At the site of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, man-made life and wildlife happily coexist. Photo: Reuters
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Temple to nature: the disused runway that became a communal wonderland

After a rather shaky start, the old Tempelhof Airport has come to be considered one of Berlin’s greatest success stories; it is certainly an inspiring example of direct democracy in action.

I’m standing beside the south runway of the old Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, the city where my family and I will be living for the next 12 months. To my left, a vast meadow of wildflowers and false oat-grass provides shelter for skylarks, whinchats, red-backed shrikes, tawny pipits and other songbirds, as well as a surprising variety of insects (the rare cuckoo-wasp species Anteon flavicorne has been recorded here, for example). To my right, the runway itself has become a river of gliding, elegant bodies at play: cyclists, kitesurfers, joggers, go-karters and people of all ages on various types of in-line skates (including my two sons, who are already missing their St Andrews Scorpions roller hockey team-mates).

It’s a diverse and oddly fascinating mix of pleasure-seekers, from athletic skateboarders to the old man in a string vest and extremely baggy shorts who is guiding a radio controlled Sturmpanzerwagen in a zigzag pattern across the tarmac, driving it up to one group after another in an attempt to provoke a conversation, much as dog-walkers will do. In fact, it is clear that he feels the same pride and affection for his machine as any pet owner feels for his or her best friend.

After a rather shaky start, Tempelhof has come to be considered one of Berlin’s greatest success stories; it is certainly an inspiring example of direct democracy in action.

When the airport closed in 2008, the entire site (the vast, more or less brutalist, Speer-designed buildings as well as the 386-hectare field – imagine an area the size of Central Park) was threatened with a series of commercial and prestige developments. But it was then rescued by what can only be called people power, when public pressure forced a referendum on its future.

On 25 May 2014, over 60 per cent of the city turned out to reject the luxury development plans, sending a message to the Berlin city authorities that direct democracy can still work – despite a campaign of misinformation, scare tactics and an ambiguously worded ballot paper – and establishing an exemplary space for people and wildlife to coexist.

People and wildlife: how often they are discussed in terms of conflicting interests, and how unreal that conflict is. Given the right information to help them decide, people will opt for conditions that benefit our creaturely neighbours, even where they have no particular interest in larks or cuckoo wasps – because those conditions benefit us.

Officially, I am here for the roller skating (only as a spectator), but it’s not too long before I’m gazing off into the meadow, scanning for birds and insects – and I soon notice that, as a kestrel begins to hover over the nearest section of field, quite a few of the skaters have also paused to watch. Within minutes, we are all rewarded with a dazzling display of flying skills, as the bird hovers, dives, then rises once more to scan the ground a final time before dropping down for the kill.

This is a drama we all understand and, as the Turmfalke glides away, its prey clutched in its talons, I cannot help but think that we are all equally moved, both by the grace of the hunter and by the predicament of the prey. For a moment, even though we are mostly strangers, this has been a communal experience, one that could not have happened in the same way in a less democratic space.

It may seem naive, but I choose to believe that such experiences remind us of our fellowship, not only with other human beings, but with other animals, too. I believe that whenever we are lucky enough to witness these instances of grace, or pathos, whether alone or in company, our sense of the creaturely deepens – and with it, our understanding that what is good for the wild world is also good for us. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.