Berlin’s public space: Keeping Tempelhof Airport free

Tempelhof

Published on Goethe’s website as a reflection of my stay in Berlin during the ‘Culture Journalism in the Arab World’ programme between September 2013 and October 2013.

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Many say that in spite of the many failures of the Arab Spring in achieving democracy three years down the road from the revolutions, one of the main gains is the reclamation of public space.

Having a public performance in a city like Cairo was almost unthinkable before the revolution. Graffiti was rare and informal markets were cracked down on. Now we see an influx of these activities almost to the point where it goes over the top.

Upon my arrival in Berlin one of the first things that drew my eye was the flood of graffiti all over the streets. The next morning as I crossed the street, three people did a small circus performance juggling for the cars waiting for their traffic light to turn green. That evening at Hackescher Markt we saw a couple who had pools of soap water and a device allowing people to make massive bubbles that floated between the crowds of people. Incidents like these kept recurring throughout my two months in Berlin, along with music on the U-Bahns and at the stations, caricature artists on the streets, dance performances – and we even did the Lebanese dance ‘The Dabkeh’ one night in Kreuzberg. These little interactions would always put a smile on my face. They drew me to look at other people’s faces in the vicinity and so often I would see the smile on theirs, too.

A massive open space

In tough, big cities accessibility to public space plays a role in one’s well-being and connection to the city – whether that means the availability of parks to enjoy those rare moments when the sun finally is shining, or the stumbling upon art, or simply being on the street peacefully with fellow citizens. However, one public space that was truly unique was the former Tempelhof Airport: In a massive open space that was built in the 1920s as the central airport of Berlin, today Berliners gather to have picnics, to fly kites, to go on peaceful bike rides, and sometimes to enjoy pop-up events that happen sporadically – concerts, fashion fairs or art events. Only opened to the public as a park in 2010 after the airport was officially closed down, people of Berlin have been taking the opportunity to use this space as a truly open public space, and the biggest in terms of actual space in the city.

Cultural Players

One of the interesting organic projects taking place there is the ‘Allmende-Kontor’ (Office for Community Spaces) which creates a networking space for new and existing urban gardening and farming initiatives and for people to learn how to garden. The soil of the former airport plain being infertile, people have put up wooden boxes and sacks full of fertile soil to grow plants in it. Another project aimed at creative professionals is ‘Cultural Players@THF’ which encourages designers and artists to form teams and compete in friendly sporting innovative activities in nature. These projects at Tempelhof are inclusive and attempt to bring people from different parts of Berlin’s society together.

To keep the space a free open park

However, companies are bidding to have projects on this space, and to change it from a free, inclusive public space to commercial space for housing, events and offices. This is interesting to the local government, of course, since Tempelhof costs a lot to keep up, and at the end of the day it does not generate any revenues for the city. Still, Berliners have a political petition going that I stumbled upon on many occasions, to keep the space a free open park for projects to sprout organically. This got me thinking that the struggle of reclaiming public space not only exists in the Arab world but also in a city like Berlin which already has a strong public space occupation. There is still this willingness of people to ensure spaces remain accessible, free and inclusive.

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