Surrogate Nature or Wilderness? Social Perceptions and Notions of Nature in an Urban Context

Dieter Rink

in cooperation with Rico Emmrich

Department of Economy, Sociology and Law, UFZ Centre for Environ­mental Research Leipzig-Halle

Beautifully wild? A discussion of a wilderness in the city

“Wilderness” has become a catchword in the current debate on urban de­velopment. Recently the subject has been discovered by urban planners in connection with urban restructuring in eastern Germany. As it seems unlikely that many of the sites are to be redeveloped even in the longer term, there is a need for other uses. In addition to lawns, new parks and gardens, the idea of an urban wilderness on one’s doorstep as an area for experiencing nature has come under discussion. This would enhance the areas concerned as well as being cost-effective. Is urban wilderness, there­fore, a smart and inexpensive planning idea?

Conservationists have also taken hold of the subject of “wilderness in the city” (see Hard and Kruckemeyer 1993; Erdmann 2002; Wachter 2003). The wild side of nature is to be brought closer to the city dweller. Educational packages especially for children and young people are aimed at developing and strengthening attachments to nature and environmental awareness (see Nymphius and Trust 2001). In addition, “urban wilderness” is linked to the hope that people will eventually be persuaded against tak­ing long journeys to experience nature and wilderness. Urban wilderness appears to extend opportunities for nature conservation into the urban en­vironment and to establish links, for example, with teaching and discus­sions of sustainability. Can the wilderness concept increase the acceptance of nature conservation in the urban environment?

The term “wilderness” has had an incredible public impact in recent years, from about the middle of the 1990s. Because environmental prob­lems were at the centre of public discussion in the 1970s and 1980s, the

Kowarik I, Korner S (eds) Wild Urban Woodlands.

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2005, pp 67-80

terms nature and wilderness shifted more strongly into the centre. While “environment”, with all its associated problems, has negative connotations (dirt, pollution, destruction), “nature” and especially “wilderness” are pre­sented as unpolluted terms with positive connotations or are perceived as such in the public awareness (Kuckartz 2002).

Especially in the context of the city, however, a few questions arise: Does the term “wilderness” work in the city—is it seen here as something positive? As the environment becomes overgrown, will it be seen as an en­hancement or as a sign of decline and decay? Is urban wilderness attrac­tive? And finally, will it be regarded as nature that is worth protecting?

When ideas of usefulness and protection are more closely investigated, it becomes clear that not only should “the” urban nature be differentiated, but the city’s inhabitants should be as well. Who particularly values urban nature and why? What models/images of urban nature exist among various social groups and how are they connected to rights of use and protection? And do these ideas, wishes and acquired perceptions relate to nature con­servation in the city?

We explored these questions of the perception and valuation of urban wilderness in focus-group discussions in a research project at the UFZ.