Uni benefits from being part of the greenest city in Germany. The investment the city has made in sustainable mass transit alone is mind-boggling and the University community, like any other resident or visitor is, quite literally, “along for the ride.” Even though residents and officials in UConn’s hometown of Mansfield may be just as environmentally-minded and visionary as their Freiburg counterparts, they have small town resources and tend to rely on, and partner with, UConn for things like utility services for town, commercial and residential buildings in and around Storrs. Consequently, UConn’s sustainability record has benefited from having to be more self-sufficient in managing its property and developing these kinds of basic programs and services for the University community. With the ownership, maintenance and operation of 4,000 acres of land, a variety of research farms, a public transit system, a water supply system, a 25 MW cogeneration facility and a sewage treatment plant, along with miles of underground and above ground distribution infrastructure, comes the ability for UConn to shape its own destiny and the opportunity (some would say obligation) to develop more holistic, integrated approaches to sustainability. Vielen danke Freiburg for the ideas and inspiration!
Editor’s Note: Since July, UConn has lifted the mandatory water conservation measures. Voluntary measures are still in effect as of September 2012.
Written July 31, 2012, under moderate drought stage conditions by Rachael Shenyo, Sustainability Coordinator
So what’s going on?
The University of Connecticut Storrs Campus draws water to meet its daily water consumption needs from wellfields along two rivers that flank the University property: the Fenton River to the east, and the larger Willimantic River to the west. Under normal rainfall and water table conditions, the University is authorized to draw 844,000 gallons daily form the Fenton wellfield, and up to 2.3 million from the Willimantic wellfield. Our 2011 total water consumption was 471,651,000 gallons, giving us an average daily water consumption of 1.3 million gallons per day, well below the threshold we are authorized (and also, due to water conservation measures already taken, 13% lower than the 1.5 million gallon/day usage rates from 2005). Under normal stream flow conditions, then, the University stays well below the limits where excessive use would adversely impact the rivers, with some room for leeway during unusually dry conditions. It is important to keep in mind that water usage patterns differ from season to season, with more water being used for cooling and irrigation in the summer than in other seasons, but far more for residents and programs during the normal fall and spring semesters.
Impact studies (and unfortunate experience) have shown that during times where the water table is down, and/or during times of unusually low rainfall, the University’s normal level of water usage can negatively impact the stream flow of both rivers, especially the smaller Fenton. Thus, the University developed a set of guidelines that describe stages of voluntary and mandatory conservation measures that will be enacted during conditions that warrant it. These guidelines, and the severity of the restrictions, are based on actual real-time stream flow data collected from the two rivers. The real time stream data is provided via the USGS, and can be seen here for the Fenton, and here for the Willimantic. The goal of the restrictions is to eliminate or reduce non-essential water use, and significantly reduce water used for essential functions. The University has just issued a Stage II Water Supply Watch, which includes mandatory restrictions.
How bad is it now?
(Editor’s Note: Links are updated weekly, so values reported on July 17-30, 2012, when this was written, may not reflect current values).
At this writing, the flows in both rivers are running at roughly 50% of normal flow, as calculated by the USGS as a 5 year moving average. According to the USDA Drought Monitor, Tolland County Connecticut is hovering between abnormally dry conditions (see map on right) and moderate drought, and has been since March 6, 2012. According the Northeast Regional Drought Center information available through Cornell, precipitation for the first half of 2012 has been only roughly 60-75% of normal (see below). The water table can handle some amount of fluctuation, and when the water table is higher than the river flow, it can replenish the rivers during periods of low rainfall. Some normal give and take happens as part of the natural processes during seasonal changes. However, during prolonged periods of short rainfall, the water table itself falls below the level of the rivers. When this happens, stream flows in both rivers go down.
While the USDA information is not predicting extreme drought conditions to develop, they are cautioning that it would take 6.54 inches above normal rainfall amounts to return the water table to normal levels. Even that number is misleading, since it takes a week in most regions for precipitation to reach the water table, and in drought conditions, where the soil can be baked harder than normal, surface rainfall, especially in the form of heavy downpours, often washes off completely (or temporarily floods) instead of being absorbed. So even a hypothetical hurricane that drops a foot of rain next week would not necessarily resolve the situation.
It is worth noting here that the most significant source of groundwater in the north is spring melt of winter snowfall, and we had almost no snowfall this winter in the entire state. The months of August and September are traditionally the driest months for our region, so if normal rainfall patterns prevail, the dry soil conditions will not alleviate, and the water table will not get any relief until October. October is when deciduous trees drop their leaves, and coniferous trees prepare for winter, thus drawing less water from the ground for maintenance of vegetation and life processes. The years when UConn has had to enact water restrictions, it has typically occurred during August and September, and been somewhat alleviated in October.
