Wilderness in the city

A special and contentious form of urban nature is represented by so-called spontaneous or ruderal vegetation, as can be found in abandoned areas, for example. There have been urban abandoned areas and spontaneous vegeta­tion, in principle, ever since there have been cities, briefly as an interval between two uses. They have existed more extensively and longer since World War II or de-industrialisation processes. More recently they have also arisen in the course of demolition and rebuilding during urban rede­velopment. Although their value was discovered in connection with the environmental debate in the 1970s, these areas were not stylised as “(ur­ban) wilderness” until the last few years.

The “Wilderness in Germany” and “Wilderness in Berlin” campaigns of the German conservation association BUND have become especially fa­miliar. Here “wilderness” is defined as “leaving nature alone, not planning, not interfering in a controlling fashion, but allowing to develop”. Wilder­ness is a process that requires space and time. The reasons given for its be­ing necessary are eco-centric: “We need wilderness as nature’s experimen­tal area for the coming and going of species”. Evolution as the basis of all life requires freedom (see: http://www. wildnis-in-berlin. de/wildnis. html). At the same time however at least a reference to the social benefits is at­tempted. “For a high quality of life it (is) important to have… a juxtaposi­tion of urban and cultivated landscape and free natural development.”

Meanwhile, however, the hope shone through that the “wilderness at the doorstep” would persuade people to refrain from going on “long journeys to experience nature and wilderness” (ibid.). With urban wilderness, the at­tempt was initially made to develop a semantic competition with genuine wilderness—with the jungle and the primeval forests. Urban wilderness was to symbolise the antithesis of the cultivated landscape or the landscape subject to extensive commercial use as well as to serve as the opposite of a sterile green space.

In the group discussions, people were explicitly asked about their as­sessment of spontaneous manifestations of nature in the city. This was based on the hypothesis that the majority of those questioned tended to view these urban forms of nature either sceptically or negatively. What ideas those questioned have of wilderness and whether they could connect these ideas with a “wilderness in the city” was another topic of discussion.

Fallow and ruderal vegetation was not mentioned spontaneously in an­swer to the question of what urban nature is, but was only included hesitat­ingly after further enquiry. It was not necessarily ascribed to urban nature, because it is not structured and cared for and serves no purpose, and be­cause it cannot be used. It is predominantly felt to be wild with weeds. It is associated with dirt and rubbish as well as danger; it is linked with fear and reference is made to the risk of injury. This nature is only seen as being of value for children—as locations for adventure playgrounds. This kind of urban nature is not felt to be wilderness, on enquiry this idea was firmly re­jected. Wilderness is another nature, not to be found in the city.

“Well, wilderness for me I think is where there’s no trace of a city or a village or anything created by human beings for mile after mile. So I don’t think I could find any wilderness in the Auwald, because the noises that you hear still tell you that you’re in the middle of the city.”

The group of young people (15 girls and boys from an 8th grade class) nevertheless made a more positive assessment of fallow nature than all the other groups. They said they spent a lot of time there and liked to play there.

To record the perceptions and notions that the interviewees had with re­gard to fallow nature, they were shown two pictures of places that had run wild. The responses revealed a variety of judgments: people find sponta­neous forms of vegetation quite good if everything is overgrown from lack of use and nature has reconquered a piece of land. This is judged as being completely “aesthetic”, but is at the same time associated with certain res­ervations. Firstly these abandoned areas or places of spontaneous nature must not be combined with dirt, rubbish and mess.

“What I actually find OK are old industrial sites, when they’re not used and gradually get overgrown I don’t think that’s at all bad and they may even look quite nice. What I don’t like is when you get piles of rubbish building up, like lit­tle waste dumps.”

Secondly, one must also be able to use these areas. Minimal structure should be provided.

“The problem, I think, would be like in the park if you let it get overgrown, I don’t know if it’s still usable… You get the stinging nettles first, then the thistles. And if a park’s just a lot of stinging nettles and thistles I don’t think anybody’s go­ing to use it any more.”

Thirdly the context of the fallow nature is crucial. Can one see any in­tention behind it? Is it embedded in a nature conservation strategy, for ex­ample? Does it produce any other interpretations and assessments? If peo­ple perceive these fallow areas or places of spontaneous nature as something consciously intended and known to have been left alone, they will accept them more readily. Other associations will then arise: the im­age will not be dominated by the interruption of use or the lack of mainte­nance.

“I just don’t believe that it’s been left like that intentionally. There simply isn’t enough money for it.”

“And if it is undefined, it will soon become a tip and an eyesore, but actually it’s only growing.” Rubbish will collect at these places, “because many people think, they’re not doing anything, we can dump what we like.”

In fact, people can realise that somebody has taken pains about a place, that there is an idea behind it, that it was intended and planned and struc­tured in line with this idea.

“If, for example, here at… Square everything was allowed to grow as it wanted, I think that would get to be a problem. Everybody would feel ‘That’s really not on’. Because it is supposed to be a park and people have a certain idea in their heads as to what a park should look like, and the image doesn’t match and then some weeds or other took over and nobody bothered, then we’d all whinge about it. Although people might say they would like it if this piece of land went back to nature, there it’s not intended and that’s why I don’t think it’s okay.”

This gives rise to a possible communication strategy for coping with abandoned areas and land with spontaneous nature, which the participants also spelt out:

“Well, with a park, [spontaneous vegetation] would only be accepted if there was a heavily publicised project with the press and all this park-going-back-to- nature stuff, then everybody would suddenly find it really cool.”

“I think that the definition is quite important, that people want to know what it’s all about. If someplace other simply grows and it’s something indefinable, what can you use it for? People always want a use, so that you can define it as a park so the children can play there or as an adventure playground.”

The results of the group discussions not only suggest that we should dif­ferentiate between different kinds of urban nature, but also between differ­ent forms of fallow nature and spontaneous nature. The size, usefulness, aesthetics and the location are possible criteria by which one might order and analyse various forms of spontaneous vegetation in the city. This could also be a basis for communication. Such a reassignment of fallow nature as wilderness, wild greenery or urban wilderness certainly involves complex and, in particular, long-term processes, which do not follow any simple chain of cause and effect. This should be borne in mind when one considers the feasibility and effects of such public awareness campaigns.

Updated: October 4, 2015 — 4:53 pm