It doesn’t take long after a place is abandoned for nature to reclaim its land. From a mining town swallowed by the sands of a desert, to an island community willingly returned to its wild state, these 15 places demonstrate the ecological power of the earth to retake our human progress.
1. KOLMANSKOP, NAMIBIA
In the early 1900s, diamond mining made Kolmanskop in Namibia, then known as German South-West Africa, a boom town. Yet diamond mines are not forever, and eventually the industry moved to new opportunities further south, leaving Kolmanskop to be abandoned in the 1950s. The desert took back what was left (see photo above), with swells of sand now rising over and through the derelict buildings, which have otherwise experienced little deterioration due to the arid climate.
2. TA PROHM, CAMBODIA
Long tree roots twine over the 12th-century temple Ta Prohm, crawling through its doorways, slowing pulling apart its ornately carved stones. Unlike many of the other temples of Angkor in Cambodia, Ta Prohm has mostly been left to the jungle for centuries since its abandonment with the fall of the Khmer Empire. Conservation efforts [PDF] in recent years have helped prevent a total loss of the historic site, but the root systems of the silk-cotton trees and appropriately named strangler figs continue their consumption of the sacred structures.
3. WANGARATTA, AUSTRALIA
The small Australian town of Wangaratta made international headlines earlier this year when it seemed to be infested with tribbles. This fuzzy conquest, though, was no sci-fi fantasy—it was the "hairy panic.” The quick-growing grass Panicum effusum creates giant tumbleweeds during dry conditions, and Wangaratta citizens witnessed the grass surge up to the roofs of their houses, where it was more a nuisance than a threat. As resident Pam Twitchett wearily told 7 News: "It's physically draining and mentally more draining."
4. CHERNOBYL, UKRAINE
As with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, after which thousands of wild boars and other animals like lynx and elks doubled their populations in the abandoned communities, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in Pripyat, Ukraine, saw ecology quickly respond to the disaster zone. Chernobyl initially had its landscapes ravaged, earning one woodland the nickname the Red Forest for the crimson needles of dying trees. But three decades on, wolves, foxes, raccoon dogs, and other animals are populous in the exclusion zone, and although deformations due to radiation were not unusual early on, there's also been recent evidence of adaptation, like birds who produce increased levels of antioxidants needed to survive.
5. HOUTOUWAN, CHINA
From the looks of the homes completely covered with greenery, you'd think China’s Houtouwan had been abandoned for centuries. But the former fishing community on Shengshan Island has been largely uninhabited only since the 1990s. Moss and ivy drape the ghost town and its winding streets in a verdant shroud. According to the Guardian, it's now an atmospheric tourist destination, although the only thing visitors can purchase in the village are bottles of water offered by entrepreneurial returning residents.
6. VILLA EPECUÉN, ARGENTINA
Many drowned towns were intentionally destroyed for reservoirs; Villa Epecuén in Argentina was submerged through a freak incident in 1985 when heavy rainfall broke a dam, flooding the popular spa town. While there were no fatalities, many lost their homes, seemingly forever. Then in 2009, the weather shifted again, revealing dead trees and saltwater-faded ruins. One octogenarian returned to his town, and is now the only resident. His solitary life was featured in the 2013 short documentary Pablo's Villa.
7. OKUNOSHIMA, JAPAN
After a chemical weapons manufacturing site shut down following World War II, Japan’s Okunoshima island was overrun by bunnies. It’s unclear how the long-eared hordes got to the place, now nicknamed “Rabbit Island,” with some theorizing that they descended from former test subjects, and others that they were pets let loose. Whatever the case, they now number in the hundreds if not thousands, thriving in the abandoned buildings and cheerfully hopping outside the Poison Gas Museum. A popular 2014 video captured a stampede of them bouncing toward one of the many tourists drawn to the island.
8. SS AYRFIELD, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
Called the “floating forest” (although its floating days are long behind it), the SS Ayrfield in Homebush Bay west of Sydney, Australia, supports a flourishing mangrove forest on its steel hull. Built in 1911, and with a storied past that includes transporting supplies during World War II, the vessel was decommissioned in the 1970s. It remains in the Bay due to the once-local, now-defunct, ship-breaking industry. Sometime in recent decades, nature claimed its rusted body, and trees set down roots that stretch into the water.
9. MOUNT MORIAH CEMETERY, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA
Similar to many Victorian cemeteries, Mount Moriah in Philadelphia, incorporated in 1855, was designed with manicured lawns and peaceful paths around weeping angels and marble monuments. But as soon as it was abandoned, nature began to interfere with all those plans. The last member of the cemetery’s association passed away in 2004, and it officially closed in 2011 with no one to manage it. Nevertheless, a group of dedicated volunteers called the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery are working on its maintenance, honoring those thousands buried beneath the unintentional urban forest, where deer bound across paths and the overgrowth often totally hides the mausoleums and tombs.
10. PETITE CEINTURE, PARIS
The Petite Ceinture, or "little belt," is an 1852 railroad that once circled Paris, until it was made obsolete by the metro and abandoned in the 1930s. Wild flowers and other plants have since grown through the train tracks and over the stone walls. Now 70 different types of animals call the nearly 20 miles home, despite the railway relics being right in the busy city of Paris. That lack of development may not be for long, though, as bars, galleries, and events are planned for this metropolitan nature haven.
11. ROSS ISLAND, INDIA
Much like Ta Prohm in Cambodia, India’s Ross Island is being slowly eaten by trees. However, this arboreal ingestion only started in the 1940s. Following both an earthquake and a Japanese invasion, the 19th-century English penal settlement administration buildings were abandoned, the shells of buildings later laced with roots. Deer patrol the old bunkers and bound through the ficus trees that continue to tighten their grasp on the ruins.
12. NORTH BROTHER ISLAND, NEW YORK CITY
New York City’s former quarantine island for contagious disease, where Typhoid Mary was once exiled, is today primarily the residence of herons and other shorebirds. North Brother Island, along with its neighbor South Brother Island, are both part of the Harbor Herons Region, with the crumbling hospital buildings offering protection through the same dangerous decay that keeps humans off the island. Although the bird population has experienced a recent decline, kudzu and other foliage creeps over the structures left to decay for half a century, and birds still frequent the East River island.
13. MALLOWS BAY, MARYLAND
The wooden hulls of the Mallows Bay “Ghost Fleet” in Maryland serve as bat caves, osprey nest sites, and heron rookeries. Of the around 200 shipwrecks in the small Maryland bay on the Potomac River, some of which date back to the Revolutionary War, about 100 were the result of a ramped-up boat building effort during World War I. The ship graveyard is now both an archeological district and on its way to being named an official National Marine Sanctuary following a 2015 Notice of Intent from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
14. AÑO NUEVO ISLAND, CALIFORNIA
From 1872 to 1948, Año Nuevo Island in California served as a light station to prevent shipwrecks in the hazardous waters. After the last keeper departed and the fog horn was silenced, northern elephant seals arrived in the 1950s, and were soon joined by sea lions and seabirds. The populations are so dense, they’ve totally taken over the surviving 19th-century structures. The island is now an official wildlife preserve, with researchers being the only humans allowed.
15. TIENGEMETEN, NETHERLANDS
In 2007, Tiengemeten was deliberately returned to nature. The last farmers on the Dutch island relocated, and dikes were broken to help return the cultivated landscape to its wild state. Although visitors from the surrounding urban area can walk paths in the reserve during the day, no cars are allowed, and birds, butterflies, and other creatures are becoming abundant among the abandoned, crumbling homes.