• Politics
  • Why does Berlin keep trying to build housing on Tempelhofer Feld?

The burning issue

Why does Berlin keep trying to build housing on Tempelhofer Feld?

Every few years someone proposes building on Tempelhofer Feld. Berliners definitively voted on this issue in 2014, so why is this coming up again?

Illustration: Emma Taggart

Tempelhofer Feld is one of the most unique public spaces on earth. No other city boasts a defunct airport that attracts almost 200,000 visitors per week. Strolling, skating, land kiting, cycling, running, gossiping, grilling, chilling: the Feld offers Berlin’s brand of weird and wonderful for almost every activity under the sun – or, more likely, clouds. So why do politicians try to build on this beloved open space every few years? This time around it’s the ruling CDU and SPD coalition claiming this will solve the city’s housing crisis.

The Feld opened its 350-hectare grounds and two former runways to recreational use in May 2010. Since then, it’s been a wildly popular space to both tune in and out of the city’s particular pace. In 2014, the 100% Tempelhofer Feld initiative successfully led the public referendum to codify the Feld’s protections against development, sale and privatisation. And yet, not even this definitive statement from voters is enough to keep local politicians from trying their luck in convincing us that if we just build a tiny bit, and just on the edge, it’s all in our best interest.

Cautious PR-Play

Is it really acceptable to exploit a public space to allow a few people to earn outsized profits?

In a 2020 study of Feld visitors, 57% percent reported going at least once a week. In the same study, a large number of respondents said they use the space for relaxation, sports, a change of scenery and social activity. So now, with the protections afforded by the 2014 referendum, how have we come back to talking about building on what is so clearly a heavily used and cherished space?

Right, the housing crisis. According to Berlin’s 2019 urban development plan for housing, the city needs around 194,000 additional apartments by 2030. That’s a lot of apartments. Framed like this, it makes sense to consider building some of them on the expanse of Tempelhofer Feld. But the same report says there is space for 200,000 new flats in Berlin without touching the Feld, so why push to construct there?

If the argument is that the Feld offers space to build, then why not focus on Tiergarten, Berlin’s biggest park, or the massive Grunewald? Interesting, that these parks are in SPD and CDU majority areas, while the Kieze surrounding the Feld are majority Green and Die Linke territory. Clearly, all of Berlin’s parks serve a critical function for their communities, yet local politicians repeatedly fall back on the Feld and fail to satisfactorily explain why.

Building on the Feld should be an absolute last resort. If the construction deteriorates the quality of life for the hundreds of thousands of people who use it every week, then this isn’t a price worth paying. Development would irreparably change the character of this city, which is already dealing with the displacing effects of gentrification.

Proponents argue that construction on the Feld would be easier than other spots because of the existing water, gas and electricity supply lines, as well as the nearby transportation infrastructure. Opponents argue that it’s far from a green option, because it would close a cooling corridor in this ever-warming city and counteract existing plans to move Berlin towards the “sponge city” model, using green spaces to become more efficient at storing rain and preventing flooding.

🏘️ “We’re closer than ever” What next for Berlin’s housing referendum?

Berliners love the Feld, and the CDU-SPD coalition government knows this. Over the past five years, surveys have increasingly polled opinion on building on the Feld’s fringe areas, with a slight majority of respondents in support – although a large proportion of responses skew in favour of affordable housing and maintaining the park’s character. They can’t just steamroll in with their hardhats and cement trucks, so instead, they’re tiptoeing towards “possibilities of cautious peripheral development” with a proposed urban development competition, their coalition agreement says. This move seems like the CDU-SPD coalition trying to shift the Overton window to convince a bigger majority of the public to support construction.

Illustration: Emma Taggart

Speculating About Speculation

If you can’t win the game, change the rules: in this case, the legally binding referendum that Berliners already voted into law. The problem is, the Berlin House of Representatives (Abgeordnetenhaus) could overturn the 2014 law relatively easily to allow housing construction – they can do this with a simple majority, just like any other law. It was already amended once, to allow refugee housing on the Feld.

The CDU’s construction policy spokesman, Christian Gräff, said that a proposed building competition on the Feld could help construct housing for the “middle” of society, like “nurses and police officers”. It’s pretty hard to argue against public servants deserving nice flats, and so the Overton window creaks open a little more. But let’s not forget that in 2020, the CDU accepted €820,000 in donations from real estate entrepreneur Christoph Gröner, who then stated that he expected a quid pro quo for his donations, before backpedaling on his initial ask. Gröner and his ilk are probably salivating already, and not from the smell of cookies wafting over from the Bahlsen factory south of the Feld.

If you can’t win the game, change the rules

Even their coalition partners, the SPD, are scarcely pretending to make social housing the primary objective. The SPD’s Urban Development Senator, Christian Gaebler, said they’d want to preserve the Feld’s current functions but reduce the housing shortage with “state-owned companies and cooperatives towards the common good”. For the same party that only approved 1,935 social housing units of the projected 5,000 under recent mayor Franziska Giffey, it’s unclear how much the “common good” was a priority.

There’s really only one reason to insist on building out the Feld: profit. Private apartments on Tempelhof would come with a hefty price tag, and developers would stand to make a massive return on their investment. Is it really acceptable to exploit a public space to allow a few people to earn outsized profits? Considering the Berlin Senate has already earmarked €1.2 million for the proposed building competition – despite it not yet being formally approved – it’s possible that back-room politicking is driving the coalition-government’s vague battle cries of fighting the housing crisis.

So, maybe, this coalition government’s efforts would be better spent addressing the city’s backlog of 65,000 apartments currently under delayed construction instead of coming after our communal happy place.