Last week, we were in Berlin for a few days, for sheer pleasure, which is not hard to do there.
There’s Berlin the edgy,
And Berlin the brilliant and civil, when it comes to urban planning.
I should preface this by saying that it’s a city that overwhelms me in terms of its size, and it’s difficult for me to imagine living there, but unlike most large cities, it seems to have figured out a way of escaping the stress of a city of 4-plus million people within the city itself.
Leave it to the Germans. Who else would turn a decommissioned airport in the south-central part of the city into a park, leaving the runways intact for rollerblading, and cycling a la outdoor velodrome, the large swathes of grass in between as wildlife sanctuary (about 80% is an important habitat for several redlisted birds, plants and insects), and for just lounging around? Not only that, but who else would do it within a couple of years of the airport closing? The former terminal is used for events, the hangar for fairs, and concerts are regularly held on the tarmac.
In a city with an ever-increasing population, worse things could have happened. Think yet more condos, or a shopping mall... Tempelhof is a reminder of the things we build, and how they fall out of use.
But that doesn’t mean it has to stay out of use, or be turned into something overtly commercial. What’s been created instead is a vast space that people gravitate to naturally – because it’s novel (how often to you get to hang out on the tarmac or grass of an airport?), and because where else in a big city can you get space like that?
Just down the road and to the west of Tempelhof, we stumbled into another, more conventional park. This one with a waterfall in its midst. It was a hot day, and its banks were lined with young groups of Berliners soaking their feet in the water while drinking beer and coolers. Here too, there was no denying you were in the middle of a big city – look one way and you see the steeple of a cathedral rising between the banks of the waterfall,
look the other and it seems as though the waterfall morphs into a grand avenue.
But even in Berlin, nature is never far away. It’s a city famous for its 6000-plus wild boars, among other wild, returning animals. As we walked back past the waterfall in the failing light, we looked up and saw a fox – a big one – standing still on a ledge in the water. Very still. It stared back at us for a while, and then it slunk into the bushes on the other side, a memory, a mystery, a lovely contradiction.