This year has been unusual for the state history, being the driest winter and spring on record, so there is no guarantee that conditions will return to normal in October without significant precipitation. At this point, the USDA is not predicting that severe drought conditions will be reached. Short and long term precipitation models at current indicate near normal precipitation patterns for the rest of the year, but it is unknown if conditions will remain at or near the current moderate drought conditions.
So what is the University doing?
The University administrators expect that at the beginning of the fall semester this year, the combination of already dry conditions, low water table, near-normal [low] rainfall patterns, and sudden spike in on-campus water usage will stress the existing river watersheds. As stated earlier, average daily water consumption is around 1.3 million gallons/ per day, with numbers reflecting highest water usage occurring during the month of September, which corresponds with our expected driest season. The University will continue to monitor the steam flow of both rivers, and usage will be diverted from the especially vulnerable Fenton River. Mandatory water conservation guidelines have been issued, and may be modified if the situation worsens. The following mandatory conservation measures, which affect mostly UConn personnel, were effective immediately as of July 17:
Lawn watering for all University and non-University users is limited to four hours or less per day and only between the hours of 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Athletic fields will be allowed up two hours of water per day during the same hours.
Filling of public or private pools must be provided via water delivered from another source.
Washing of motor vehicles is banned. The University’s wash bay will be closed until further notice.
The use of ornamental or display fountains is banned.
The use of water for washing and wetting down streets, sidewalks, driveways, or parking areas is banned unless required by the local public health authority.
The use of UConn water for dust control at construction sites is banned. Contractors are required to provide water for dust control from off-site.
The use of hydrant sprinkler caps is banned.
Water main flushing will only be used to address water quality issues.
If the conditions worsen, you may see the dining halls switch to paper plates and plastic cutlery, in order to reduce water needed for plate washing. Although this measure seems counter-intuitive from a “green” perspective, it may be necessary for during times when water conservation needs outweigh our desire to reduce overall waste volume produced by the University.
UConn Storrs has also taken the initiative on this issue, with a move towards sustainable landscape design that involves the use of rain gardens and native species and drought tolerant plants that reduce water use; low-flow shower heads and dual flush toilets; steam line renovations that repair leaks where water is wasted; and the construction of the first large-scale reclaimed water facility in the State of Connecticut, which, upon completion, will cut Storrs campus’s current daily potable water usage by up to ¼.
So what can individuals on campus do?
As with so many things, everyday small actions do make a big difference. Our goal is to reduce water consumption across the campus, from all sources, by as much as possible. Voluntary water conservation measures are being requested of residents and users of the University water system, including:
Take shorter showers.
Run dishwashers and washing machines with full loads.
Use water only as needed when washing dishes, shaving, and brushing teeth.
Avoid power washing buildings and washing vehicles with public water.
Raise the thermostat in UConn buildings, particularly when leaving at night.
Immediately report leaky fixtures in UConn buildings to Facilities Operations: 860-486-3113.
If you are in a position to inform others, as a professor, Residence Assistant, or other individual involved in outreach, please know that we have a wealth of materials available to you that we encourage you to use to help spread the message of responsible water use. They are listed in the Additional Resources section below.
Employers and Department Heads:
We encourage you to inform your employees of the mandatory conservation measures by ensuring that they read either this blog, or this shorter article in UConn Today.
Residents of University Houses, Dorms and Apartments:
Expanded tips for water conservation in dorms and apartments can be found here.
Report any and all leaky faucets or showerheads immediately 860-486-3113.
A UConn “Sustainability Exchange” Experience – Sustainable Energy at Freiburg University
Knowing from my research in preparation for this trip, and now from my conversations with local officials, how much people look to the region for its unique solar and renewable energy technology cluster, it was easy to understand why Freiburg Uni has responded by developing strong academic programs that educate future green industry entrepreneurs, leaders and policy-makers. Dr. Stefan Adler arranged for my lecture to his graduate students in the most rapidly successful of these programs – the MS degree program in Renewable Energy Management (REM). He also told me about the partnership between his academic home, the Center for Renewable Energy, and the government-funded Fraunhoffer Solar Energy Institute, located about a mile away from the Center beyond the sprawling Freiburg Uni hospital and medical school campus. REM faculty members conduct research, lectures, seminars and conferences at the Fraunhoffer Institute. I walked there and saw several arrays on and around the building and, inside, a display promoting the institute’s impressive 5th annual International Solar Summit, scheduled for this October in Freiburg.
