Friday, August 17, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: “Zwischennutzung” in Berlin: An Ocean of Green

Our guest this week is Malte Göbel, a journalist based in Berlin (who also happens to be Heidi’s cousin). He’s lived, studied, and worked in Germany, Italy, Canada, and the United States. Last year, he took a five-month trip around the world and reported on the places he visited for the German travel site, If you read German, you can follow Malte’s world adventures on his blog, immer nach westen. More about Malte and his work can be found at

Berlin is a green city –hardly a street exists without trees, and there are lots of parks everywhere. But just two years ago, a huge space opened to the public and became Berlin's biggest park: the former Tempelhof Airport. It is a historic site, where 200 years ago the German gymnastics movement was founded by “Turnvater” Jahn (a prominent German gymnastics and nationalist activist of the time), where the Berlin’s first airport opened, and where in 1949, when traffic to West Berlin was blocked by the Soviet Union, airplanes landed every 90 seconds to airlift food and supplies into the city.

In 2008, the airport was finally closed, and nobody knew what to do with the area. Some people proposed building a mountain on the site—a real mountain, 1,000 meters high, with space for hiking and skiing. Of course, the idea was more of a humorous suggestion, but it stands in stark contrast to what really happened with the former airport: nothing.

In 2009, people held protests, demanding that the site be opened to the public. Riot police fought them back and beat people up when they tried to climb the fence. Then in 2010, the city of Berlin finally gave in and opened the Tempelhofer Feld for everybody—in its current condition, as a form of Zwischennutzung.

“Zwischennutzung” is a typical procedure in Berlin, in keeping with the city’s image as described by the bon mot, “poor, but sexy.” It means that you own a site, but don't have money or any idea of what to do with it, so you give it to somebody else for a limited time and allow them to create something there. Then, after a couple of years, when you find a corporation to invest money, build a mall or condos, you take the land back and sell it. So one day in the future, the former Tempelhof Airport will be divided and sold (with only a small piece remaining as a park).

But for now, it's Berlin's latest big attraction. Berliners and visitors flocked to the site as soon as it opened, although they dispersed into its vastness right upon entering. One of the site’s forms of Zwischennutzung is the “Allmendekontor”, a public neighborhood garden. Since nearly a century of use as an airport has left the ground contaminated, people had to build raised beds for herbs and vegetables (also because it's easier to tear down raised beds once the Zwischennutzung is over). The site is situated in the neighborhood of Neukölln, where most of the residents are poor, so people started to create their own raised beds out of things they found on the street: plywood and old furniture of all kinds such as cupboards, tables, and cabinets. A sofa and a bathtub were turned into vegetable beds; even an old guitar is now a planter.

The result is a unique vegetable garden, free for everybody to walk through and enjoy (although the vegetables are only for those who plant them). There are places to sit everywhere, things to discover such as a beehive behind a bush and a high heel shoe nailed to a pole. It's one of the best places to watch the sunset: The city is far away, the sky is wide, the horizon is broad. It is almost like the view you get on an ocean of green.


  1. Malte, I love this idea. In Washington, DC, I participated in a community garden for about ten years. It got its start in a similar way when an organization bought land adjacent to their building for a future library. The land sat unused for a few years until employees got permission to garden there. Later it was opened to the community-at-large. I grew everything from asparagus and rosemary to green beans and spinach. It was lovely. Construction on that library is underway, so the garden has closed.

  2. Malte, this is such a great use of space. But I hate to think of it being developed - they should keep it as an ocean of green. I have to come to Berlin and see it (and you of course :)). Do you have any idea how long it will be before they turn it into condos and malls? And will the remaining park still have those lovely community gardens?

  3. Heidi, first they wanted to start building a garden show there in 2017 - now it seems they do the show somewhere else. So it seems there are still some years time to come by. Please do so!

  4. Great concept for "subletting" space, Malte, and I especially love the picture of the leaves peeking out of the guitar. But my cynical side was wondering all thru your piece, "how long before Starbucks shows up?" so I was a bit amused when you ended with "the ocean of green"! Can't wait to hear what finally shows up on all that open space! Keep us posted, will you?