September 30, 2020

The reconciliation of city and nature

Prof. Dr. Philipp Bouteiller is the managing director of Tegel Projekt GmbH and the driving force behind the new urban quarter “Berlin TXL”. On the 5 km2 site of the former Tegel Airport, great things will be created in the next few years: an experimental field for the liveable city of tomorrow. Climate protection and a return to natural resources will be of particular importance.

Philipp, let’s talk about the relationship between the city and nature. What is the state of it? Did the two grow apart at some point?

This has been the case at least since industrialisation. But we see that formulas of domination à la “subdue the earth” no longer work at some point. We have long since gone beyond the limits of what the earth is prepared to allow. And also what people are prepared to forfeit in terms of quality of life if cities move too far away from nature. The idea of the functional city has failed – because it is unnatural and does not correspond to the essence of being human, simply because it makes people ill. Sure, it took painful realisations, but we humans are rediscovering our biological identity more and more. A paradigm shift has long since taken place, so that we can observe worldwide that the city and nature are finding their way back to each other.

Where does the longing for nature of many city dwellers come from?

Even if we no longer see smoking chimneys today, we still do not breathe healthy air in our cities. If we imagine the city as a closed room in which we burn petrol and oil with loud rattling engines, distribute tyre wear and other fine dust, then we would definitely not let our children play there. But that’s how it is in our cities, especially when there is no wind or inversion weather. Many people no longer want that, but long for healthy air, more peace and quiet, more greenery, more freedom of movement – in other words, for nature.

The reconciliation of city and nature is not only an urban planning issue, but also a fundamental attitude. Why is that so important to you?

It was practically laid in my cradle and has accompanied me all my life. I grew up in nature, roamed through forests as a child. I have always experienced environmental protection as an important issue in my family. My father and grandfather were active in environmental issues at a time when hardly anyone was talking about them. My uncle was one of the first Green politicians to enter the Baden-Württemberg state parliament. And my other uncle fought as a CDU member against the planned nuclear repository in Gorleben. As a teenager, I was concerned about the dying of the forest, and as a community service volunteer I led a kingfisher protection project. All of this had a great impact on me. And also that I have lived since 1989 – as a kind of antithesis – first in Berlin and then for a long time in central London and know what you miss in metropolises in terms of good air, clean water and beautiful surroundings. In this respect, I am happy not only to live in Berlin, which is becoming greener all the time, but also to be able to work professionally with new concepts for more nature and in our cities. I love urban life and would like to contribute to increasingly resolving the immanent contradiction between city and nature.

What contribution can our cities make in the fight against climate change?

Cities play an enormously important role in climate protection, as they consume around 75 percent of all global resources. But since they are also responsible for 80 percent of global value creation, they offer by far the greatest leverage for saving the world. They could do much more than they currently do: on the one hand, drastically reduce harmful emissions, rely on the use of clean energies and be more energy-efficient and resource-conserving overall. On the other hand, they must arm themselves against increasingly frequent extreme weather phenomena such as periods of heat, heavy rain or droughts. It is particularly important to realise that green cities can effectively relieve the environment and not only be climate-neutral, but even climate-positive. Berlin TXL is to become a test field to try out how this can succeed.

Will Berlin TXL be a place of reconciliation between city and nature?


What can we expect?

The Schumacher Quartier will be a CO2-neutral, perhaps even CO2-positive, neighbourhood. We will have green roofs, facades and lots of green open spaces, plus water areas and great biodiversity. The houses will be predominantly built of wood and the streets will be free of exhaust fumes, as we will largely ban cars from the centre. We will have smart rainwater management and use clean energy. We incorporate things like the Sponge City Principle* or Animal Aided Design** into our planning and have a globally unique sustainable energy concept. Our “Smart City” Berlin TXL will set completely new trends in Berlin and far beyond, showing that nature in the city not only improves the quality of life, but also makes us more resilient to the effects of climate change. The future begins in Berlin TXL quite a bit earlier than elsewhere. Freely adapted from the science fiction author William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

How does the neighbourhood prepare itself against heavy rain, drought and heat?

It is not necessarily raining less now, but less frequently and more heavily. As a result, the rain can no longer seep away, but flows quickly from the dry soils into the sewage system and is thus removed from the natural cycle. Instead of running off into the sewers, rainwater in our neighbourhood gradually seeps away via an ingenious cascade system through blue-green roofs, planted zones, overflow areas and underground buffer storage. All rainwater is used or stored in the neighbourhood, nothing is lost. When it evaporates on hot days, it cools the surroundings; when it seeps away, it enriches the groundwater. This is how we create local climate regulation. Just like with the many trees we will plant, which act like natural air conditioners. No engineer could have thought up anything smarter: In the hot summer, their leaves provide shade and evaporative coolness; from autumn to spring, they let the sun’s warming rays through. So simple and yet so ingenious! Healthy, large-leaved deciduous trees are the city’s most important contribution to local climate regulation.

More than 5,000 flats are to be built in the Schumacher Quarter, and timber construction will play a decisive role. Why?

For one thing, wood is simply a wonderful material, with a very special visual and tactile aesthetic. It creates a healthy indoor climate and is a good temperature regulator, protecting against overheating in summer and keeping the warm heating air inside in winter. Wood permanently binds carbon dioxide and the construction of our wooden houses will also leave a comparatively small CO2 footprint: Because we mainly use regional wood from a radius of around 200 km around Berlin and therefore have very short delivery routes. And because the entire manufacturing, processing and construction process is designed to be emission-friendly. The whole thing is supported by the so-called “Bauhütte 4.0”. Based on the model of the medieval Dombauhütte, we are setting up a centre on the topic of innovative urban timber construction and want to test technologies for networked intelligent production. From research and development to production and the finished timber construction quarter, we will map everything in one place in Berlin TXL and help expand Berlin’s pioneering role in sustainable urban development.

