A city reclaimed by nature – what has Pripyat shown us?

As we all notice the effects of nature reclaiming some of the places vacated by humans in the Covid-19 crisis, the reduction in air pollution and the sound of birdsong filling our streets, I was reminded of another place abandoned in a hurry due to an invisible threat to life, and its transformation at the hands of nature.

In 2011 I visited the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, Ukraine, then only just opened to visitors. Only 4km from the reactor stands the abandoned city of Pripyat, the ‘factory town’ of the nuclear power plant, and formerly home to 50,000 people. Pripyat was “temporarily” evacuated a few days after the blast at the power plant. It remains empty 34 years later. It offers an insightful glimpse into how nature can reclaim urban spaces in the most challenging of human-created conditions. This blogpost includes some of the photos I took when I visited.

Founded in 1970, Pripyat was a model planned city, demonstrating what Communism could provide to its most prized citizens. Exceptional public facilities provided for a youthful population in the vast forests and steppes of northern Ukraine. It was a place to live and enjoy, a place to be proud of.


Apartment blocks were surrounded by large areas of open space, threaded through with woodland. The forest is capturing the tops of the buildings. The reactor complex stands only 4km away.


Streets show the natural succession of the forest ecosystem reclaiming the concrete. Vegetation shoots through and remains.

The structure of the town’s central square remains, but the buildings are disappearing.

Inside the former gymnasium and secondary school, the peeling paint gives away the effects of the harsh Ukrainian winters.

Outside the buildings, vegetation appears and advances on entrances, balconies and through windows.

Apartment buildings are covered in plants, and their well-managed parklands have become wild, uncontrolled spaces.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the demise of Pripyat, but surely one of the most relevant for today’s world is that even in the face of catastrophe, nature will grab any opportunity to return to our urban spaces. Perhaps it’s not so hard to provide that opportunity when creating new places, or adapting existing spaces, through creating space, networks and corridors for nature to propagate and contribute to our daily wellbeing. Pripyat is a haunting place, but its rich and abundant natural ecosystems provide hope and reassurance.