Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Difficult Question of Regional Cross Subsidy

by Adam Leaver, Manchester Business School

“You can’t revive the regions just through handouts from Whitehall…Revenues from the financial services sector were recycled round the rest of the country through the long arm of the state, creating the illusion of strong, national growth. Jobs were created but in an unbalanced way, over-relying on the public sector, funded by tax receipts from the City of London. And we’ve seen what happens when the conveyor belt breaks, as it did spectacularly in 2008. Those tax receipts fall, the money stops flowing and the whole country feels the consequences as the public sector contracts and jobs are lost. This nation is made up of 100,000 square miles. It cannot rely so heavily on one.” (Nick Clegg, October 2012)

Nick Clegg’s explanation of our current malaise is a seductive one in these times of austerity. The idea of an unsustainable cross subsidy form London’s vibrant financial services sector to the regions public sector jobs appeals to the prejudices of a metropolitan political elite who draw on this central perception. Such a view undoubtedly informed Osborne’s attacks on public sector wages and employment which he believed were ‘crowding out’ the private sector. It is also the bedrock upon which Boris Johnson now lobbies for London to ‘keep more of its own tax’.

Clegg’s paragraph tells us little about the pre-2007 world. Finance never contributed more than around 9% of total UK GDP and 11% of tax, even on the broadest interpretation of what activities constitute the sector – and that’s before we factor in the bailout money which exceeded the total taxes paid by the industry in the five years before 2007. Clegg and his fellow parliamentarians know this – this is ideology in its very old fashioned sense. But what he and others have done is to establish a new moral language around the regional economy, which talks about ownership, earnings and deserve on the one hand and dependence, subsidy and inefficiency on the other.

Such discourse abstracts from the sheer diversity of flows in any national economy. Global cities like London do attract capital, but they do so because they are a kind of conversion machine, taking national and international assets, converting them into revenue streams from which well-placed individuals skim high pay. London attracts capital because it is also extractive in other words. This can be seen from investment banking to private equity to infrastructure PFIs. This process of extraction requires an active state, through bailouts and subventions in the banking system to the underwriting of risks in infrastructure PPPs and PFIs. This implies the centrality of the state to a proportion of the UKs private sector.

PPPs and PFIs are a good example of where ‘extraction’ has distinct regional effects. The decomposition of activities around a contracted-out infrastructure project leads to a fragmentation of corporations around specialised functions, so that one company may provide the finance, another may build the school or hospital, another may manage the asset etc etc. In theory some of these functions need not be located on the site of the project. And certainly the revenue streams do not all circulate regionally: the finance company probably has its operating office in London, as might the asset management office. Even the operations might be co-ordinated from London using local contractors on site. Overseas companies that invest in PPPs/PFIs are likely to have an office in London, and those senior workers are likely to be extremely well paid.

Before PPPs and PFIs, projects that were State funded had revenue streams that would congeal in the regions where those projects were based, kicking in multipliers that would further benefit the local economy. The fragmentation of activities has led to a concentration of certain functions like financing and asset management in London. This has diminished capacity in the regions through the withering of broad competences, the fragmenting of supply and project chains, and skills drift as talent is forced to relocate down South to find a job. State-sponsored investment projects across the country have benefited private sector growth in London and the South East.

But infrastructure projects are not just about where the revenues go, but what liabilities are taken on to generate those revenues; and crucially who assumes responsibility for those liabilities when things go wrong. Many PPP/PFI schemes are highly levered: before the crisis projects were financed on around a 90/10 split debt to equity, though this has now levelled down to around 70/30. Even so, leverage produces interest payments that require servicing and a manifest risk of default. So the flipside to the revenue streams clipped by metropolitan elites is a tower of hidden contingent liabilities that may be passed onto the State, as when NHS Trusts cannot repay their PFI loans. Similarly on the operations side, contracts which allow companies to exit their obligations (designed to attract initial bidders) may leave the State with unexpected costs. This is what First Group did when it walked away from the backloaded premium payments on its First Great Western franchise, costing the taxpayer an estimated £800m in lost receipts. On the contracting side, unwieldy contracts can produce inefficiencies and exorbitant penalty clauses which are costly to renegotiate. And this is before we discuss the many contracts that overshoot their original estimates. All of these interventions should be thought of as State subsidies; received mainly by private subsidiaries operating in the capital, and paid for by taxpayers the length and breadth of the country.

