Abandoned airfields: the new playgrounds of Europe


The list of new airport projects to have been given planning permission in Western Europe will soon become one of the smallest pieces of paper in history.

TempelhofThere is no shortage of plans but some of them have not even made it off the drawing board. Boris Island – the UK’s new super hub to be built on a platform straddling the land and sea off the Isle of Grain on the Hoo Peninsula – remains just a twinkle in the Mayor of London’s eye.

There is Istanbul of course, but Turkey and its new airport remain stubbornly outside the EU and we cannot claim it as one of our own.

The last major “new” airport to be built in the UK was London City, which opened its doors in 1987 having been chiseled out of the all-but-abandoned Royal Docks on the River Thames. Yet even their plans for more space, like Heathrow and Gatwick’s, have been put on hold by the capacity naysayers.

But while there is no political stomach for turning land (even derelict land) into new runway tarmac, the idea of converting abandoned airfields into something more useful seems to be gaining in popularity.

In Western Europe the most famous example of this phenomenon is Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. According to the official guide “the people of Berlin are delighted with their new, yet old-established recreation area.” The former Tempelhof airport is now a public park – and not for the first time in its history. Originally the Tempelhofer Feld was a parade ground. At the weekends and on public holidays, as soon as the military cleared the site, the locals would swarm in their thousands to Tempelhof to enjoy their leisure time. Whole families would come with their baskets full of food, deckchairs and sunshades to have picnics there.

At the beginning of the 1920s, Tempelhof Airport was built on the site. After the airport closed in 2008, the city of Berlin reclaimed the 386-hectare open space and one of the world’s largest buildings in a central location for public use.
Today, the area has a six-kilometre cycling, skating and jogging trail, a 2.5-hectare BBQ area, a dog-walking field covering around four hectares and an enormous picnic area for all visitors.
The three entrances (Columbiadamm, Tempelhofer Damm and Oderstrasse) are open from sunrise to sunset.

The airport buildings have mostly remained in some form of use and because it is a protected site  – signs of commercial aviation are everywhere. The 72m radar tower is still used by the German army to monitor flight traffic. And the Nazi-era terminal, – said to be the biggest protected building in the world – is leased out to other organisations including the Berlin Polizei who is the largest tenant occupying  46,000 sq m of space.

The only tenant with any direct link to aviation is Berlin’s traffic control authority – the other 100 or so business residents include a nursery school and one of the city’s oldest revue theatres.

In fact, if Berlin wanted another airport, it has a ready-made site for it, but there is no chance of Berliners having to give up their huge new recreational space of course. The next European airport to close and re-open as a theme park? Answers on a post card please.

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