Last Sunday I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon in a Berlin ‘colony garden’. It was the perfect escape from the concrete and heat of the city centre – and almost on the doorstep.
Most Berliners live in apartment blocks and many of them have neither balconies nor outside space. There are plenty of wonderful parks of course – especially the Tiergarten right in front of the Brandenburg Gate – and within half an hour of the centre Berlin is surrounded by thick forests. You only have to look out of a plane on a clear day to see what a verdant city it is. You might also spot what look like mini-housing estates; conglomerations of individual gardens each with a wooden hut on them. These are ‘Gartenkolonien’ also known as ‘Schrebergärten’, named after the ‘Schreber movement’. This was a public initiative started in Leipzig in 1864 which decided to lease areas within the city for children to play in. Later on, these areas included actual gardens for children, but soon adults tended to take over and cultivate these gardens and the movement spread to other cities in Germany. Some of the Berlin plots are magnificent allotments and the pride and joy of their owners. But others are simple country retreats. Places to hang out and chill. Although in the Grunewald it is important to keep the wild pigs out …
Last Sunday wasn’t just European Election day in Berlin – Berliners were also voting in a referendum about proposed housing development on the site of the former Tempelhof airport (which ceased operations in 2008). 65% of voters decided to keep the ‘Tempelhofer Freiheit’ (Tempelhof Freedom) as a public park and on Monday the bright sunshine and blue sky saw jubilant celebrations on this vast expanse of grass, trees and scrub. Although the huge grey Nazi-built terminal building makes its presence felt, the old airfield has the atmosphere of an enormous country meadow in the middle of a capital city. Berliners have come to love this precious space. I have seen it used it for cycling, inline skating, kite-flying, football, badminton, picknicking and just jogging, walking or chilling out.
In ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ (in the chapter on Hitler’s Berlin) I reported that the Tempelhofer Feld was to undergo ‘a four year 60 million euro facelift’ to turn it into Berlin’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park. But things have changed in the meantime and the Berlin Senate put forward plans to build new housing on the edge of the site. Now they will have to live with defeat in the referendum and find room for housing development elsewhere. Perhaps Berliners will still get their Central Park after all. They have always treasured their green space and know how to enjoy it.
If you are in Berlin for more than a couple of days, it’s definitely worth taking a look at the massive Tempelhof building and its former airfield. U-Bahn line 6 gets you to Platz der Luftbrücke – named after the Berlin Airlift (1948/49) when American and British pilots flew supplies into West Berlin during the Soviet blockade. Outside Tempelhof airport stands a huge memorial to the Airlift – appropriately nicknamed the ‘Hungerharke’ (Hunger Rake) by the ever-humorous and freedom-loving Berliners.
Photo taken of Tempelhof at an American Forces Open Day in 1984