Tempelhofer Feld

If you were in charge of a city with a housing shortage, where real estate prices were rising fast and where you couldn't seem to build apartments fast enough, and you had a gigantic empty space in the middle of the city, would you use part of the space to build apartments?

If you ran a city with a fantastic park on the grounds of a historic abandoned airport, where thousands of people grill, run, and sunbathe along the old runways, would you destroy its ambience by building more than 4,000 apartments along the outer edge?

One of the runways at Tempelhofer Feld. When it was constructed, it was considered one of the most beautiful airports in the world.

These questions aren't rhetorical. They're very real, and are among the most important policy issues facing Berlin's city planners these days. There's a referendum scheduled on May 25 (next Sunday!!) that will ultimately decide the park's fate.

The park in question is called Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof Field). It's located on the grounds of what used to be Berlin's main airport, Berlin Tempelhof Airport. The original airport building was constructed in 1927, but was demolished and rebuilt by the Nazis in the late 1930s. Its most famous post-war use was as the location of the Berlin Air Lift, in which Allied forces airlifted supplies to West Berlin to circumvent the Soviet blockade.

Tempelhof Airport in 1984. Source: Wikipedia.

Over the second half of the 20th century, the airport gradually fell into disuse, particularly after the construction of Tegel Airport in another section of the city. It closed permanently in 2008.

When the airplanes left, the people arrived.

Walking along one of the runways. Kite surfing on skateboards is one of the more popular activities at the airport.

The long runways and taxiways are great for runners and bikers. The big open green spaces are perfect for grilling and sunbathing. There are a couple of baseball fields along the northern edge of the park, plus a community garden, a minigolf course, and various other small-scale cultural activities.

One edge of the main terminal building, with the radar tower on the right. Berlin's Fernsehturm is in the background.

The feeling of running and biking down the runways is unique for a city park. I've never felt a park to be so big, with seemingly limitless sight-lines unobstructed by office towers. Central Park in New York is beautiful, but even there, part of the charm is the juxtaposition of the skyscrapers with the park. At Tempelhof, there are no skyscrapers in sight, no office towers, seemingly nothing at all.

This is exactly why Berlin's government thinks that the park is a perfect location for a huge new construction project. The city has a housing shortage, and Tempelhof has tons of space. So why not use part of it? Construction would happen on the periphery of the park, so it wouldn't impede on the park's recreational uses. You can read more on the city's website here (in English!).

An artist's conception of the project. The proposed housing projects are in white on the left, top, and right of the photo.

Opponents of the construction say "Wait a minute. Berlin has a ton of other empty space. Why do you have to destroy something so interesting, so unique, so beautiful?" Opponents formed an organization called "Tempelhof 100%." They collected 185,000 signatures to organize a referendum in which voters will be asked whether all future construction should be forbidden. Not just this project - ALL future projects. Tempelhof would remain as it is in perpetuity.

What makes this a really frustrating debate is that nobody is questioning the basic facts. One, that Berlin needs more housing. And two, that Tempelhof is an incredible park. The disagreements center on two other issues. First, opponents ask why the city can't take advantage of Berlin's other open spaces. And second, the city says that Tempelhof is really big, and that the new apartment complexes won't take away from the experience of being in the park. You can read more about the particulars of the debate here.

I understand the merits of both points. The city really does have a housing shortage, and it needs more apartments. Over the past few days, though, I find myself focusing on two issues. The first one is, why should Berlin's citizens trust its government about the size and scope of a city-run project, when the other major construction project the city is running is a complete disaster? 

Second, that there is something really special about the airport-turned-park. Something that the debate about population growth, housing shortages, and sight-lines just doesn't address. It's the feeling you get when you're jogging down the middle of an old runway. Or about being in the middle of the park, and the rest of the city is in the far distance.

 One of the taxiways at Tempelhofer Feld. The deeper into the park you walk, the more that the city fades into the distance.

One of the taxiways at Tempelhofer Feld. The deeper into the park you walk, the more that the city fades into the distance.

The new buildings would destroy that feeling. They are on the outside of the park, but they would be easily visible from the middle of the runways, a constant reminder that you haven't really left the city. There would still be a lot of room to run, sit, and relax. But that special feeling of being away from things would be gone.

For me, that's something worth preserving. Build the houses elsewhere. Tempelhof 100%!!