The main entrance to the Fraunhoffer Solar Energy Institute (above) is a 20-30 minute walk from the Center for Renewable Energy on Freiburg Uni’s campus. Dr. Adler and other solar faculty members partner with the government-funded institute.
A display in the institute’s main lobby promoted the upcoming 5th annual Solar Summit in Freiburg.
Dr. Adler’s 29 REM graduate students from 20 different countries were bright, engaged and fluent in English, a requirement for admission. I presented an overview of UConn’s sustainability initiatives and activities, focusing on our 2010 Climate Action Plan (CAP) for a carbon-neutral campus by 2050 and delving into our progress in implementing several energy and transportation related strategies. When I spoke with pride about how we’ve made UConn’s very clean and efficient cogeneration facility the central energy source for an increasing number of campus buildings, the student skepticism about the cogen’s natural gas fuel source was palpable but polite. Nonetheless, I explained, our 25 MW cogen plant has displaced the use of less efficient boilers and generators, which used much more carbon-intensive petroleum diesel fuels, and it now supplies nearly 80% of the heat and power for our main campus. The students had a similar reaction when I told them about UConn’s installation this past spring of a 400 kW UTC Power hydrogen fuel cell at our Depot Campus. The fuel cell extracts hydrogen from – you guessed it – natural gas. Then, through a catalytic process, instead of combustion, it generates most of the electricity and some of the heat for the Depot extension of our main campus. Each year, this fuel cell will avoid the consumption of millions of gallons of cooling water and the emissions of many air pollutants, including 800 tons of CO2, versus the conventional power sources that would be needed to produce a comparable amount of energy.
The REM students pointed out: “But natural gas is 100% fossil fuel! How can that even be a bridge to a truly sustainable strategy? Isn’t the US just delaying the transition to renewable energy by switching from one fossil fuel to another, coal to natural gas?” I think most of them understood the economic and political realities in the US, and elsewhere around the globe, that have made the transition to renewable energy slower than any of us would like. But they raised good questions that led to a lively discussion. One student encouraged me to develop more ambitious interim carbon-reduction targets for UConn’s CAP. I loved the students’ passion for renewable energy and enjoyed our policy-level dialogue.
Dr. Juergen Steck, my principal Freiburg Uni host and counterpart, who is the “Umweltschutz” director overseeing both environmental compliance and sustainability, filled me in on the use of renewable energy in campus operations. He was one of the university project leaders charged with meeting the 550 kW goal of the Solar Uni initiative. He and his staff of nine, including a climate protection manager, keep meticulous records and file detailed reports about greenhouse gas emissions from campus operations. They also maintain data about metered and un-metered energy use in campus buildings as well as energy production from various sources, including solar power. At his desktop computer, he opened several Excel spreadsheets and graphs that had been prepared to ensure compliance with Germany’s climate protection laws.
In our conversations, Dr. Steck shared his concerns that the campus had literally run out of rooftop space for additional solar arrays. Based on the abundance of arrays and several green roofs already installed on campus buildings, he worried whether there would be any remaining rooftops available with the necessary characteristics: proper orientation to sunlight, structural integrity, and at least a 20-year remaining lifespan. As in the US, a number of Freiburg’s older campus buildings are protected by historic preservation laws and remain off-limits to solar panels.
According to my Freiburg Uni counterpart, green roofs like this one, which was visible from the upper-floor offices across the quad, along with 550 kW of rooftop solar arrays already installed, have used most of the available space on campus for future solar installations.
Beyond solar, the rest of Freiburg Uni’s energy picture is also tinted green. Dr. Steck explained how the campus uses groundwater for geothermal cooling of half of its buildings. It’s a non-consumptive, non-contact cooling use of the naturally cold water drawn from the aquifer underlying the university’s campus. His department’s job is to make sure that the water is returned to the aquifer, after its use, free of any chemicals or other contaminants and no more than 5 degrees Celsius warmer than when it was pumped out. For the rest of the campus heating and cooling needs, he told me that, only recently, after a long and careful analysis, Freiburg Uni switched from burning coal at its central utility plant to burning biomass, comprised of wood chips from a sustainably-harvested local forest.