This quiet cross-subsidy from North and West to South East has been running un-noticed for a long period of time. Its unanticipated result is a kind of regional moral hazard: the metropolitanisation of gains, and the nationalisation of losses. Perhaps by looking at the regional distribution of these corporate subsidies we might be able to challenge the simplistic picture mobilised by Clegg, Osborne and Johnson?

Advertisements

Pre-Worn: Art, Artists and the Post-Industrial Community

Homebaked Anfield

Homebaked Anfield

Guest blog by Kenn Taylor.

In 2012 the Liverpool Biennial continued its tradition of using empty buildings to exhibit art. This time around, spaces it occupied for the period of the festival included the huge abandoned Royal Mail sorting office at Copperas Hill and the former waiting rooms of the Cunard shipping company on the city’s waterfront. With many visitors commenting that these unused spaces were just as, if not more, fascinating than some of the art on display in them.

In the past, the Liverpool Biennial has occupied everything from a disused Art Deco cinema in the city centre to a former glass warehouse near the docks. The de-industrialisation and de-population experienced by Liverpool over the last few decades meaning there is no shortage of empty buildings to use. The re-animation of such abandoned spaces is a key part of the Biennial’s strategy, with urban regeneration a fundamental reason for the festival’s founding and existence.

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Biennial

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Biennial

Of course, the reutilisation of former commercial space for the creation and display of art is itself an older phenomenon. Dating back to at least 1960s New York and since seen around the world from London to Berlin to Sao Paulo.

As well as being a particular trend within artistic production, the use of post-industrial areas for creative purposes also reflects wider shifts within economics and society in the latter part of the 20th century. Traditional urban hubs began to lose the industrial bases that had helped make them rich and many cities, if they could, moved towards more service-orientated economies based on things like finance, the media, tourism and leisure. The effects that this had on the communities that had relied on such industry for sustenance were usually deeply negative; economic decline, social decay and de-population.

However, this also led to the freeing up of a large amount of previously occupied space which, with demand having collapsed, was available at very low rates. This attracted the some of the expanding pool of artists in the post-war era. Once hubs of this new ‘industry’ began to emerge, more and more of the ‘creative class’, to use Richard Florida’s term, started to move in and slowly change the nature of these areas. With the subsequent upswing in activism and entrepreneurship that saw abandoned spaces becoming art galleries, coffee shops and the like, these areas became increasingly fashionable. To the point were those wishing to live in a trendy locale or buy into a particular lifestyle, even if they themselves were not ‘creative’, began to move there. Then, as wealthy professionals came to dominate these areas, the ‘poor young artists’ were forced out. Despite artists in many cases using their creative strengths to rail against the effect, the process has usually been inevitable and irreversible. Such ‘gentrification’ of post-industrial areas has been well documented, for example in Sharon Zurkin’s classic study of its effects in New York: Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change.[i]

Hackney, London

Hackney, London

What is it though, that attracts art and artists to such post-industrial areas in the first place? That is, aside from the low costs?

The flexibility of industrial space is another key factor. Given the myriad forms of contemporary art that began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century and the often large spaces it needs to be created and displayed in, huge open-plan buildings formerly filled with goods, machinery and people became ideal art spaces. It was initially artists’ studios, followed by grassroots galleries and then commercial galleries which began using abandoned industrial buildings, but this phenomenon perhaps came of age when public galleries also began to occupy former industrial spaces.

The use of abandoned commercial buildings allowed new museums and galleries to have the same monumental scale of older purpose-built museums and in some cases, such as Gateshead’s Baltic and London’s Tate Modern, even larger. Yet as ‘recycled’ buildings, they didn’t have the same naked self-confidence as a structure created for ‘art’s sake’ as say, Tate Britain or even the Brutalist Hayward Gallery in London.

Turning these buildings into museums was seen, less an act of reverence and ego, as were the museum constructions of the past, with their links to elitism and the idea of a strictly defined high culture, more the humble recycling of unused space. Financially it also made sense. As it became ever harder to justify the spending of public money on ‘fine art’ in a world which had begun to acknowledge all forms of cultural production had validity, re-using abandoned industrial space and bringing a ‘buzz’ to a declined area became another good reason to justify public spending on culture.

