It could be a vision straight from a post apocalyptic sci-fi movie; a real-life “Planet of the Apes”. Trees and dense shrub vegetation encroach over former railway tracks, sidings and marshalling yards. Abandoned steam locomotives, rusting water towers and mysterious structures loom out of the undergrowth. All is silent and still, save for the occasional muffled sound of an ICE or S-Bahn train passing somewhere off in the distance.
This is Südgeländ in Berlin, which I was lucky enough to visit as part of the recent Society for Urban Ecology (SURE) World Conference, held in the City . Südgeländ is an area trapped in time through an administrative quirk during the cold war division of the City between East and West. Following the handover of rail services to DDR administration in 1952, many cross city routes between East and West were abruptly closed down leading to large tracts of railway infrastructure being effectively mothballed. Areas were simply abandoned and left to go back to nature, with all the infrastructure simply left in place to rust and rot away.
Following the reunification of Germany in 1989, a decision was made to turn the Südgeländ into an area of public space for the benefit of the citizens of Berlin. The result is quite incredible; native species such as birch and beech joust for supremacy with introduced American Black Locust (false acacia) trees without intervention from ecologists or City Park Managers. The result is a fascinating illustration as to how forest communities and natural succession develops on disturbed sites. In some areas, unusual and unique species have colonised open grassland. These areas are maintained through grazing by (imported) sheep; one of the few concessions made to the otherwise non-interventionist approaches.
The organic chaos of Südgeländ is complimented by an assortment of surreal outdoor art structures, oddly reminiscent of a Pink Floyd album cover. In other areas graffiti artists have run riot on former pieces of railway infrastructure, tunnels, embankments and bridges; even trees have not escaped the attentions of the aerosol spray brigade, resulting in some surreal effects.
The approach at Südgeländ reflects a wider trend in Germany to simply leave former industrial infrastructure in tact to gently decay into nature. In other parts of the country such as the Ruhr and Saarland, former steel plants have been turned into massive outdoor art exhibitions or even into outdoor swimming baths, whilst the trees and natural vegetation slowly encroach to form the so-called “Industriewald”. Futuristic lighting installations help to accentuate the “Floyd” album effect.
Elsewhere in Berlin the former Tempelhof Airport, has been opened up to form a large area of open space within the City. At weekends young families, picnickers, joggers and kite-flyers stroll happily and haphazardly across the empty runways against the backdrop of the austere terminal buildings (a product of the Third Reich); perhaps looking up only occasionally should the pilot of an Airbus or 737 forget that the airport has been decommissioned.
On a hot summers day, I enjoyed my visit to Südgeländ and found a green oasis hidden away from the heat and chaos of the City. However on a dark winter evening, I think I would definitely be glancing nervously over my shoulder, scanning the terrain for hostile zombies emerging from the post apocalyptic jungle…
For more information on global urban ecology issues see; http://www.society-urban-ecology.org/