River Swimming – In the City | DW Travel | DW | 13.07.2015
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River Swimming – In the City

It’s summer in the city, and what better way to cool off than to take a dip in the river? But in London and Berlin the water is too polluted. Now plans are underway in both cities for an open-air river swimming pool.

About 100 people took the plunge in Berlin’s Spree River on Sunday. It was all part of the European River Swimming Day, an annual event that aims to raise awareness of pollution in European waterways and promote their revival and restoration. Berlin’s Spree River is similarly polluted - and as part of Germany’s inland waterway transport network, it’s also used for shipping. That’s why swimming is normally banned in the Spree. Berlin residents looking to escape the summer heat must instead travel to one of the lakes on the outskirts of the city.

Swimming in the "Great Stink"

GroßbritannienLondon Entwurf eines Flussbads

A sketch of the proposed Thames Baths

Londoners face much the same situation. Back in 1858, the Thames River was dubbed the "Great Stink." At the time, so much sewage flowed into the Thames that the odor was unbearable in the summer. The river is much cleaner today, but even now it’s still too polluted for swimming. That’s why architect Chris Romer-Lee and his colleagues have launched a project to build an open-air swimming pool in the middle of the Thames. The water in the Thames Baths will be specially filtered to ensure it is clean enough for swimming.

Initiator Chris Romer-Lee already set up a crowd-funding campaign that raised 140,000 GBP, enough to get the project rolling. They’re now hoping to secure the remaining financing from investors, aiming to open the Thames Baths in late 2016 or early 2017. "There’s something very wild and liberating being in open water. I don’t get this so much of swimming inside indoor pools where it’s hot and smelly," Romer-Lee explains.

All aboard the Badeschiff

The idea of swimming in the Thames isn’t a new one, though. Back in 1875, Londoners already swam in floating pools set up in the Thames. So the Thames Baths are actually a modern version of an older concept. Berlin, too, has a long tradition of bathing in the Spree. In the 19th century, there were about thirty bathing areas in the river. Over the years, they were forced to shut down due to pollution. In May 2004, a swimming pool called the Badeschiff opened in the Spree River. Located in the district of Treptow, the Badeschiff is built out of a converted river barge. Though it’s filled with fresh water, the floating pool does offer the illusion of bathing in the Spree.

Swimmable Berlin

Badeschiff in Berlin

The Berlin Badeschiff, with a view of the Spree River

But some Berlin residents aren’t content with that illusion. The Flussbad Berlin association wants to build a natural swimming pool - a "Flussbad" - in a canal of the Spree River adjoining the city’s Museum Island. An 840-meter stretch of the canal would be converted into an underwater biotope using a reed bed resting on gravel to filter the water. "I’m drawn to the idea of bringing life and vibrancy to the city center. With its museums and historic buildings, the area is a tourist attraction, but Berlin residents don’t go there anymore," says architect Jan Edler, head of the Flussbad Berlin association and the project’s founder.

But the initiative is not without its critics. Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Museum Island World Heritage site, says the pool wouldn’t just draw sedate bathers – it would turn into a massive open-air party. In an opinion piece published by a Berlin daily, Parzinger warned that the pool would mean “mountains of rubbish, police, complaints by local residents, 24-hour partying, goodbye Museum Island.”

Funding the Flussbad

Berlin Computer Bild Flussbad Spreekanal

A vision of the future: swimming in the Spree River

The idea for the Flussbad dates back to 1997, when brothers Tim and Jan Edler first proposed the initiative. Their plan was seen as utopian but impractical, and for years the idea languished. But in 2011, the concept was honored with the Holcim Award for Europe, a renowned architecture prize that aims to promote sustainable urban development and architectural projects. The international attention invigorated the initiative, and an association was founded for its promotion.

In 2014, the German federal government and the city of Berlin approved public financing totaling four million euros through 2018. This funding is an important step forward, as Jan Edler notes: "Until now, no decision to build the Flussbad has been reached. We’ll use this funding to assess how the project could actually be brought to fruition, and to work to obtain the political decision to go ahead with the project." Edler believes the project could have broader benefits: "I hope the Flussbad will also spur discussion about pollution in the river, so that the entire Spree River can be restored to health one day."

The wave of the future

Berlin and London aren’t the only two cities planning a river swimming pool. New York City is also getting in on the act with its "+POOL" project - a giant plus-shaped pool floating in the East River. It’s still under debate, but organizers are hoping it will be approved in time for a 2016 opening. Another project in Paris for swimming in the Seine has since been abandoned.

Chris Romer-Lee and Jan Edler both cite Switzerland as role model for their own initiatives in London and Berlin. Even though the Rhine River is a major shipping waterway, a citizen’s initiative in Basel has made the river swimmable again. Jan Edler says it’s all part of a revived interest in rivers: "River landscapes are an elixir of life in the city. Or they should be, because they offer all sorts of leisure opportunities."