How to recycle an airport

2020-12-04

BERLIN — It turns out old airports offer some handy solutions to pressing challenges facing fast-growing cities.

Take Berlin, now home to four mothballed airfields owing to its history as a divided city and the recent — mightily delayed — opening of the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport in November. Those former sites include Tempelhof, now a park, and Tegel, soon to be redeveloped, with both offering a broad canvas for urban renewal schemes.

Berlin could be followed by other cities — there are some 193 airports at risk of closure out of a total 740 across Europe due to the pandemic’s catastrophic impact on the travel industry, according to industry lobby ACI Europe.

While those airports are fighting to survive, for Berlin, the derelict terminals are a planner’s dream come true.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Philipp Bouteiller, who’s in charge of redeveloping Tegel, located just a 20-minute drive from the Bundestag.

The Tegel site is a tenth the size of Manhattan and has long been earmarked for redevelopment. In future it will be home to a so-called Urban Tech Republic, which will place a university and start ups in the old hexagonal terminal building, which dates from the 1970s in the old French zone of occupation. Out across the runway, a new residential development with more than 5,000 units will be the world’s largest neighborhood built from wood.

That will help to relieve a pressing housing shortage in the German capital, although the first flats won’t be ready until the late 2020s.

“To receive five square kilometers in these times when urbanization is one of the biggest challenges is an absolute gift, and one that other metropolises are envious about,” Bouteiller said.

During the near decade-long delay in Tegel’s closure, due to a series of planning problems with Berlin Brandenburg, discussion has intensified over the need to create climate-friendly living and working environments.

“When we began to start to think about sustainable technologies back then … people looked at me in bewilderment,” Bouteiller said of his planning for post-plane Tegel back in 2012. “Now, it’s a … part of the mainstream.”

While it will take up to three more decades to fully develop Tegel, the site offers a chance to roll out green urban design solutions at scale. For example, the redevelopment plan will make Tegel a “sponge city” that retains rainwater rather than allowing it to drain away. Cars will be discouraged, and the goal is to make the site more biodiverse than it was as an airport, Bouteiller said.

Such measures build on work already done at two smaller former aviation hubs in the city. At Gatow, the former British sector airport in the far west of Berlin, 950 families have moved in around the old airport (which is now a museum) although work on a new nature park is delayed. In the southeast of the city, part of the 26-hectare site of Berlin’s old Johannisthal airfield, where early aviation pioneers tested their planes, has been turned into a nature reserve.

Tempelhof utopia

Just 5 kilometers south of the Bundestag, another former airport offers a glimpse of a different vision. Tempelhof, designated as an airfield in the 1920s and expanded under the Nazis before being taken over by the U.S. military during the Cold War, is now one of the largest inner-city parks in the world at 300 hectares.

On an average sunny day, as many as 90,000 people visit the park, with kitesurfing allowed on the old landing strip. After its closure as an inner-city airport in 2008, a 2014 referendum forced the government to maintain Tempelhof as a public space and killed plans to allow private investors to develop housing on the site.

That’s paying off during the pandemic. “In 2014, we saved the field. In 2020, the field saved us,” said Mareike Witt from the citizens’ initiative 100% Tempelhofer Feld.

The field’s management — which includes seven elected citizens — aims to use the site for the broader good of the city. Housing for refugees has been developed, as well as small garden allotments and sport facilities., while parts of the park are used for animal grazing in summer.

In the next few months, part of Tempelhof’s massive crumbling terminal building will also be used for a coronavirus vaccination program, as will Tegel’s recently closed terminal. But while Tegel already has a redevelopment masterplan that aims to suck in private investment, Tempelhof’s building complex is largely empty and in need of urgent renovation.

More than 80 leasers currently use a fraction of the 300,000 square meters of floor space inside the old Tempelhof complex. They include the city police, a university and Berlin’s traffic control center, said Pascal Thirion, who helps manage the sprawling complex for the city authorities.

“It’s clear that Tempelhof is such a unique space of historical and emotional importance to Berlin that it’s not something the city will ever be able to give away for commercial use,” said Thirion.

Still, settling on a vision for how the building can be used for the broader public good has been tough.

“I think the biggest challenge at the moment is that of course the citizens have great expectations of what this building could achieve,” said Regula Lüscher, the city’s state secretary for urban development and housing. “We are faced with the challenge of having to renovate this building step-by-step over a long period of time.”

Lüscher estimates it will cost as much as €800 million to renovate just the old office blocs inside Tempelhof, a curving terminal building running 1.2 kilometers in length. Getting it fully modernized will take 15 years, she said.

“That is the challenge: On the one hand, to raise the large funds — and, in parallel, to let the population participate in this development,” she said.

While the 2014 referendum blocked developers, the pressure isn’t over. There are calls to hold another vote.

“Many people argue that the field is huge, so that giving away a third of the area can’t do harm,” said Monika Dierenfeld, who sits on the Tempelhof coordination board. “This is complete deception; species protection is only possible because the field is so large. We host 40 percent of all Berlin skylarks on the field, they breed here.”

“The pressure [by investors] is permanent, but our city community is watching out,” said Dierenfeld.

politico.eu, 4 December 2020
; https://www.politico.eu