However, the notion of tapping into a pre-existing ‘authenticity’ that former industrial areas are perceived as having is also vital to this phenomenon. Like someone buying a pair of pre-worn jeans, the abandoned cranes and switchgear, decay and graffiti in post-industrial spaces lends an immediate character and ‘legitimacy’. A tinge of authenticity that can be taken up by those who are seeking it, I.E. those of middle and upper class backgrounds who inevitably dominate the creative class of any given city.

This seems to be something that is at the core of what attracts creatives, and the cultural institutions that ultimately follow them, to post-industrial buildings and communities. It is inevitably the ‘character’ and the relative ‘wildness’ of such areas which is the biggest draw after low costs and large spaces. The frequent desire for many in the creative community to live as they wish without attracting too much grief from the authorities, leads to the search for ‘transgressive’ spaces. Whilst mingling with poorer populations who behave in a less ‘conventional’ way (I.E. middle/upper class and suburban) also seems to provide in the minds of some an authenticity they crave. And therein lays the rub. The conditions which many artists seem to thrive on are those that are usually negative for the pre-existing communities that they take residence in. Abandoned space, very low rents, cheap intoxicants, an ‘edgy’ atmosphere, a lack of employment and a sense of lawlessness are generally signs of a community struggling.

Creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in change the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit into more ‘family friendly’, I.E. quasi-suburban, conditions as seen in parts of London, New York and Berlin. A phenomenon which usually sees rents rise and often drives out more deprived and diverse pre-existing communities. When such gentrification does begin, creatives are usually the first to complain about the influx of the wealthier middle-classes and about how artists are being pushed out. Inevitably identifying themselves as ‘fellow outsiders’ with the ‘edgy’ local community they move into rather than the ‘Yuppies’.

Creative inhabitants of such communities are usually much less willing to admit that it is precisely them who begin the process in the first place. Without their studios and venues beginning to occupy such spaces and them being the “shock troops of gentrification” as memorably described by Rosalyn Deutsche[ii], who help make an area fashionable, the richer urban professionals would be much less likely to follow them, softly softly.

Once the notion of creative gentrification was hit upon, it quickly became a tool of local authorities world wide to ‘improve’ areas on a brutally pragmatic level. Used as a process to quietly drive out often poor and deprived populations and replace them with the well-educated and wealthy, thus seeing an upswing in tax receipts and a decrease in expenditure. Cultural regeneration in that mode serves the interests of creatives who want ‘free’ space and those who seek areas to become ‘profitable’, but in the process inevitably, ultimately pushes out pre-existing communities.

What though of these ‘alternative quarters’ in the period between their industrial decline and their inevitable gentrification? Are they the hubs of originality and authenticity that so many seek? Well they certainly seem to be places where new ideas and artists frequently tend to emerge from, but for all the claims of uniqueness and individuality, the alternative areas of most cities worldwide, if looked at closely, seem remarkably similar. With any difference usually down to factors which predate their emergence as a creative quarter. Common denominators include the aforementioned former industrial space re-utilised for culture, an international and largely young population, more often than not from comfortable and well-educated backgrounds, ‘alternative’ cafes, graffiti, electronic music and independent clothing stores which sell similar, if ever-changing, fashion styles.

Such creative quarters may emphasise their distance from the financial quarters of cities, with their generic glass office blocks and branches of chain coffee stores, but in their own way they are just as generic; international spaces often better connected to each other than they are to the communities around them.

The respective communities that inhabit contemporary financial and creative quarters have more in common than either would probably like to think. Both are often fond of intoxicants and parties and are cosmopolitan, if largely still of the middle-upper section of global society, a section which is highly mobile and international in outlook. Like the CEO looking for the country with the lowest cost of production and tax breaks to set up a business, many artists move around the world looking for the cheapest digs and availability of funding by local authorities keen for their own slice of gentrification.

One set may wear suits, the other retro t shirts, to display their respective capital in each zone they occupy, but both are, in there own way, living off the wider community, creating ‘products’ which, though important, are not the vitals of life made in the far off agricultural and, still producing, industrial zones of the world. While ultimately both branches of this globalised class have, in their own way, occupied former industrial working class spaces of inhabitation and influence, as seen in the case of the takeover of the East End of London by a mixture of the finance class around the former docklands and the creative class in areas such as Shoreditch.

