An urban green paradise

Berlin (Germany)

From our correspondent

The partly wild bubble of greenery in the Südgelände Nature Park is unique. It stretches all the way over 18 hectares, between two aerial metro lines, in the district of Schöneberg, in the south-west of Berlin. Much less known than the very central Tiergarten, the place never ceases to surprise visitors who discover it. “Do you believe it? It was a marshalling yard here! Look at this nature! », throws us an enthusiastic walker.

An almost wild space in the heart of the German capital? Berlin, a city under high land pressure and with more than 4 million inhabitants, is no longer a surprise. In this sense, Südgelände could not be more Berlin! Imagine an old marshalling yard, shut down in the early 1950s, when the city was divided between the Allies, surrounded by fences and left abandoned for thirty years without anyone or almost anyone being able to enter it .

What did nature do? “She regained her rights”, observes, with a certain pride, Ingo Kowarik. This 67-year-old Berliner is one of those who know this green paradise best. A specialist in ecosystem science, which he taught until his retirement last year from the famous department of ecology at the Technical University of Berlin (TU), Ingo Kowarik participated in the process site backup. Still a student, he was among the first to enter. “We went under the barbed wire because the site was off-limits, he remembers, it was terra incognita in this great city of Berlin. »

At the time, in the late 1970s, Berlin was a divided city, crossed by a long wall. To the west, the enclave belonging to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). In the east, the communist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Although located in the western part, Südgelände is managed by the GDR’s railway company, the Reichsbahn. A complex situation which explains the progressive abandonment of the place. The last train left in 1952.

“The Berlin division was no fun, remembers Ingo Kowarik. But the presence of many spaces destroyed during the Second World War or abandoned during the division marked the development of the city. Without this complex history, Südgelände would not be what it is today. In 1980, a third of the site was covered in forest. In 1990, the forest occupied two thirds! », he rejoices, guiding us to the scene.

“Pioneer species such as birch and locust, already present in the city, now rub shoulders with more exotic species. Nature is no longer what it was before. » At the exit of a wooded area, Ingo Kowarik is surprised to discover an unexpected mixture: “Look at how the species intermingle, between these birches, a local species, this acacia and this yew. And this purple beech, totally unexpected here, just like this maple, typical of southern Germany! »

The site that visitors are discovering today has however changed a lot compared to what Ingo Kowarik discovered at the end of the 1970s. Its wild aspect is not felt from the entrance of the place, where walkers see the remains of the railway site. Here rails overgrown with grass, sometimes swallowed by roots. There, a huge shed. Elsewhere, a locomotive and a few carts used to transport coal or an old red water tower. Without forgetting metal sculptures, works of the Berlin collective Odious, like this tunnel in which walkers enter. Access to the most sensitive spaces and sources of high biodiversity is prohibited but can be crossed using metal footbridges.

But today’s Südgelände almost didn’t exist. The municipality had planned to reactivate the marshalling yard. In October 1980, two weeks before the trees were cut there, Rita Mohrmann, 69, at the time having just graduated from the TU in Berlin, discovered this wild space. “I remember that day very well. she is still moved forty years later. The light was a little red, the foliage the color of autumn. This silence, in the heart of Berlin, was fascinating. With my comrades, we said to ourselves that it was impossible to see this nature disappear. We created a citizens’ initiative that succeeded in a very short time in stopping the felling of trees. This first step was much faster than we expected. »

However, the path to keeping the site in good condition will be more tedious, between the recurring projects to bring a station back into service or build a motorway. It was not until 1989 that the municipality of West Berlin made Südgelände one of the anchor points for a major nature exhibition. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 reshuffled the cards: West Berlin was no longer an island lost in the GDR but was part of a whole, which had to rethink its development.

In March 1990, the municipality decided to make the site a protected natural area. “The luck of this site is that it was not perceived as being able to have a great real estate value. Otherwise, the fight would have been even more difficult,” recognizes Ingo Kowarik. Yet for years there have been heated discussions about how to keep the place. “Within the citizens’ initiative, some pleaded to leave everything as a natural reserve. But very quickly, we understood that it was impossible to convince the politicians. We have therefore campaigned for nature, a source of rest and surprises for the inhabitants”, reports Rita Mohrmann.

After long discussions, important decisions are made, spurred on by pioneering ideas from the Department of Ecology at the Technical University. “Nature seems untouched, untouched by man, but that is not the case. This natural park is based on three pillars: forest areas without any human intervention, except in the event of danger for humans. This dense forest is a bit scary to visitors, and biodiversity is low. There are also more open spaces where trees have been cut down to let in light. Finally, there are meadows, maintained by the passage of sheep which graze there twice a year. This is where the biodiversity is the strongest,” details Ingo Kowarik. In the heart of the capital, Südgelände is thus a sanctuary for many endangered species, in particular for around thirty species of nesting birds and 95 species of wild bees.

Twenty-three years after its official opening to the public, this unique site welcomes 100,000 visitors a year and retains a major influence for supporters of urban ecology. “Südgelände is a source of hope, because it confirms that it is possible for nature to take back its rights on a site where there was nothing left, notes Ingo Kowarik. This experience can be transposed to other sites, whether industrial, as in the Ruhr, military or railway. » Professionals from German and European cities come to visit this pioneering site, in search of solutions to create urban forests, made essential by global warming.

Sign of its remarkable character, the park received last May the international Carlo-Scarpa prize, which rewards exceptional places in terms of landscape architecture and emphasizes the balance between protection and renewal.


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