Coloured rubber bands on a fence at the Tempelhofer Freiheit. Berlin-Tempelhof, Germany. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
This photo was actually taken a while ago but I am posting it today to celebrate that on May 25th, 2014, roughly two thirds of Berlin voters rejected plans for a large-scale property development on the former Tempelhof Airport, which has in recent years become a popular inner-city park called ‘Tempelhofer Freiheit’ (freedom). As Berlin citizens cast their ballots for the European parliamentary election, they also voted in a referendum aimed at preserving the green space, which is roughly the size of New York’s Central Park.
The history of Tempelhof Airport is many-layered. Pioneers wrote chapters of aviation history here. Later, the National Socialists established Berlin’s only official SS concentration camp on the grounds of the airport. The site was critical to the war effort, with forced labourers from German-occupied countries put to work building and servicing combat aircraft. With the Berlin Airlift, Allied aircraft gave Tempelhof a leading role in Cold War mythology, turning the airport into an internationally known symbol for the defence of freedom. The airport also prominently features in Billy Wilder’s comedy One Two Three, set in West Berlin during the Cold War, but before the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s current mayor and sore loser extraordinaire, proved how far removed he is from his citizenry: “We have up to 50,000 new inhabitants every year, the vacant space is getting smaller all the time. Berliners want affordable housing – but obviously not on their own front doorstep.”
A citizens’ initiative called “100% Tempelhofer Feld” (field) sprang up in nearby neighbourhoods. Its video clip below illustrates what Wowereit doesn’t tell you. Over 2 million people visit the park annually. The Berlin Senate planned to develop and remodel 40% of the total 305 hectares, under the pretence to create affordable housing. The construction volume for that purpose, however, would have amounted to 9% only, with 41% allotted for more expensive housing and 50% for business properties. The plan would have cost tax payers an estimated €600m. As a matter of fact, Berlin has 900 hectares of undeveloped, accessible real estate where construction would be cheaper, and the Senate has sold 200,000 state-owned apartments to investors.
“100% Tempelhofer Feld” collected more than 185,000 signatures, about 10,000 more than required, to launch a referendum to stop the Senate’s plans. While I was living in Berlin, I encountered one of their many volunteers almost every time I was in the area and together, they made it possible to soundly defeat Wowereit and the Senate. An amazing example of successful citizens’ activism!