As previously discussed, most creative quarters very quickly become a parody of themselves as, after the shock troops of artists move in, the second wave of urban professionals and cultural tourists follow, occupying an area then, having usually changed it fundamentally into another generic ‘alternative’ hub, seek the cultural capital of being the first into the next ‘hot’ area.

This obsession with the inhabiting the margins seems to stem in part from a desire to exist in an alternative space to the prevailing capitalist system and a rejection of the bourgeois nature of suburban life. Finding, studying, living in and making reference to the margins in the minds of many takes them outside of a system they dislike. Yet the margins are a product of and part of the system. Their gentrification by the artistic and educated classes results in their removal as bases for those who are forced to exist on the edge of society by capitalism and turns them into areas that feed more successfully into the system. In moving into these areas to live in an alternative way, in many cases, such people ultimately help to destroy whatever was alternative about it.

As Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan put it in their essay about New York, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’: “For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the EastVillage art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side. To deny this complicity is to perpetuate one of the most enduring, self-serving myths in a bourgeois thought, the myth that, as Antonio Gramsci wrote, intellectuals form a category that is ‘autonomous and independent from the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging import.’ ”[iii]

So, are there alternatives for the creative class who wish to live in such areas aside from colonising and destroying the communities they profess to love? Well if there is, it’s about integration rather than replacement and, if art and regeneration is to benefit such urban communities themselves, it can only do so by embedding the needs and desires of existing residents into practice.

One possible example is the recent Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, Liverpool, arranged by the Liverpool Biennial. Over a period of two years the project, led by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, worked to embed itself in the local community and through collaboration developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery in the neighbourhood. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people. Homebaked/2up2down thus provided services for the existing community, helped to tell the story of the area to visitors and promote local expression. Those involved are now working towards making the bakery a sustainable community business and refurbishing adjacent housing under co-operative ownership. This stands in contrast to the aforementioned former Royal Mail sorting office and Cunard waiting rooms which, now the Biennial have left, are destined for a new commercial future.

Yet one of the reasons this Biennial project in Anfield is unlikely to begin the process of pushing out the existing community is because of the small number of professional artists that can live in Liverpool due to the relatively small arts market and the relatively weak economy. This means the process of gentrification will always be limited. Conducting a similar initiative in an area with more opportunities for creatives to make a living and move in, such as London or New York, would perhaps still ultimately be just be another step in making the community into the next ‘hotspot’.

Mark Binelli in his book The Last Days of Detroit examines the ultimate post-industrial city and the various aspects of cultural regeneration that have gone on there, including the Detroit’s emergence as a new, low-cost, wild, authentic space for artists from elsewhere. He’s sees the potential in this to help regenerate the abandoned areas of the city now Motown has far less of a motor industry and Manhattan has almost entirely pushed its edgy aspects away. However, he is also wary of the new playgrounds of the creative class treading on the ruins of communities that in many cases had their existence swept away by factors outside their control. He quotes a local resident, Marsha Cusic: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[iv]

Similarly, many of the former industrial areas of Liverpool may have no hope of a future industrial use and their re-appropriation as spaces for art, etc, can give great abandoned buildings, even abandoned areas, a new use and prevent decay into dust. Yet it should not be forgotten that, as much as it may be a futile wish, many of people who previously occupied such spaces, from Liverpool to Berlin to Detroit, would have preferred an alternative world. One of secure, healthy, happy communities with busy industries, not edgy, troubled and ‘authentic’ areas suffering at the raw end of globalised capitalism, with plenty of room for art galleries and parties.


[i] Sharon Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press,1982, rev. ed. New Brunswick, RutgersUniversity Press, 1989)

[ii] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998), p. 151.

[iii] Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’,  The Portable Lower East Side, Volume 4, Number 1, (1987) <http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html&gt; [accessed 2nd March 2013]

[iv] Mark Binelli, The Last Days of Detroit (London, Bodley Head, 2013), p.285.

