Berlin Brandenburg major international airport has now opened following the closure of the city’s two urban airports, Tempelhof and then Tegel. In an interview, Berlin urban researcher Dr. Johanna Sonnenburg of the Center for Metropolitan Studies discusses a future based on a single airport for the Berlin-Brandenburg region and the role played by researchers from Technische Universität Berlin. Dr. Sonnenburg was the moderator of an event organized by the Berlin-Brandenburg Association of Architects and Engineers focusing on airports as driving forces for the metropolitan region (“Metropolengespräche 18 - Flughäfen als Motoren der Metropolregionen” on YouTube).
Dr. Sonnenburg, what is the impact for the region of concentrating air traffic at a single location outside of Berlin?
Dr. Sonnenburg: BER is located in Brandenburg and that is also where the taxes are paid. For Berlin, it was important to keep the airport as close as possible to the city limits. This enables the urban development plans for south-east Berlin (Planwerk Südostraum) to contribute by creating an airport corridor where companies can locate, stretching from Airport-City to the Central Train Station via Adlershof, Schöneweide and Obere Stadtspree (the areas close to the Spree between Jannowitzbrücke and the urban railway system’s circle line). The new economic powerhouse in the region – Tesla – creates a further axis to the east, where in the future companies from areas such as the mobility sector will set up operations in the area between BER and Grünheide. To the west towards Potsdam, businesses with links to aviation have already set up in Blankenfelde-Mahlow and Ludwigsfelde.
What effect is the pandemic having?
The current global pandemic represents an historical slump for aviation worldwide. Prior to this, the aviation sector had always banked on growth. In the past, I had warned of the need for alternatives – but nobody wants to listen to this during periods of growth. It would have been smarter to have established a broader base. The pandemic has shown us that you don’t need to fly to Frankfurt to attend every meeting. We now also have digital options. There has also been a growing awareness of environmental and consumption issues in society. The increased interest in regional products has given rise to new transport methods for consumer goods. It seems that it will take three to five years for air passenger numbers to reach the same levels as in 2019. We cannot yet say whether they will then plateau or continue to grow. The aviation sector should use this period of disruption to think about alternative, environmentally friendly means of powering aircraft.
What opportunities and challenges do you see in the plans for the re-use of Tegel and Tempelhof?
The idea of establishing a smart city in Tegel with future technologies co-existing alongside the Schumacher-Quartier, a residential district of sustainable timber construction, provides a glimpse into the future in terms of lifestyle and housing as well work, production and research. The challenge we now face is to implement this concept of an “urban tech republic” while also convincing society of its merits. Ideally, the site would also be better integrated into the local public rail transport network.
And for Tempelhof?
The idea for Tempelhof is to establish an artistic, cultural and creative district with benefits for the public. The unique quality of this location represents a major opportunity for Berlin. Everybody wants to live in exciting, cosmopolitan districts and Tempelhof is very much inner city and well served by metro, urban rail and the city highway. The difficulty with Tempelhof is that the plans only focus on the huge listed buildings and not the former airfield and now park. We have to move away from the idea of primarily seeking to generate money and towards seeing the location as a kind of Noah’s Ark for art and culture, with the benefits for the public placed center stage. We also have to look at the peripheral areas between the building and its urban surrounds and break down fences and barriers. The building, which stands as a record of recent German history, has to be developed cooperatively. Personally, I question the wisdom of preserving everything as it was at the time of its construction in 1939.
How do you see the role of researchers in the metropolitan region?
I think it is incredibly important in my field to go out into the city and get involved in the politics of urban development and not shut yourself away in an ivory tower writing academic articles for other researchers ensconced in their ivory towers. Ultimately, a publicly financed university has a duty to give something back to society. Our knowledge and commitment have an important role to play. I wrote my Diplom thesis about Schönefeld airport. Using my expert knowledge to influence development in some way gives my work meaning for me.
What role have scientists from TU Berlin played in the planning and development of the Berlin-Brandenburg airport region?
It is important for universities to work with researchers on site as well as to conduct their own internal interdisciplinary research. At one time there was a center of excellence for the city and region set up by Professor Dr. Rudolf Schäfer. This was a network for the whole of Berlin-Brandenburg and was located at TU Berlin. The “fAIRleben”model project initiative brought together various actors from TU Berlin as well as the Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space and sought to set up a sustainable community development project for Blankenfelde-Mahlow, a municipality particularly affected by fly-over noise.
What specific plans did the researchers develop?
The areas they looked at included the psychosocial impacts of noise and how specific models for climate and noise protection could be combined. Both Professor Klaus Zillich and Professor Brigitte Schulte-Fortkamp were involved at that time. Unfortunately, these models could not be put into practice as bureaucratic issues prevented access to funding which had actually already been provided. Elsewhere, Professor Raoul Bunschoten contributed to work on smart cities and the re-use of Tegel. Researchers from TU Berlin are also involved in a number of projects looking at sociological and technical aspects. For example, the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conducts research on alternative types of engines.
How are you contributing to the development of the region’s airport landscape?
After completing my visiting professorship at TU Berlin, I became an associate researcher at the University’s Center for Metropolitan Studies. Just recently, I published an article about how airports are dealing with the coronavirus and I volunteer in a number of different initiatives and associations. I have also represented the University at a number of events focusing on this topic. For me, it is important for TU Berlin to be involved in this discourse as a shaper of the future. I have a certain sense of loyalty both towards society and the University. I was fortunate enough to receive a DFG grant and now I would like to give something back. As a freelance strategy and project advisor, I also work for Tempelhof Projekt (the company responsible for the development of Tempelhof Airport) and am involved in the strategic development of the location.
What is your vision as an architect and urban researcher – leaving aside the existing plans – for the huge spaces and buildings at Tegel and Tempelhof?
Firstly, to integrate the re-use of Tegel and Tempelhof into the city and develop these two areas. It is important to include ideas from outside in this process as well. We cannot restrict our focus to technology alone if we wish to successfully develop a smart city in Tegel, in other words a development bringing together industry, technology and housing. We have to take account of people’s needs. For Tempelhof, I would like to see an approach based on solidarity, a broad, democratic solution for the historical buildings as well as a bold approach to dealing with the site as a monument. We also need to consider whether the buildings are suitable for a UNESCO world heritage site.
Tesla’s locating to the area opens up completely new opportunities to pursue visions. Additionally, space and space travel will play a more important role in the future and it would be so exciting for Berlin to be involved.
Interview: Andrea Puppe