Tempelhof: Death of an airport, birth of a park

Our year has been an exploration of what life looks like in a world without aviation, where planes have been grounded for environmental bad behavior. Traveling plane-free doesn't require incredible skills or strength, only patience, a little extra cash, a lot of extra time, and an appreciation for landscapes that are continuous and change slowly. You can imagine how excited we were to hear that our friends Eric and Rachel lived next to a historic dead Berlin airport newly converted into a park. Could airports someday face the same future as old train stations, dripping with nostalgia, but surpassed by other modes of transport? We couldn't wait to visit.

ENCOUNTER: Tempelhof Airport, site of the Berlin airlift, has been transformed into a park and exhibition space. We started off walking through the park to visit a design exhibition inside the old hangar. The hangar and the main building were not directly accessible from the park grounds, and though it would have made sense to walk along the fence, the view from the street of the huge open field was irresistible. We made our way in through an entrance in the fence that still surrounded the park, and suddenly we found ourselves walking on a runway. Children roller skated around us, others biked along, some strolled. On the grassy meadows between the two runways, families, mostly Turkish, picnicked on the grass and took breaks to throw a ball around. A local little league team played on a baseball field which we later found out was a leftover from the days of the airlift when the American troops were stationed here. We walked past a beer garden where soccer fans were watching the World Cup, with the omnipresent sound of the vuvuzelas coming from the TV.

With the runway pavement symbols under our feet, and the air traffic control tower in the distance, we could never forget that we were in an very different kind of park. We walked around in a state of constant fascination and found our way to the building entrance. Bikes were now parked in the drop-off areas, a Nazi eagle sans swastika still sat mounted on an outside wall. In the central hall, the check-in counters still had the names of airlines on them, standing like silent spectators. The baggage carousel was a stationary bench. A departure gate led to the exhibition space under the mighty cantilevered roof, and we walked into the hangar for the exhibition we'd come to see.

HISTORY: Tempelhof was no ordinary airport. The massive building was built by the Nazis in 1923, designed to be monumental and majestic, a symbol of the power of the German state. After World War II, Tempelhof fell on the West German side of Berlin. When Soviet troops blocked road access into West Berlin in 1948, the Allies flew millions of tons of supplies into Tempelhof Airport, the largest military airlift in history. While best known as a site of the Airlift, the fields also witnessed the maiden flight of the Zeppelin, and was also the place where Orville Wright set a world record by staying afloat for a whole minute. But long before that, it was just a field, a forest that had been cleared out for agricultural purposes. We tried to imagine its future in our world threatened by climate change, where the growing aviation industry is one of the worst offenders, but still flying largely under the public radar. Though airports may one day become a vestige of the past, finding new ways to use them would provide a new set of challenges.

PLANNING: We met Almut Jirku from Berlin's Senate Department for Urban Development to learn how the rebirth of Tempelhof was planned, and the design competition under way to decide its future. "This competition was more challenging than most because it is a high profile site...We want this to be a model site." After unification, planners decided to decommission Tempelhof, finding that having three Berlin-area airports was economically unsustainable. Some nostalgic West Berliners wanted to keep Tempelhof functional, but the efforts, culminating in a public referendum, failed. Tempelhof was shut down in 2008, to be turned over to Berlin residents as a park. Jirku told us that the project's public participation process was particularly challenging; nearby residents, many of whom are immigrants, returned very few surveys. A second attempt with more collaboration with community leaders was more successful.

Jirku manages the design competition to decide the future of the site. The extensive design brief for the park lays out the requirements: architects have been asked to submit plans that include community gardens, cemeteries, recreational amenities, bathing facilities, and nature and adventure trails. Separate plans exist for possible housing and office space in the old airport building area. The possible uses of the site are as massive as its size: nearly four square kilometers or two square miles in size. The budget for the redesign is 61.5 million Euro, a substantial investment for a city during a recession.

COMMUNITY: We were intrigued by the stickers and posters in the neighborhood that asked people to "Reclaim Tempelhof" or pushed people to direct action with the bold question, "Have you ever squatted an airport?" The name of the two groups that came up with Tempelhof Fur Alle and Squat Tempelhof. We wanted to find out about this narrative. While sometimes overshadowed by the high-profile Squat Tempelhof movement, which uses squats and direct action to try and win expanded public access to the park area, resident-led Tempelhof For All has been a consistent voice speaking on behalf of some of the community.

We met 59 year old Gerdi Foss of Tempelhof for All, who told us about his story, and the group's work. He'd lived in the neighborhood for 9 years, and was currently on unemployment. After being forced to move around as neighborhoods he lived in gentrified, he had finally settled here. He believed that the new development could push him and others like him out. He was most worried about the creative industries that were being proposed by the planners. To Tempelhof For All, this suggested that a lot of money was to be made and that the Tempelhof would be lost to the lure of private enterprise. Foss was skeptical of the tens of millions being put in the park when the city was in a financial crisis. "We don't need a big idea, a big investment for the park, just that it should be opened to all." He was irritated that the state spent 2 million Euro in police presence on the park's opening day, to keep Squat Tempelhof and other "undesirable" elements out. Community and public space groups have won a partial success. "I am happy that the park is now open," Foss told us, "though I don't understand why the fence is still up."

FREEDOM: The wide open nature of Tempelhof Park and the sense of freedom it provides is one of its most compelling aspects. Visitors who said they wanted more trees change their mind after visiting the park and experiencing the vastness of the space. The space also fulfills the role of a cold air ventilator, providing relief to the hotter built up urban spaces adjoining it. The city's plans for the site are ambitious and forward-thinking, but growth-based. As a landscape architect, I was in awe of the brief that they had put together. But somewhere along the process, some community members had developed a deep concern that the city's designs were meant to privatize and compromise that sense of freedom. The fence that was still up around the park was indicative and symbolic of that process. I am curious to see how this will all play out, but having visited the site, I am most excited about seeing the park exist exactly as it is for just a little longer. The recession might provide just enough of a reprieve to reconsider whether further development is really what this historic site needs.

The transformation of future commercial airports will face unique challenges due to the sheer scale and monumentality of these spaces and the complicated relationships that people have to a space that is in essence exclusionary unless one can afford to fly. Tempelhof is a glimpse into the issues that planners and communities will face as we see more airports closing or transforming, as we work to address the impact of flight on the climate crisis.

Related slideshow: Tempelhof Park, Berlin, Germany

Read more about Tempelhof:

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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