Kenn Taylor is a writer and project manager with a particular interest in community, culture and the urban environment. You can view his websites here: http://kenntaylor.wordpress.com/ and here: http://urbantransitionuk.wordpress.com/

Suspended spaces

A map of suspended spaces in Manchester city centre

A map of suspended spaces in Manchester city centre. Click to interact or add more spaces

by Sam Baars, PhD candidate, Institute for Social Change

At first sight the city is all noise, movement and purpose – a place where people, vehicles and buildings jostle for space and every last inch of ground is accounted for by its function. But in this bustling urban environment inactive, suspended spaces are abundant. Manchester city centre is host to dozens of them – stalled construction sites, abandoned buildings and empty plots – and many can be found within walking distance of Piccadilly. This is a brief guide to a selected few.

If you’re coming to Manchester by train you can enjoy some of the city’s most prominent suspended spaces before you’ve even set a foot down. Arriving into Piccadilly, the view to your left is dominated by the derelict Mayfield Station, empty since 1986 and with no firm proposals for redevelopment, while to your right is a hole in the ground the size of Piccadilly Gardens, occasionally filled with parked cars, which was to be the site of the 58-storey Piccadilly Tower before the recession brought construction work to a halt in 2008. On exiting the station to the north you’re greeted by the meandering S of Gateway House which, currently empty save for its ground floor shops, forms a slightly decrepit entrance to a smart city. To the west, nestled between some of the city’s most expensive hotels, are the broken windows of the Employment Exchange, whose tortuous journey from drawing board to construction was interrupted by the Second World War. The recession, which put paid to the Albany Crown Tower proposed for the site, has granted the Employment Exchange temporary respite from the bulldozers – and afforded this former labour office a glimpse of a recession-stricken Manchester in which unemployment currently stands at 12%. To the south of Piccadilly Station sits London Road Fire Station, a fume-blackened Edwardian gem which has been empty for fifteen years while various proposals for music venues, hotels and a museum have come and gone. Urban explorers 28 Days Later reveal that the building is now home to an impressive collection of stuffed animals.

Arriving by car, it couldn’t be easier to find somewhere central to park. Piccadilly Basin, once a hub of canalside warehouses and home to the headquarters of the Rochdale Canal Company, is, as irony would have it, now home to the parked car – a symbol of the victory of the twentieth century motorway over the Victorian waterway. There is a masterplan for Piccadilly Basin which includes offices, retail, apartments and leisure, along with the flagship Eider House, whose triangular site is currently home to Linda’s Pantry and a van rental depot. But until the masterplan is realised, Piccadilly Basin will continue to be a space for stationary vehicles. One of the few suspended spaces in the city centre not to be transformed into a car park is a meagre patch of grass and goose poo next to Tariff Street, which is a popular spot for barbecues in the summer and will become homes and shops when the masterplan eventually comes to fruition.

A short walk along the Rochdale Canal into Ancoats reveals the single largest suspended space in the city centre. New Islington is at last beginning to take shape, over a decade after funding was secured to transform it into a Millennium Community. While some set pieces such as the Chips building were completed by 2006, the rest of the project stalled as the effects of the financial crash a year later trickled through into the credit and housing markets. The site is still largely a wasteland of debris from the demolished Cardroom Estate, although new houses, a marina, a public park and a school are now in progress. Northwest along the ring road sits the skeleton of Nuovo, which has graced the entrance to Ancoats since 2007 and remains incomplete six years later after its developer filed for bankruptcy.

Turning back towards the city centre, immediately opposite these totems of space suspended by the (in)operation of private finance, is a suspended space of an altogether different nature. Between Dean Street and Port Street is a triangular plot hosting a single house (number 75) surrounded by temporary car parks. This suspended space isn’t a physical incarnation of the vagaries of the market, a la Nuovo and New Islington, but the ghost of a government plan. Sketches drawn up by the City Council in the 1960s and 70s show the proposed new Inner Circle Road blasting its way through this gap en-route to an interchange that would have wiped out much of Ancoats. As with many grand highway-building plans from that era, such as the extension of the M57 along the Hyde Road, even when the roads were never realised they often left behind scars of deterred development along their route.

Further towards the city centre, sandwiched between Port Street, Hilton Street and Newton Street is a small wedge of land occupied by Bradley House, Manchester’s Victorian take on New York’s Flatiron, and the Hatters hostel with its equally stateside metal fire escapes. There is a gap between these two buildings where a pub once stood – the Sir Sidney Smith, which became the Old Windmill and finally the Kensington before it was demolished in the 1970s. One of the smallest suspended spaces on the route, the Kensington gap is a temporary car park and home to a giant blue tit who arrived in 2012.

