At the site of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, man-made life and wildlife happily coexist. Photo: Reuters
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times