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.

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

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