Outside the Piccadilly area Manchester city centre has many more suspended spaces: Origin, the Faraday Tower, the Tib Street Horn, Smithfield Market and the Ancoats Dispensary to name but a few. The intriguing thing about all of these suspended spaces is their variety. Firstly, they exist for different reasons. Most of these spaces are artifacts of market collapse – planned towers, Millennium Communities and entire swathes of canalside land all hibernating for the protracted economic winter. Some, however, are shadows of a centrally planned future that never left the page. Secondly, suspended spaces appear in different guises. Some are empty voids of bare earth or rubble – Picadilly Tower and much of New Islington, some contain buildings whose useful function has lapsed – Smithfield Market and the Employment Exchange, while others are home to structures that were grounded before they were even completed – Origin, Nuovo. Finally, suspended spaces accommodate a variety of interim uses, both official and unofficial. While car parks are de rigueur, such as at Piccadilly Basin, some are graced with public art – the Tib Street Horn, the Kensington blue tit, and, very occasionally, suspended space can become green space, such as at Tariff Street. Suspended spaces, by their nature as redundant, forgotten realms, have also been appropriated organically – The Kensington is a popular space for band shoots and Saturday night altercations, the London Road Fire Station and Faraday Towers are frequented by urban explorers, and a small patch of Piccadilly Basin is now home to a cluster of allotments.

Suspended spaces are an inevitable component of the cityscape: paradoxically, as pockets of inactivity they are a byproduct of a dynamic, changing urban environment. Stalled transitions between the past and the future, suspended spaces demonstrate what can happen when plans meet a hostile reality, but also how we can, at least on occasion, find innovative interim uses for the resulting land. Some suspended spaces are gems; others are eyesores, but they are a fascinating and important part of our city’s story. Take the tour, discover your own suspended spaces and add them to the map.

‘Anti-park’ to ‘Designer Park’? The proposed development of Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld

Tempelhofer Freiheit in summer 2012

Tempelhofer Freiheit in summer 2012

by Clare Murray, PhD candidate in German Studies

The heavily contested decision to remove part of the longest remaining stretch of Berlin Wall to make way for luxury new flats has led to the re-emergence of some of the key issues that have characterised post-unification urban planning in Berlin: gentrification; the treatment of historical traces; and the significance of interim spaces. Underlying these is the confrontation between a market-driven, neo-liberal socio-economic structure and a rejection of that as a dominant framework which should shape the urban environment of Berlin. At the time of writing, the East Side Gallery has been granted a stay of execution but this is far from the only arena in Berlin where these debates play out:  just over five kilometres away the airfield of the former Flughafen Tempelhof is subject to a redevelopment plan which has pitted individuals, citizens’ groups, and some politicians against the Berlin Senate.

The site itself is of great architectural and historical importance: The airfield is a key site in aviation history having hosted pioneering flight demonstrations in the early twentieth century; Sagebiel’s colossal airport building, begun in 1937 and never fully realised, was one of the prestige projects of the Third Reich. A hybrid between stone-clad National Socialist monumentality and a technically innovative 1930s city airport, it remains one of the most iconic buildings in Berlin; the use of the airport by the American Air Force after the war, and in particular, its connection with the Air Lift have re-inscribed the site as a ‘symbol of freedom’ to many (West) Berliners; and the controversial cessation of flight operations in 2008 brought the site’s future firmly into public discourse.

When the airport closed, a unique asset was brought back into public use: a 270 hectare area of open space.  Its use as a military exercise and parade ground and then as an airfield had preserved the vast green area and enabled it to leap-frog almost two centuries of ideas about how public space should be constituted. It has now, however, been exposed to the forces acting on the 21st century Western European city. In 2010 the airfield was opened as a unique city park, enabling visitors to cycle and skate on the former runways and to play sport and picnic underneath now defunct signs displaying instructions to pilots. Citizens were invited to apply for space to establish interim ‘pioneer’ projects which currently range from a unicycle school to allotment-type ‘urban gardening’ facilities for residents without access to a garden.

