Lovely and wild?

The demands placed on urban nature – as was made clear by the question­ing – are different from those placed on nature outside of the city. Urban nature is its own form of nature, which cannot compete with “nature out­side”. It makes its own demands and is placed in an urban context. Its spe­cial character for people is derived from the large and growing variety of its forms and the resultant variety of individual and group-specific uses. On the other hand, most city-dwellers are hardly aware of the species di­versity of urban nature and this idea is barely significant as far as use is concerned.

It must be emphasised that ideas have become established as to what ur­ban nature (such as in the garden, the park or a green space) should look like. This relates both to the form it takes (in Germany perhaps the English tradition of romantic parks and gardens), and their maintenance (closely cut lawns in green spaces). The fact that the attractiveness of an urban form of nature cannot be exclusively derived from its naturalness or artifi­ciality has been demonstrated. Other possible determining factors, which influence the perceived attractiveness of urban natural forms, might be the size and extent of the natural form, the context (in the sense of neighbour­hood, localities and anything else that contributes to the definition) and usefulness. It is still somewhat unclear what the determining factors of an attractive urban natural form are. We would have to investigate further to determine to what extent the specific lifestyles of those using these spaces affect the combination of determining factors referred to.

Nature conservation in the city does not meet with total rejection in the urban population; indeed it can rely on a broad general acceptance. It will mainly be more difficult in individual instances, where there are conflicts of interest in terms of use. In the city, nature conservation has even greater difficulty in claiming a special value than “outside”. The reference point for evaluating whether urban nature is worth protecting is not its ecological function but its particular structure, its symbolic function, its use or bene­fits and its relevance for human health and well-being. A process of protection in the city runs up not only against ideas of order, cleanliness and maintenance but also against pronounced ideas and images of what nature in the city should look like. Last but not least, nature in the city must not disturb the city dwellers, it must not smell, nor must it be a refuge for tiresome insects. It should please stay put and do what was planned for it! It takes a long time for such ideas and images to change radically, and they are much less susceptible to ecological arguments than they are to genuinely aesthetic ones.

In this study, a close correlation became clear between the structure of urban nature and ideas about what is worth protecting. Clearly it is the im­ages of parks and gardens that have been handed down for generations, which characterise patterns of perception and evaluation and which wil­derness in the city fails to match. The “wilderness” concept does not there­fore appear very suitable for promoting new design options and communi­cating ideas about nature conservation in the city. This will be obvious in attempts to stylise small fallow areas, path and road boundaries and little wooded areas as city wilderness. There is likely to be a greater risk of the city planners and nature conservationists making themselves ridiculous than of increasing acceptance of the new greenery. To stylise spontaneous urban nature as a wilderness doesn’t work because wilderness is linked with quite different associations. If attempts are made by nature – conservation campaigns to relate these areas to forms of urban nature, the effect may be counter-productive because the deficient character of urban nature will be even more strongly emphasised as a result.

It became clear in the discussions that one must also be able to use the “wilderness”; the use must be promoted by some sort of structure, however minimal. Shutting out people completely, as is partly envisaged in the minds of nature conservationists, met with expressions of more-or-less to­tal rejection. The “wilderness” should show evidence of a clear intention, such as incorporation within a structural or nature-conservation concept. Communicating this is crucial for (increasing) acceptance. Otherwise, these areas become associated with constraints or prohibitions on use. Both would be assigned to the local authority, which is seen as having responsi­bility, because even “urban wilderness” is seen as local-authority nature (see above).

The most important conclusion from the findings was the following: Terms such as “urban wilderness” or “wilderness in the city” should be avoided both from an urban planning and a nature-conservation perspec­tive. If they are used, they should be linked to clear definitions and con­crete objectives. It is a false illusion to believe that one can fence off na­ture in the city and leave it to become gradually wild or simply enable it to become overgrown as an urban development policy. The nice idea of leav­ing nature to itself ignores the problem of shrinking cities. Overgrown ar­eas in an environment of emptiness, decay and deconstruction or demoli­tion are not seen as increasing attractiveness. In fact they intensify the already existing impression of dilapidation. Familiar elements from the traditions of parks and gardens should be utilised in the structuring of open spaces in this environment. Also, communication about the new greenery should be linked to motifs that have been handed down and are positive.

A communication strategy for urban nature conservation in general and for fallow nature or “wilderness” in particular could or should therefore be linked to aesthetic motifs and not to ecological arguments. The wilderness concept should not evoke any associations and claims that cannot be satis­fied. It must also be made clear that the wilderness concept becomes even more enigmatic in an urban context than it actually is. Fallow nature would therefore be put in semantic competition with other natures where it can only be expected to come off worse.


This paper was written as part of the joint project “Urban nature – descrip­tions of requirements, strategies and action for the management of nature in urban landscapes” which was coordinated by the Department of Urban Landscapes at the UFZ. The author would like to thank Monika Wachter, Anke Jentsch and Axel Philipps for their suggestions, criticisms and com­ments.

Updated: October 4, 2015 — 9:06 pm