Despite all of these green energy attributes, I wondered how much the typical Freiburg undergrad was aware of the university’s commitment to sustainability and renewable resources. At UConn, we’ve just completed our Renewable Energy Strategic Plan for deploying demonstration-scale sustainable energy projects on our campus over the next five to seven years. For us, the public visibility and academic accessibility of future projects were, and will be, important site selection criteria. We hope to integrate tours of these installations into various courses, from science and engineering to the humanities. At Freiburg, on the other hand, none of the Solar Uni rooftop arrays was visible, much less accessible, to students or the general public. I was told the university had installed an energy dashboard, not at the student center or a large classroom building, but at the Rector’s inner-city office, blocks away from academic buildings and daily student traffic. Maybe when your campus is in the middle of Germany’s “Green City,” where renewable energy has flourished for decades and installations are commonplace, there isn’t as much of a need for high visibility demonstration projects.
On an overcast day, wind mills in the Black Forest (center) on the edge of the city, were faintly visible from the Freiburg Uni campus.
A UConn “Sustainability Exchange” Experience – Renewable Energy in Freiburg, Germany
This is the third in a series of blog posts by Rich Miller, UConn’s Director of Environmental Policy, comparing and contrasting aspects of environmental sustainability at Freiburg University (Albert Ludwig University at Freiburg or Freiburg Uni) and in the “Green City” of Freiburg, Germany, with similar sustainability aspects and metrics at the University of Connecticut (UConn) and its main campus located in Storrs, within the small town of Mansfield and the rural surroundings of northeastern CT. Rich received a professional staff travel grant from UConn’s Office of Global Programs and used it to visit Freiburg over a two-week period in July 2012 for this international sustainability exchange program.
What would you expect from Germany’s “solar city?” Taking advantage of the fact that it’s located in the sunniest region of the country – a relative distinction compared with the often cloudy and cool northern Europe – Freiburg has installed more solar panels than any other city in Deutschland, and more than many countries in Europe. Dr. Stefan Adler, the enthusiastic Director of Uni Freiburg’s Center for Renewable Energy, explained to me how the city’s green reputation and passion for solar energy was borne during the 1970s from a grassroots fight against a proposed nuclear facility, which was planned for an area just northwest of Freiburg, along the Rhine River. The protestors, led by local farmers, prevailed and the nuclear plant was never built. Today, the long-time Green Party mayor, Dieter Salomon, remains a popular incumbent, and solar panels, wind turbines and small hydro-electric facilities have been part of the cityscape in Freiburg for years. The anti-nuclear sentiment remains strong among the general population and, decades later, is still part of the sustainable energy message communicated by the mayor’s office and local businesses.
Solar panels are on many buildings in Freiburg, like this photovoltaic array on the side of an office building near the main train station. Freiburg has more than 12.3 MW of solar PV (mostly roof-mounted), which generates more than 10 million kWh of electricity a year.
Old meets new: New wind-power turbines on the edge of the Black Forest overlook Freiburg and the 800-year old Munsterplatz cathedral. A total of five Freiburg wind mills produce 14 million kWh per year and two more are planned. (F. Breyer, Büro der Bürgermeisterin, Freiburg)
A few small hydro-electric facilities can be seen along the Dreisam River, which flows across the southern portion of the city. Freiburg’s hydro power produces nearly 2 million kWh a year and 80% of the electricity used to run the regional trams. (F. Breyer, Büro der Bürgermeisterin, Freiburg)
I met with Dr. Franziska Breyer, the city’s environmental director, in the town hall or Rathaus (a German word with an unfortunate double entendre in English), to talk about Freiburg’s plan for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. She was busily preparing for an important meeting of a town commission that evening, when she was hoping for the board’s approval to raise the bar on Freiburg’s interim carbon reduction goals. Dr. Breyer, who is a forester by training, and a former faculty member at Freiburg Uni, was also pressed for time because her job title and management portfolio had recently been expanded to include youth, schools and education. With that kind of addition to her workload, I was grateful that she could spend any time meeting with me, much less an hour, and I appreciated the presentation materials she gave me from her latest annual report to town officials: “Approaches to Sustainability – traffic policy, climate protection and urban development planning in Freiburg.” Many of the facts and figures cited in this report are from these excellent presentation materials.
In addition to the governmental, residential and commercial building owners who have installed solar arrays throughout the inner city and surrounding village districts, Freiburg University has also made a large investment in roof-mounted solar PV. On the university’s 550th anniversary in 2007, their Rector (chief academic official) announced a “Solar Uni” initiative with the ambitious goal of installing 550 kW of solar panels on campus over the next five years. Using government incentive programs that ensure a guaranteed rate of return for solar investors, many people, including students, faculty and staff, actually acquired equity shares in these on-campus installations and, by 2012, the Solar Uni initiative achieved its lofty goal. In turn, these same incentive programs stimulated the growth of German solar developers and manufacturers, several of which are clustered in and around Freiburg.
