Bad idea: Berlin considers turning Tempelhof Airport into a model Smart City

Drachenfest Photo by Axel Kuhlmann (CC by)


As Morgenpost reported, there are plans to turn the former Tempelhof Airport into a model Smart City.

Currently, the whole former airport serves as a gorgeous, fantastic park that attracts thousands who run, lounge, barbecue, kite surf or run community gardens, and it hosts a number of music festivals, just to name a few things. It’s really quite the magical place.

So what’s the motivation behind this push for a model Smart City? According to the quotes published by Morgenpost, conservative Berlin’s Senator for Economic Affairs, Technology and Research Cornelia Yzer is keen on building the eco/smart city to attract private investments (my translation):

We should rethink Tempelhof. It could become a model neighborhood, a real Smart City.

And, referring to the currently delayed plans to convert the (still operational) Airport Tegel into commercial space after it will be closed:

The moment an investor shows up, we need to be able to offer them an appropriate location. We can’t just say ‘Please come back later, then you can buy space at Tegel.*’

*To avoid confusion: We’re talking about two different airports here. Former airport Tempelhof, now a park. And current airport Tegel, soon to be closed when the third airport (International) opens up. She’s referring here to plans to sell commercial space at the still operational airport Tegel that was supposed to be converted once Berlin’s new international airport is opened, which has been delayed by several years. So I imagine there would have been deals to be made that are now postponed. This might be part of why the focus is shifting to Tempelhof instead.


Blumen Pflückerin Photo: Robert Agthe (CC by)

Why should citizens and local businesses be treated worse than investors?

And this kind of sums up the problem, doesn’t it? It’s city planning at its worst: Driven by a very unhealthy mix of lack of money on one hand, and naive planners on the other. Why exactly is it that the city cannot say to an investor “please come back later, when there’s anything to invest in.”?

Why, in other words, should investors be treated better than the citizens and local businesses?

Trying to plan a city by budget alone is always a bad idea, and in a city with debts as large as Berlin’s it’s a sure path to a bad, bad future.

How would a model Smart City help Berlin?

There are some things I find particularly interesting (not necessarily in good ways) about this Smart City proposal.

  1. Smart Cities are a bad idea. If we’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that a top-down plan for a Smart City won’t create an actual, living city. It’ll be a showcase for a tech company of sorts. If anything, we need to learn how to best “smarten up” existing cities, infrastructures and citizens. It’s incredibly hard, but the only way to empower citizens and lead to a (culturally, socially, financially) richer, better city and life.
  2. What’s the connection of Berlin and Smart Cities? If Berlin was a hot spot for Smart City-related technologies, it might be worth considering. But it’s not! As far as I can tell, Berlin doesn’t have a whole lot to gain from showcasing a Smart City in terms of economic development. Green/solar tech? Maybe. Smart Cities? Not really.
  3. There’s no long-term vision! Sacrificing a huge plot of land in the city center for a Smart City is short-sighted. By definition, if Berlin sold the land to investors to build this model city, it’d be outdated within a few years – such is the nature of cutting edge technology. Maybe the investors would upgrade the tech; more likely, they’d abandon it at some point. Berlin would be left with a snapshot of a very peculiar flavor of top-down high tech architecture, rotting away.

A park is a park is a park. It might not be visionary, but it is sustainable and adds tremendous social value as well as quality of life to a city. In other words, it’s the very thing considered (in the political science sense of the word) a service the government offers to its citizens.

A long history of bad (abandoned) plans

What are the other options for the area? Other proposed plans include building apartments and light industry along the edges and leave a bit of park in the center; building a library in the center surrounded by park; and simply leaving the thing as a park or improving that park by building a climbing area and other features.


Sun and Fun [Explored] Photo by Tekke (CC by-nd)


It also seems worth pointing out that Berlin has produced (and luckily, dismissed) a lot of other bad plans for Tempelhof Airport, like turning it completely into light industry or — one of my all-time favorite lows — a plastic surgery clinic with a built-in mini airport.

To me, the model Smart City proposal seems to me to fall in that latter category.


Disclosures & some context: I co-organized Cognitive Cities Conference. Occasionally, I speak or do a workshop on related topics, like this one at PICNIC. I’m sharing an office and collaborating frequently with people who like myself spend a lot of time thinking about the implications of smart cities, connected devices and an engaged citizenship.

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