In Berlin, former airports are being used for various temporary purposes. Berlin is also planning an innovation hub and a neighbourhood for sustainable nature-based future solutions for Tegel Airport. Our Helsinki Innovation Districts team visited the development and innovation activities in Berlin in summer 2023.
Berlin, the capital of Germany, has been one of the key smart cities in Europe for a long time. It is particularly known for its successful smart mobility solutions and fascinating field of international start-ups.
In the past few years, wide areas in Berlin have been freed up for development as the large international airports of Tegel and Tempelhof were closed. Harnessing airport areas to be used by the growing city offers an opportunity to bring new, green and affordable housing next to the city, build an innovation hub and develop diverse temporary use of facilities.
Students take over terminal buildings
The Helsinki Innovation Districts project team got to see the former area of Tegel Airport and the plans for its development. On our visit, we kept in mind a similar location in Helsinki, Malmi Airport, where airport activities ceased in 2021.
Tegel Airport, located about eight kilometres from central Berlin, served the city from 1948 to 2020. At its peak, almost 25 million passengers per year travelled via the airport. The area’s development for its new purpose is managed by the state-owned Tegel Projekt GmbH. Berlin TXL – the Urban Tech Republic will be built on an area of about 200 hectares. It will be home to the 2,500-student campus of Berlin’s technological university (Berliner Hochschule für Technik), which will use the historical protected terminal buildings of the airport, at least partially. Next to the campus, there will be a start-up and innovation hub that will develop technologies for the city. The former airport area will also have industry: today, ‘industry’ no longer refers to factory smokestacks, but to biomaterials, components and the medical industry. The area will have 150,000 floor square metres in total.
‘Sponge city’ offers affordable and sustainable housing
In addition to the campus, the Tegel area will have a residential area of 10,000 residents, called the Schumacher Quartier. The area size corresponds to the existing built area of the Kalasatama district in Helsinki. The Schumacher residential area will be built into an innovative and sustainable ‘sponge city’ where the soil and urban structure are built so that they transfer stormwater away from the area via nature-based routes. Temperature is controlled through greenery. The design principle is “animal-aided design,” meaning that the needs of animals are taken into account when planning green areas.
Like in many other cities, Berlin residents are also struggling with increased costs of living. The Schumacher Quartier aims to respond to this challenge. The area’s development involves City-owned housing production companies, and half of the housing locations will have a rent ceiling. The area will also have co-housing and student housing projects. The buildings will be designed to support community spirit and interaction between residents.
The plan is for the housing blocks to use innovative wooden construction and for the area to have car-free blocks where transport will take place via mobility hubs at different levels.
Photo: This is how Tegel looked in summer 2023 when the Helsinki Innovation Districts team was visiting. Our team made a plan to revisit the area in 20 years to see what the locals have achieved.
Opportunities for temporary use
Before the new innovation hubs and residential areas are built, the former airports can be used for various temporary functions. Activities such as COVID-19 vaccinations and emergency housing for refugees have been organised in these areas. The empty hangars in Tegel have been available as rentable event venues, and the runways have been used for testing autonomous robotic cars.
Another former Berlin airport, Tempelhof Airport that stopped operating in 2008, has remained largely unbuilt because of residents’ demands. Today, Tempelhof Airport functions as a gigantic urban park where the six-kilometre pathway encourages residents to cycle, rollerskate and jog. In Tempelhof, residents engage in urban cultivation, go on picnics, fly kites and walk dogs. Many large events and trade fairs are also organised in the area.
Showroom for urban innovation
We visited the premises of CityLAB Berlin, an innovation organisation funded by the City of Berlin. In their showroom, they displayed many pilot projects related to digitalisation, mobility, sensors in street areas and resident participation. In fact, we found many similarities to the pilots by Forum Virium Helsinki.
CityLAB Berlin also participated in creating the City’s smart city strategy, Gemeinsam Digital: Berlin. The strategy planning also involved Berlin Partner, which promotes economic development in the city. The strategy highlights the cooperation of multiple operators in digitalisation and urban development. Instead of focusing solely on technology, the strategy also delves into extensive co-creation, inclusion and the social impact of smart city development. The realisation of the strategy has already begun via five different pilot projects that focus on topics such as air quality improvement, smart stormwater control, participatory budgeting and use of data in crises.
What we learned
A big city offers many interesting things to learn and share at home – we found more than we were even looking for! Berlin is an international metropolis with an inspirational mood, immense expertise and support for the most exceptional projects. The civic society is active there, promoting the themes of circular economy and new models for the temporary use of facilities.
Neighbourhoods based on circular economy and nature-based design seemed to us a strong future trend. Berlin’s resources can be seen in the showrooms for area development and innovation activities where visitors can see the new areas and projects. Neighbourhoods being built in new areas also function as development platforms. Where in Helsinki could we place our own ‘Schumacher Quarters’ that combine a social and environmental approach and pay attention to biodiversity?