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Tegel Airport urbanization project an example for the world

John Marshall
June 25, 2021

Finally, the digging and construction have begun at Berlin's iconic airport. After 12 years of delays, one of Europe's biggest urbanization projects is underway with the goal of setting an example for the world.

A picture showing redevelopment plans for the Tegel Airport Terminal B building, including walkways and trees
Tegel's iconic terminal building will remain as a landmark for the new projectImage: Tegel-Project GMBH

Not often are 570 acres (230 hectares) made available in one of Europe's biggest and fastest growing cities, where housing is rare and rents are high. That is what happened on May 5, when Berlin's stubborn Tegel Airport officially gave way to the Tegel Project, one of the largest urbanization projects in Europe.

Located in Berlin's northwest and opened in 1974, Tegel Airport went well past its expiration date. Seen as far too small, the airport was only designed to handle about 2.5 million passengers a year. A  year before the airport was replaced by the newly constructed Berlin-Brandenburg Airport in 2020, Tegel saw a record breaking 24.2 million passengers, according to the airport's press office.

An aerial view of Tegel Airport
Tegel's hexagonal terminal complex was unique, allowing for short walking distancesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Schöning

A much-needed project for growing Berlin

Berlin's positive startup trend has continued in spite of the pandemic-ridden 2020, with the city coming in third in an international ranking, behind London and Paris. Four of the five largest startup investments in Germany have gone to companies in Berlin, according to the Start-up Barometer from EY consultancy. 

The influx of money and people into Germany's capital has triggered a housing crisis. The German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) says the city is short 310,000 living spaces. With the lack of housing, rents in Berlin have doubled between 2009 and 2019, according to the real-estate company Immo-Welt.

The Tegel Project aims to develop the property into a bustling hub of diversity focused on business, industry, and science. At the same time, it will provide much-needed housing for students and those working in the newly developed city sector.

Investors, as of now, have poured $9.5 billion (€8 billion) into the project. CEO Phillip Bouteiller has been the one tasked out to put the investors money to use.

DW MiG | Philipp Bouteiller, Tegel Project
CEO of the Tegel Project, Phillip BouteillerImage: DW

"I have always had a fascination with both Tempelhof and Tegel [airports]," Bouteiller told DW in a phone interview. Someone who wants to tackle a project like Tegel "needs to be innovative, know how networks work, and requires stamina."

Bouteiller's stamina has already been put to the test. The Tegel Project had been put on hold for over 12 years, falling victim to the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport fiasco. Berlin-Brandenburg planned to open in June 2012, but only after 120,000 defects were resolved did the airport finally become operational in October 2020.

Will Tegel suffer the same fate?

Projects like Berlin-Brandenburg and Stuttgart 21 — a railway project that has ballooned in price and will finish years after its due date — have put German efficiency into question.

The Tegel Project is certainly ambitious. It aims to provide 5,000 new homes accommodating 10,000 people, space for 1,000 large and small businesses, a new campus for Berlin's Beuth University for Applied Sciences and an array of other projects.

A rendering of the Tegel Project's plans bird's-eye view
A rendering of the Tegel Project, which consists of an industry park and the residential Schumacher QuartierImage: Tegel-Project GMBH

The first residential buildings are to be finished by 2026, but the project in its entirety has a lifespan of 20 years. Yet, not even one month into the construction has Bouteiller and his team run into their first bureaucratic obstacle: Berlin's water protection laws.

"We've been dealing with this water issue since the beginning," Bouteiller said, his upbeat voice wavering when asked about the issue.

The costs of adhering to the recently updated water protections laws would be in the double-digit millions, Tegel Project spokesperson Constanze Döll stated, adding that she was sure unforeseeable issues could arise in the future.  

Eat your own dog food

Though Bouteiller's stamina has already been tested, his innovation can now really begin to flourish.

The project in and of itself is a learning process that allows for experimentation, like figuring out what can be repurposed, what new materials can be used and how to work with nature, not against it,  Bouteiller said: "The goal is to eat your own dog food."

Bouteiller, who has a PhD in international management and social psychology from the London School of Economics, said he wanted people to see the bigger picture. He's looking "globally for any ideas that can be effectively implemented at Tegel." 

The residential district of the project, the Schumacher Quarter, will be constructed primarily using wood. "It will be the largest residential district constructed of wood in the world," said Bouteiller.

A Tegel Project birds-eye view of the Schumacher Quarter
The Schumacher Quarter is set to be a model for urban timber construction with at least 50% made of woodImage: Tegel-Project GMBH

Using and experimenting with materials such as wood is a result of the project's overarching theme: to show that an urban project of this scale can present a business model that works and is sustainable. Trying to prove that a scalable production process that involves an integrated value chain of timber cultivation, processing, construction and maintenance is possible. 

The Urban Tech Republic — the self-described research and development sector of the project — will repurpose much of the airport's original structure and will include a new campus for Beuth University. It puts an emphasis on net-zero energy systems and efficient use of energy.

"We want to demonstrate how an urbanization project like this can work with nature. If we can't do that we don't have a chance," Bouteiller said.

Icon of Architecture: Berlin's Tegel Airport