On 6th March 2013 the ‘masterplan’ for the future of the site was unveiled at a lively public meeting in the former airport building. The plans confirmed the intention to ‘develop’ the former airfield in two senses of the word: to build new ‘city quarters’ on the field’s edges; and to alter its internal structure[1]. The Senate for Urban Development states that they are meeting demands for increased housing in Berlin and for improved facilities at the park yet both elements of this reconfiguration of Tempelhofer Feld are being met with resistance.

Citizens’ initiatives such as 100% Tempelhofer Feld are leading the campaign against the proposal to build on the former airfield[2]. They have organised a petition for a referendum which will reach the second round in September. Green and Left Party politicians have submitted a motion to the Abgeordenethaus for a halt to the planning process while this petition is still running[3] .

The reaction is not only against the proposal to build on the site but also about the plan to reshape the 230 hectares that will remain as parkland. The 2013 ‘masterplan’ makes clear that the next few years will see increased intervention into the remaining park landscape.  The proposed system of pathways will shape how visitors use and experience the space, creating easily accessible areas which will be more intensively used than the expanse in the middle where there will be fewer paths. The 4 hectare water basin, which will collect rainwater from the building, will constitute the first major permanent feature on the landscape which does not attest to its history or former function. The 1000 trees, which are to be planted at the site’s edges to provide shade and seem to be positioned to serve a double function in screening the proposed new city quarters, will bring about a contraction of the site’s perimeter, diminishing the vast emptiness of the Feld’s panorama.

Those campaigning for Tempelhofer Feld to remain in its present condition fear the transformation of ‘anti-park’ into ‘designer park’[4]. The designation of ‘anti-park’ derives from the fact that, as an appropriation of left-over space, Tempelhofer Freheit, as the park is named,  is not the product of an over-arching  ‘park design’ process. Accordingly, several of the features that characterise the western public park are absent here.

In contrast to the taming of nature prized in the gardens of the baroque or renaissance period, the park at Tempelhof has been characterised by the celebration of the capacity of nature to reclaim and reassert itself.

The former fire-service practice plane. Summer 2011

The former fire-service practice plane. Summer 2011

Unlike the pathways of the nineteenth century park, with their graceful contours and simple variety which Joyce explains were carefully designed to encourage walking in the belief the working class would seek to emulate the comportment of their ‘betters’,  the default means of getting around Tempelhof are the former runways, shaped to fulfil an entirely different function. Similarly, while Joyce explains that a key feature in the design of nineteenth century public park was the variation of the (in)finitude of space, achieved through the strategic planting of trees to open and close the panorama, Tempelhof is characterised by the vast emptiness of its horizon[5].

Tempelhofer Freiheit. Summer 2012.

Tempelhofer Freiheit. Summer 2012.

In other ways, however, the ordering processes that Joyce identified in the nineteenth-century public park have been active at Tempelhofer Freiheit since its opening. There is, of course, considerable relaxation in the idea of what is ‘appropriate’ for a public park – ‘swearing’ and ‘dirty clothes’ are not banned, for example, yet the restriction of loose dogs and barbecuing to designated areas, unusual in Berlin, raised eyebrows. More pronounced is the issue of (in)accessibility that arose when it became clear that the park would have a perimeter fence with opening and closing hours;  ‘a people’s park –until the sun goes down’ wrote one newspaper[6]. The rejection of the idea that through the numbered gates and the non-porous boundaries of Tempelhof, the park and its visitors become countable, knowable and therefore manageable feeds into a wider theme which is particularly salient in 21st century Berlin; resistance to the homogenisation both of space and of the individuals that inhabit that space. Through the fence, Tempelhofer Feld is demarcated as a ‘place’ wherein particular norms of behaviour are expected and, to an extent, enforced.  This is consolidated by the fact that the public can only use the park during daylight hours, i.e. when they are visible, this suggests that when they cannot be seen, and thus monitored, the ‘general public’ may not conduct themselves ‘appropriately’ and should thus not be permitted to access the park.

Tempelhofer Feld is seen as a tranche of wilderness which through historical circumstance has persisted within the urban area. The proposed development is seen as an extension of attempts to manage its wilderness, to limit access to it, to shape how it is to be used and experienced and, most significantly, to repackage parts of it as a commodity.


[1] Up-to-date information and a PDF download of the masterplan are available at http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/ueber-die-tempelhofer-freiheit/aktuelles/nachrichten/standortkonferenz/