Solar PV and thermal technology is not only a significant source of power and heat in Freiburg but also has stimulated an industry cluster that is important to the regional economy. (Photo of Solar Fabrik office building courtesy of F. Breyer, Büro der Bürgermeisterin, Freiburg)
Freiburg combines its long-standing commitment to renewable energy with more recent conservation-focused laws and resolutions proclaiming goals and mandates like: (i) zero-carbon development on land that it owns, (ii) more energy efficient replacement windows on existing homes, and (iii) low energy standards for new homes. For example, in the Green City’s Vauban eco-district, which was established in the mid-1990s through the redevelopment of the barracks in a former French military base, homebuilders must ensure that new residential buildings waste no more than 65 kWh per square meter annually – a fraction of the average for most homes in northern Europe. Walking down the main street in Vauban, along the two tram lines leading into and out of Freiburg’s inner-city, one sees solar panels, playgrounds and small parks everywhere. Cars are prohibited within Vauban’s pedestrian village, which also gets the bulk of its electricity and thermal energy from a centralized combined heat and power biomass plant.
As I left the eco-district and headed back to Freiburg’s inner-city on the tram, I checked “Vauban” off the list of destinations on my official Green City tour map. It had been well worth my time and the four euro roundtrip tram fare, but I was thankful that I hadn’t paid 180 euros for the two-hour guided tour. Eco-tourism is a big business in Freiburg, including group tours of man-made features, like Vauban, and nature excursions to places like the Black Forest.
Solar panels are on the rooftop of virtually every apartment building in the Vauban eco-district. Envisioning an affordable, sustainable energy community, Freiburg developed Vauban in the early-1990s by converting the barracks of a former French military base.
Vauban’s biomass plant, combined with solar, produces heat and power for the entire eco-district. (F. Breyer, Büro der Bürgermeisterin, Freiburg)
Solar panels are everywhere in Vauban, including on the rooftop of this café and commercial building.
A UConn “Sustainability Exchange” Experience – Bicycle Transportation in Freiburg, Germany
Preparing for my trip, I had read that Freiburg, a large college town by any standard (pop. 220,000), and an increasingly popular tourist destination for all of Europe, the US and other parts of the world, was not only Germany’s “solar city,” which makes sense given that it enjoys more sunny days than anywhere else in Deutschland, but also its “cycle city.” With this in mind, I had packed my bike helmet, gloves and shorts and made plans to rent a bike at The Mobile. This is a large, multi-story facility, which was built to serve as the city’s public bike station and is connected by a pedestrian bridge to the train and bus stations. I had read that as many as 30 percent of Freiburgers commute to work, class, and almost anywhere else they’re going, by bicycle – that number seems lower than what I observed.
“The Mobile,” a public bike station in Freiburg, rents and loans hundreds of bikes daily.
The easiest way to describe the difference between biking in Freiburg and the US, even compared to a college town like Storrs, is that bicycling here in southwest Germany, among students and the masses, is predominantly an alternative mode of transportation, certainly much more than it is a form of recreation or sport. Bikes here are mostly very practical, low-frills models with wider hybrid tires and seats, straight handlebars, and metal basket clips and fenders. In fact, most of them resemble the standard-issue “UConn Cycles” bike-sharing 3-speed models (the kind we selected to deter their theft). The expensive, aerodynamic bikes so popular in the US, like the ultra-light racing bikes, are few and far between. Upscale mountain bikes with the heavy-duty shock absorbers and hydraulic brakes are slightly more noticeable on the Black Forest’s wooded trails, which border the city and climb up to many scenic hilltops and steep “bergs.” People of all ages ride everywhere, rain or shine, day or night, in their normal everyday attire: from business suits and ties, to long dresses, skirts and skinny jeans, and with footwear from dress shoes, sneakers, sandals and boots, to bare feet. Helmets and spandex bike shorts, so popular among the “weekend warriors” in the US (myself included) are scarce in Freiburg.
The Mobile is connected by the pedestrian/bike-only bridge (left) to the main bus and train stations.
