A New Urbanism, Plucked from the Garden

An urban-scale garden exhibition in Germany became an opportunity to re-envision a riverside industrial site.

By Nate Berg 

A view of the park’s two lakes, with the city in the distance. Photo courtesy Bundesgartenschau Heilbronn.

For more than half a century, the historic center of the southwestern German city of Heilbronn looked out across the waters of the Neckar River onto 80 gray acres of railyards and warehouses. As its industrial activity shifted and concentrated, the need for such large swaths of land diminished and much of this logistics landscape lay fallow.

“For urban planners, this was like a gold mine,” says Oliver Toellner. He’s a landscape architect and urban planner, and for the past 10 years he’s been transforming this large industrial plot into a new park and urban district for 3,500 residents and 1,000 jobs.

An aerial view of the site during construction. Photo courtesy Bundesgartenschau Heilbronn.

That such a project is even possible is due to the city hosting the 2019 Bundesgartenschau, or Federal Garden Show, a biennial event launched in 1951 to showcase gardening techniques. Like a six-month-long plant-themed Olympics visited by more than one million spectators, the event is often used by host cities to instigate park and development projects. In Heilbronn, 25 miles north of Stuttgart, city leaders saw in the garden show (under way since April) an opportunity to reinvent the industrial eyesore just outside the city’s core, says Toellner, the garden show’s chief planner.

The garden show itself is a carnival of horticultural displays, themed gardens, and cultural pavilions concentrated in the new urban district. Outside the show’s main visiting area, which sits on land that will later become part of this burgeoning city district, the bulk of the former industrial site is a diverse new park that reconnects the river to the city.

Terraced waterfront open spaces with the quarter’s new development in the background. Image courtesy Bundesgartenschau Heilbronn.

“The Bundesgartenschau is a really important form of park building,” says Adi Faust, a founding partner of Berlin-based SINAI Gesellschaft von Landschaftsarchitekten, whose design for the new district won the open competition held by the city. Based on a master plan by Munich-based Steidle Architekten, SINAI’s design breaks the park into three main sections, with elements designed by more than a dozen other firms. One section focuses on the Neckar River, which had previously been hemmed in by a busy road. Now pedestrianized, the river’s banks have been augmented with marsh habitat for various bird species, and two small lakes have been carved into the sites of former harbors. They serve as drainage and irrigation for the entire park and offer both recreation and animal habitats. With increasingly chaotic wet and dry spells in Germany, Faust says “it’s good to have spaces that function like a sponge.”

Waterfront promenade along the Neckar River. Photo courtesy Bundesgartenschau Heilbronn.

The second section is the park’s western edge, which abuts rail lines and what remains of the city’s industrial area. Designed to mimic the light brown sandstone of the region, this section features a series of walls that rise to a height of nearly 30 feet to visually and aurally block the industry beyond, with playground space, wall climbing, and a looping slide interspersed. But it’s not trying to hide from reality; a walkway along the top of this vertical edge offers panoramic views of both the industry and the city opposite.

Wavy landforms temporarily fill future development space between the park’s two lakes. Photo courtesy Bundesgartenschau Heilbronn.

The center of the park is more of a recreation zone, with playgrounds, access to the two lakes, a beer garden, and a café. Within is perhaps the park’s flashiest point: a rectangular plot of wavy, grass-topped landforms seemingly laser-cut from the earth. Designed by the Kassel-based landscape architecture firm LOMA, the topography mimics the alluvial carvings of the Neckar. But this section is only temporary and will eventually house apartment blocks as the district builds out over the next decade.

It’s already coming to life. Roughly 550 people are now living in the first apartments to rise on the site. Toellner says integrating people’s daily lives with the spectacle of a garden show was an experiment, but it seems to be working. “It’s a little like a movie backdrop in an urban landscape,” he says.

For Faust, the garden show and park represent a new beginning for Heilbronn, but also a model for how other cities can reuse fading industrial land. “One of the central messages in this project is to carefully and meaningfully use inner city space,” he says. “When the show ends in October, it begins its real life.”

Nate Berg is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.

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