Vol. 33 No. 2 (2018)
By Bettina Stoetzer
Engaging with a series of human–plant encounters in Berlin, this article explores possibilities for rethinking the heterogeneity of urban life in the ruins of European nationalism and capitalism. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and revisiting Berlin’s postwar history of botanical research, I develop the concept of the ruderal and expand it for an anthropological inquiry of urban life. The term ruderal was originally used by Berlin ecologists after the Second World War to refer to ecologies that spontaneously inhabit disturbed environments: the spaces alongside train tracks or roads, wastelands, or rubble. Exploring Berlin as a ruderal city, I direct attention to the often unnoticed, cosmopolitan, and unruly ways of remaking the urban fabric at a time of increased nationalism and ecological destruction. Tracing human–plant socialities in encounters between scientists and rubble plants, in public culture, and among immigrants and their makeshift urban gardens, the lens of the ruderal directs ethnographic analysis toward the city’s unintended ecologies as these are produced in the context of nation-making, war, xenophobia, migration, environmental change, and contemporary austerity policies. Attending to ruderal worlds, I argue, requires telling stories that do not easily add up but that combine environmental perspectives with the study of migration, race, and social inequality—in the interest of mapping out possibilities for change. This framework thus expands a recent anthropological focus on ruins, infrastructure, and urban landscapes by highlighting questions of social justice that are at stake in emerging urban ecologies and an era of inhospitable environments.
ruins; cities; urban ecology; plants; infrastructure; landscape; migration; nationalism; race; Europe; Germany