Biking here on the Freiburg Uni campus and in the city is all about getting where you need to go… quickly. My $4 Freiburg metropolitan area bike map, with the solid red lines indicating separate, paved bike trails, and dotted lines for pavement-marked lanes alongside the walkways or on the shoulders of streets, showed a network of trails so numerous and inter-connected that it looked like a half-eaten plate of spaghetti. It’s all so convenient and connected that the university has found 5,000 bike racks on campus are not enough! According to Dr. Juergen Steck, my host and counterpart at the university, this has become a problem for senior administrators, because hundreds of bikes are routinely locked to lamp posts, fences, trees and anything else fixed to the ground, becoming an eyesore and occasionally even a fire safety issue when blocking exits and access points. Help is on the way! The university will be adding 500 bike parking spaces in the basement of its new library, now under construction and expected to open next year.
5,000 bike storage racks on the Freiburg Uni campus, such as the covered racks to the left in this photo, are still not enough! Bikes are chained to everything, like the railings and lamp posts in front of this classroom building, posing aesthetic and safety concerns.
A note about bike safety is relevant here. Many times last year, when our UConn Cycles team prepared to launch the campus bike-sharing pilot program, I heard from several faculty and staff members about how they had almost been run over by a careless cyclist. They chided me that maybe encouraging more bikes on campus wasn’t such a good idea after all. So, we created a bike safety flyer, tightened our liability waiver form, took a deep breath and forged ahead. Fast forward to southwest Germany in this summer of 2012 and picture dozens, if not hundreds, of bikes fearlessly zipping along the streets and narrow cobblestone roads and walkways, often weaving through pedestrian and vehicle traffic that is every bit as heavy as it gets on North Eagleville Road (in the Science Quad) between classes, and you’ll have a pretty good image of Freiburg. Cars, bikes and pedestrians here have learned to peacefully coexist. Everyone defers to cyclists, who seem pretty attentive and experienced at avoiding collisions. However, when I remarked to Freiburg’s director of education and the environment, Dr. Franziska Breyer, that I had seen very few riders, except for pre-teens, wearing bike helmets, she seemed resigned to the fact that an adult helmet law would not be enforceable. And yes, she acknowledged, they have had their share of bike-related accidents. Those must have been involving the few adults I saw now wearing helmets.
Bike taxis (and even a few passenger-pedaled buses) were popular in Freiburg’s beautifully restored and preserved Aldstadt (”Old City”), where motor vehicles were mostly prohibited.
Renting a bike was less expensive than in the US (finally something less expensive!) and cost about 8 euros ($10) for a half day or 15 euros for an entire day. The 50 euro refundable deposit made me thankful that I brought extra cash in my pack. Busy staffers at The Mobile quickly fetched a well-maintained 7-speed “city bike” from the well-stocked racks of similar bikes for rent. They demonstrated the rear wheel locking mechanism, with the key that could only be removed when the bike was stopped and locked (I made a mental note for UConn Cycles), then directed me to the Dreisam River trail and sent me on my way – no liability waiver form was presented for my signature and no helmet was offered.
The trail along the cascading river, stretching for miles in either direction beyond the city center, was simply one of the most scenic, smooth, uninterrupted and enjoyable bike paths I have ever ridden. The scenery transitioned seamlessly (see photos below) from busy city blocks, to suburban village-like districts, to sports fields and playgrounds, then under or over the autobahn and out to the bucolic farms with herds of goats and sheep, past acres of corn and wheat fields. There were plenty of intersecting bike trails along the way that I would have loved to explore. We headed west when we meant to go east to find the solar soccer stadium on the outskirts of the city, so had to double back and ended up riding for more than 20 miles, stopping occasionally to take pictures.
Once back within the city limits, we found lunch at a Turkish restaurant not far off the Dreisam River trail. While this ride was all very pleasant for me, I still didn’t get the impression that many of the locals were riding for pleasure. The vast majority appeared to be biking solely for transportation.
Freiburg proved to me that when biking becomes a lifestyle choice and serves as a mode of transit that literally replaces the use of cars and other motorized vehicles, the population becomes healthier. I’m no slouch on a bike but many of the locals, young and old, passed us as we pedaled along at our leisurely pace. I’ll admit that I found it a little bit frustrating that I couldn’t easily close the distance between myself and an elderly white-haired gentleman in jeans and a t-shirt, or a middle-aged woman in a long skirt, whom I guessed could have been heading to her apartment for a lunch break – not exactly like trying to make up ground on the peloton at the Tour de France. Between biking everywhere, and hiking and mountain climbing in the Black Forest, Freiburgers are in good shape! Or maybe it’s the local beer….