The call for affordable housing is heard everywhere. How can we build such an ambitious, green and ultra-modern neighbourhood and still keep rents affordable?

Production costs will be below those of conventional buildings in the medium term. And if we integrate additional measures such as green roofs or active façades, we will be able to offer comparable prices at a much higher quality. Either way, the social aspect plays a major role. Half of all plots will be built on by municipal housing associations, whose rents are about 30 per cent below the market rate and who will build 50 per cent subsidised housing. The remaining land will be built on by other public interest actors. The share of subsidised housing in the entire neighbourhood will be around 40 per cent. That is balanced and responsible. In this way, we are keeping our promise to be a neighbourhood that is as ecological as it is social.

Many city dwellers treat themselves to “country life light”, for example in allotment gardens. What role can private and community gardening play in Berlin TXL?

We envisage a large-scale garden belt for urban gardening and urban farming. There are stately courtyards and, on many streets in the residential quarter, so-called appropriation zones where everyone can plant their own vegetables or design flower beds as they please. Anyone who wants to garden will definitely get their money’s worth.

It’s not only people who should enliven Berlin TXL, but also scientific institutions, start-ups and established companies. What significance do nature and environmental protection have for the settlement of companies?

This plays a decisive role in several respects. On the one hand, our focus is on urban technologies of the future. Berlin TXL will be a laboratory, test field and production site for clean energy systems and environmentally friendly mobility, for new materials, solutions for the circular economy and digital infrastructure. What they all have in common is the sustainability aspect. On the other hand, companies are becoming increasingly sensitive to environmental issues. They are being challenged more and know themselves that thinking and acting sustainably promotes their future viability. We will offer all these companies a unique advantageous environment.

Could Berlin TXL become a blueprint for sustainable after-use projects across Germany?

Not only for after-use projects and not only for Germany. It has what it takes to become an international model for nature-, people- and technology-friendly neighbourhood development.

In Asia in particular, gigantic smart cities are growing up that make Berlin TXL look tiny. What are the special features that nevertheless make people sit up and take notice internationally?

Our area is relatively small, but nevertheless everyone is looking at us. Certainly because of the inner-city location, in the middle of the capital of Europe’s largest industrial nation. Germany has an excellent reputation abroad – especially when it comes to topics such as the energy transition or sustainability and against the backdrop of strong regulations. What is being set up here sends out a signal to the outside world. And the fact that we at Tegel Projekt have had “the luxury” of thinking intensively about future issues since 2012, questioning and re-evaluating plans, exchanging ideas with the brightest minds, learning from others, in order to finally plan our own vision of the city of tomorrow – this is also a special feature that brings us positive international attention.

Who was actually the mastermind behind Berlin TXL, who put this stamp on the project?

Success has many mothers and fathers, in this case starting in 2008 with Urban Development Senator Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, who launched a large-scale participation process for the subsequent use of the airport site at an early stage. The essential decision was then made by the Senate in 2011, when it was decided to dedicate the airport site to future technologies in its after-use, with a special focus on urban technologies. This was and is a happy combination of people who pursue the same goals, who work for higher goals with enthusiasm and great integrity, in whom there is a bit of “do-gooder” in everyone. Be it in our team at Tegel Projekt GmbH or in the many people who have participated in the planning over the past years, or in politics, which not only let us have our way, but also saw the project itself as a real opportunity, challenged us and encouraged us to think consistently in a new way. Without this broad political backing, we would not have been able to plan such a courageous project.

Many people associate the departure from Tegel Airport with a great loss. What do you gain anew?

When it opened, the airport was a promise of the future. It showed the power of sustainable planning, and the intelligence of its infrastructure was unique. Yes, I can understand that saying goodbye to it hurts. But the story is not over. Rather, we are turning over a new leaf and once again making a promise for the future, full of confidence for a better city. This farewell is the beginning of an exciting transformation into something good. This is the alternative answer to “business as usual”.

Berlin sees itself as one of the greenest metropolises. Will the city look very different in 2050?

When I look out of my window in 30 years, it will only be at second glance. Most of the houses will still be where they are today. In Europe, cities change at a rate of about one to two percent per year. But if I look a little closer, I see that the city is organised differently: there will no longer be combustion engines, but autonomous electric mobility, which requires a different distribution of road space. And in many places we will see CO2-binding materials made from renewable raw materials, some of which we don’t even have in mind yet. Above all, however, public space will have changed and become much more nature- and people-oriented. We are in a time of ecological and digital transformation. Changes and innovations are coming faster and faster. Those who don’t like that should enjoy today, by the way, because the world will never be as slow as it is now.

Thank you for the interview!

* The sponge city principle is a way of counteracting the effects of heavy rainfall events by capturing, storing and recycling all precipitation rather than letting it run off on the surface.

** Animal-Aided Design is a planning approach that incorporates the needs of urban-dwelling animals into urban, landscape and open space planning. The concept aims to permanently settle wild birds, reptiles or mammals in urban open spaces and to improve the quality of life for people through new forms of experiencing nature in their immediate living environment.


September 30, 2020

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