Berlin hints at private development in largest park, bypassing landslide referendum

“The law’s construction ban won’t be overturned, only the paragraph that contains it.”


In a controversial move that stunned Berlin’s park users and fans of its abundant green space, the Berlin city council recently announced it is free to ignore at will a construction ban in its largest park which was formally enacted by a citizen referendum that won by a landslide less than two years ago. The park, Tempelhofer Feld, is a former airport with an airfield the size of Central Park, one and a half times the size of Berlin’s next-largest park, the centuries-old Tiergarten, and the referendum – which was not merely advisory but understood to have the force of law –  dictates that it remain in its current state, an undeveloped airfield crossed by two mile-long runways, with a ban on landscaping and permanent structures except for a handful of restrooms and kiosks around the perimeter.


The airport closed in 2008 and lay in a state of limbo for 6 years, its airfield open to visitors as a provisional park devoid of any facilities and its terminal – built in the 1903s by Hitler and for decades the world’s largest building – largely empty although occasionally rented for trade fairs and corporate events. Citizens undertook the city’s arduous referendum process (petition, then an entire second petition, then vote) to save the field and runway as a park, enact an inviolable 10-year construction ban and rescue the site from its likely fate – backed by the mayor, the city government and deep-pocketed developers – as a residential /office/ retail complex with golf courses, with non-binding promises of unspecified amounts of “affordable” housing. Some renderings showed a heavily landscaped, resort-style park in the middle. The ensuing voter referendum won 64 – 36 %(I covered the story here).

Then in December 2015, the city decided it needed some area within the park boundaries for refugee camps (yes, they call them camps; more on that below) and stated its legal right to ignore the referendum which virtually all parties agree has the force of law. Citizens were outraged.

The city simultaneously claimed the buildings in question would only be temporary but also that the city always has the right to build permanent structures on the site. (The terminal and apron are not in the protected park area and 1,500 of the envisioned 7,000 refugees are already housed there.) Berliners were furious because not only was the law vacated overnight in letter and spirit, the city’s statements also had every sign of the floodgates being opened to the very commercial development that 700,000 people had voted against and which has already created a housing and gentrification crisis going down the same road as New York City, San Francisco, and London. This was far from the Berliners’ only concern though.

Demands for refugee integration, not ghettoization


Citizens are also alarmed at the plans to concentrate 7,000 refugees in a single camp even as they, the citizens, are demanding – begging – the city to integrate the refugees into neighborhoods. The city claims Tempelhof is merely a short-term temporary intake center, but hundreds of refugees have already been there far longer than the city says any future arrivals will be. It cannot help that the term in use was indeed (and still is) lager, which means both warehouse and camp. Call me crazy but if I was concentrating people of an ethnic group in one confined area I would try to avoid calling it a camp or better yet just not concentrate them at all. City councilmembers threw gasoline on the fire by repeatedly pointing out that “the council absolutely has a constitutional right to change existing laws”. More gasoline followed as citizens learned that, out of 50 sites offered by the federal government for refugee housing in Berlin, the city ruled out 43 and is showing interest in just 6.

Mixed messages from city council


The council further fanned the flames by sending mixed messages about their longer-term intentions. Sometimes they claimed only to need two modest portions of the apron that happened to fall within park boundaries (unlike most of the apron which was never within the park), and that only temporary structures were needed and would be cleared by 2019 at the latest. But councilmembers also stated they might need space for “emergency accommodations” at any time and they “won’t back down on that”.

So what began as an effort to save a park from developers took on an additional goal of advocating for a decentralized refugee settlement strategy to connect old and new Berlin residents and avoid the ghettoization seen in Paris’ cités and Molenbeek – IMBY, if you will, “in my backyard” rather than the more common “not in my backyard” NIMBY refrain.

Acrimony, then tentative resolution


Since December 2015 the struggles have continued. Park supporters hosted an open community meeting which only one person from the city government could be bothered to attend.  Then a thousand people showed up for a meeting with city officials and shortly after, 400 for a protest (on a weekday). Bewildering if not downright Alice in Wonderland-style pronouncements emanate from the administration, such as their intention to leave the construction ban “untouched” while simultaneously overturning the law’s paragraph 5, which contains precisely that ban. A similarly Delphic message conveyed the intention to build only “modular and container structures” while declining to address the possibility of their removal.

However, from January 2016 to now (June 2016), the city has been gradually acknowledging some of its haste and lack of transparency, if not specifically its arrogance. It seems to be focusing more on the plan to build temporary structures on those two portions of the apron and less on its right to pave over every inch of the whole damn Central-Park-size thing if they feel like it.

Further, they now claim the structures will be removed within three years and will be used only for refugee services such as education rather than housing.

Spring 2016 status: a referendum for strengthening referenda


Leaders of the community groups are skeptical to say the least. In spring 2016 an entirely new referendum petition was launched to strengthen the force of all successful voter referenda by requiring a second citywide vote on any changes to them. Hamburg already has this protection, which  strengthens the supporters’ argument as Hamburg is generally recognized in Germany as more prosperous and stable than Berlin.

Throughout the whole affair, a citizen committee has been working away on the park’s management plan. As provided for by the referendum’s law, the master plan was created by a fully independent all-citizen committee with the director of a major environmental nonprofit organization (Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland or BUND) as its moderator. The Department of Environment and City Planning left the group free to conduct the entire process itself and stayed hands-off, an admirable move for which the department deserves praise.

The plan was published in May, but it has no binding authority and now must be approved by the city council. Referendum spokespeople ask “What use is the best plan when its fundamental principles are altered before it even begins to be implemented?” and say they “wouldn’t put it past the City Council to head us off at the pass”. Indeed, a city Secretary for Environment and Planning swiftly let it be known that “the plan lays out the framework but ultimately the respective city agencies choose the implementation.”


Berliner Morgenpost 08-01-2016, 09-01-2016, 23-01-2016, 29-01-2016, 21-01-2016

Tagesspiegel 01-12-2015, 08-12-2015, 09-12-2016, 07-01-2016, 28-04-2016, 19-05-2016

Tageszeitung 19-05-2016

Berliner Zeitung 28-01-2016

Guardian 05-03-2015

ExBerliner 12-05-2014

Tempelhof Master Plan / Berlin Department of City Planning and Environment

Voter referendum organization for saving Tempelhof airfield – “100% Tempelhofer Feld”

Voter referendum organization for strengthening future referenda “Save Your Referenda

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