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Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

My secret garden

September 23, 2011

Berlin's Südgelände Nature Park is off the beaten track, hidden in the suburb of Schöneberg. It's a secret garden for sheep, graffiti artists and joggers like DW's Leah McDonnell, who wants to keep it for herself.


Schöneberg has been my 'hood of choice for years and I've jogged in the local Volkspark countless times - dodging prams, dog's business, and speeding cyclists.

But despite my fetish for funky, urban green spaces, Schöneberg's most remarkable green haven managed to escape my attention until just recently.

It is just a stone's throw from the Volkspark, but I was oblivious to the bizarre hybrid of enchanted forest, national heritage site, public experiment and nature preserve that is the Südgelände Nature Park.

In the 1900s, the site was a bustling railway switchyard and in use until World War II. At the end of the war, it became a gaping, geographical war wound on the urban landscape.

The grounds lay forgotten and ignored by city officials for about 50 years, but not by nature.

Today, a diverse, species-rich, natural oasis of grasslands and jungle-like woodlands have risen from the past - on and among the old train tracks, and switchyard structures.

Down the Rabbit's Hole

Sheep at the Südgelände Nature Park, Berlin
A city haven for joggers and sheepImage: Leah McDonnell

It was brought to life by Berliners 11 years ago.

They used the resilient natural elements and man-made materials left over from history to cook up an Alice in Wonderland realm of invention and surprise.

At the park's entrance, there is a small green patch which branches out onto various trails. One leads under a massive archway and another leads through wild, grassland and comes complete with a roaming flock of sheep. Yet another trail leads through thickets of low-lying bush and a fourth trail is covered by a canopy of green that is so thick only the occasional ray of sun cuts through the leaves to hit the dirt below.

On my first visit, I chose the forest trail.

As pebbles and acorns crunched underfoot, I was captivated by the scenery that was unfolding before me. Trees and bushes seemed perfectly random, dotted about the unused tracks. Small openings in the forest revealed flowers and mushroom-shaped trees. I passed a group of serious nature connoisseurs, who were absorbed in a guided tour of Berlin's birds, flora and fauna.

Expect the unexpected

Further on, I came to an open tunnel. It was dark and felt sinister. I considered turning around. But I figured if could handle the backstreets of Brooklyn when I was growing up, I could certainly handle this.

Up ahead I made out the voices of some young men. I continued and realized that the only harm ahead was from the toxic, spray paint fumes that were swirling in the air.

I had found the Spray Park.

Graffiti art at the Südgelände Nature Park, Berlin
The spray park is strictly for 'professionals' onlyImage: Leah McDonnell

It's the one, designated area where people are allowed to paint public property - and it attracts spray and street artists from far and wide.

Equipped with huge coffers of spray cans, ghetto blasters, cameras, fold-up chairs, coffee cups and sandwiches, beer bottles and cigarettes, individuals and crews between the ages of 15 and 30 come to paint tags and diverse art murals. Many bring planned sketches, and buckets of base paint and rollers to create a clean canvas for their work.

Graffiti artist at the Südgelände Nature Park, Berlin
Brightening the corners of the wildImage: Leah McDonnell

I've gotten into the habit on my runs to give my favorite works-in-progress the thumbs up as I jog by. And most times a danke schön! floats back over my shoulder.

Yes, only in Berlin can joggers, intellectual nature-lovers, and graffiti artists coexist in perfect harmony.

The spray park made me curious about spraying as an art. So, one afternoon I went back with an avid art-enthusiast, the 7 year-old daughter of a friend, to find out more. Spotting an empty area on a giant tag, we began happily and awkwardly testing our spraying skills. I attempted indigo-blue and red, Keith Haring-inspired bicycles, while my mini-sized friend sprayed her name and decorated it with flowers, hearts and stars.

Graffiti artist at the Südgelände Nature Park, Berlin
It's a place for young artists to meet and competeImage: Leah McDonnell

We were feeling rather proud of our work until a really tall guy, who was creating a Michelangelo of a mural further down the wall, stopped his work and walked over to take a look at ours.

He told us very kindly and politely that we are totally out of our league. He said we had set up shop on a prime location that - within the sprayer community - was understood to be completely off-limits to beginners and amateurs. I apologized and he gave me his business card. His professional name was "Drips" and he invited us to a tagging workshop for kids.

It's an experience you could only have in Berlin.

Nothing If Not Inventive

Graffiti art at the Südgelände Nature Park, Berlin
But no place for mod-consImage: Leah McDonnell

Since reunification, the city has become quite skilled at thinking up neat, functional and innovative ways to utilize its many nooks and crannies of unused space. They serve the city's diverse demographics and its various interest groups. The Schöneberg Südgelände Nature Park is an excellent example of this in action.

But the park is too far from the center of town and off the beaten track to be in any danger of being hijacked by Berlin's trendy crowd. And it's a good thing too. There should be at least somewhere in the German capital that serves as an unofficial, no-go zone for phones, apps and other mod cons. Who needs them here anyway? The grazing sheep?

Author: Leah McDonnell
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany

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