Landscaping the Death Strip: A Vision of the Berlin Wall as a Giant Garden

By Cathrin Schaer in Berlin

While the Wall stood, the zone between East and West Berlin was a potentially deadly space. But since the end of the Cold War, it has mostly stood barren. Now a Dutch landscape architect wants to transform the former no man's land into a series of secret gardens and recreational areas.

Twenty years ago, those innocent-looking strips of sand and gravel on the former border of East and West Germany had a far more sinister purpose. They would be smoothed out regularly so that it was easy for border guards to see the footprints of any citizens trying to flee from east to west. Now a Dutch landscape architect hopes to see those sands shifting again -- but for different reasons altogether.

Joyce van den Berg is the curator of an exhibition, "New Light on No Man's Land," opening at the German Center for Architecture (DAZ) in Berlin, in early July, which looks at what can be done with the remains of the former border strip surrounding West Berlin.

The "death strip" or No Man's Land was the ground between the two Germanys. In the inner city the border consisted of an actual concrete wall, the one most commonly recognized as the Berlin Wall, but around the outer edges of the city the border was marked mainly by fences, watch towers and an empty strip of "No Man's Land." There are around 155 kilometers (96 miles) of the former border strip measuring between 20 meters and 2.5 kilometers in diameter. Van den Berg has researched exactly where it used to be and how big it was. Much of it is unused, a lot is uncared for and, as DAZ writes on its Web site, these form "a unique landscape with huge potential."

Van den Berg, who first became interested in the former border areas when she studied in Berlin 10 years ago, would like to see the death strips -- which she calls "landscapes of trauma" -- turned into recreational areas. The landscape architect who has worked on similar urban projects in Utrecht and Amsterdam in places like a former military airport. She feels she benefitted from having an outsider's perspective during the project, and says her goal is to respect the history of the areas and preserve any remnants of the former border area while generally beautifying the land, replanting and landscaping, as well as facilitating additional opportunities for such pastimes as cycling, walking and other sports.

Her plan would see the barren strips of sand moved at regular intervals in order to encourage new plant life to take root as well as the ongoing formation of the "mega-dunes" that are already evolving naturally in the German woods.

Van den Berg, who carefully researched exactly where the former border used to be, also has some ideas for the man-made remnants at the former border. At one stage there were 302 watch towers on the border; today only five still exist. Van den Berg would like to see the five remaining towers, and any others that can be resurrected, turned into small, secret gardens. Unusual plants could be nurtured inside, protected from the wind and elements and onlookers wouldn't even realize the watch towers were there until they came closer, she says.

Van den Berg also has a cunning scheme to mark the hidden escape tunnels that once led from east to west. These are considered some of the meaningful remnants of the former border area because if the tunnels, constructed at great risk to the tunnellers, were discovered it would often mean a shift in the border on the East German side, sometimes even the demolition of entire buildings or blocks. To mark where the tunnels were, van den Berg suggest beams of light be shone from the West toward the East, commemorating both the tunnels and all those who tried to use them.

The exhibition, which begins on July 10 and runs until the end of August in central Berlin, will give visitors an overview of van den Berg's suggestions. Visitors will also be able to sign up for two bicycle tours, one of which will be led by van den Berg herself, along the cycle trail that already exists on Berlin's former East-West border. "There are a lot of bad memories bound up in this former border area," says the DAZ press release about the exhibition. "(Van den Berg's) concept stands for positive changes."

In fact, the only problem that van den Berg can foresee with her landscaping plan is the issue of private ownership: although most of the former border strip still belongs to the German state, some pieces have already been sold to private individuals. To solve this, van den Berg thinks Berlin could take a cue from the Dutch. In the Netherlands, owners of historically significant sites often become members of a foundation formed to preserve the areas.

At the moment though, it's all just theory. As positive as van den Berg's ideas sound, there are no firm plans to do anything like this with the former border strips yet. "I would really just like to start off the debate and get people thinking about how to go about making changes," van den Berg explains. "I'd like to open people's eyes, I think they could be pleasantly surprised. And I think it's very important not just for Berlin and Brandenburg but for all of Europe because it is part of our history."

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