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Sprucing up the Spree

Tamsin Walker, DW-WORLD.DEAugust 10, 2005

Berlin's urban rejuvenation over the past few years may have put it back on the map with international tourists, but the facelift isn't finished, for there's a rather dirty river running through the city center.

The future face of the river Spree?Image: Maja Weyermann

The river Spree travels almost four hundred kilometers through industrial wastelands, forests and fertile fields before reaching the German capital. And as city rivers go, this one has an elegant, tame feel to it. But the look is deceptive, for within its slender curves, the Spree plays host to a barrage of bacteria.

The problem is not the result of unethical industrialists pumping factory waste into the water, since for the most part industry on the banks of the Spree dried up many years ago. The pollution actually arises through the continued use of an old-fashioned, inadequate sewage system.

Palast der Republik
The murky waters of the Spree are not enticingImage: AP

In much of the city "combination" drains, which are over a century old, are used to transport both rain water and household waste.

They have not grown as quickly as the city, and simply don't have the capacity to contain the sudden, violent downpours which fall over Berlin up to 30 times each year. The rainfall mixes with the city sewage and it all spills into the Spree.

It's a rather disgusting problem that most people would prefer not to think about, except those who have taken it upon themselves to change it.

"We have to set an example"

For the past four years, Ralf Steeg, an engineer for landscape architecture and environmental planning, has been working on a way of improving not only the quality of the water in the Spree, but consequently the quality of life for those who live on or near its banks.

Spree 2011
An example of a floating pontoon "Spree 2011"Image: Sven Flechsenhar

His solution, called "Spree 2011" is quite simple. He plans to erect large overflow tanks in the form of floating pontoons at various points along a four-kilometer stretch of the Spree, thus preventing human waste from overflowing into the river and giving the water a chance to regain its natural balance.

"Germany is an important industrial nation, and we should be showing the world that we care about our environment. And apart from that, I want to see Berlin and the Berliners thriving, I want them to have the chance to jump into a river to cool off," Steeg said.

Berlin, the water paradise

Some argue that Berlin already has plenty of opportunities for a quick dip after work. And when compared to cities such as London and Paris, that may be true. But for Steeg, the argument is not watertight.

Spree 2011
"Spree 2011" futuristic bathing platform

"The discussion about the necessity of being able to swim in the city center was concluded back in the 80s when it was decided that people should have the chance to relax on their doorsteps. At the moment, you have to travel at least 30 minutes from the city center just to be able to swim," Steeg said.

Traditionally, the Spree was a bathers' paradise. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the river was dotted with bathing facilities, and until 1925, when they were all closed, Berliners made good use of what they had. Steeg's plans would return the river back beyond its former glory to give it a "water quality it has never had before".

Not about swimming

Stephan Natz of the Berlin water authority says the issue is not about "creating swimming facilities, but about improving the quality of the water, thus providing for the future of the city." He argues that although Steeg's project is a good idea, the cost could be disproportionate to the effect.

Spree 2011
The pontoons could be used as campsites or open air cinemas

That said, the city water authorities have agreed to partially finance a 180,000 euro ($222,000) viability study which, if successful, could take the project to the next phase, including the construction of a pilot prototype.

This is where the project ceases to just be a solution to an environmental problem, but a practical, aesthetically pleasing addition to the changing face of a European capital. Steeg, who was named Engineer of the Year this week, foresees the floating pontoons being used as cafés, restaurants, campsites, bathing houses or even open-air cinema, all of which would generate income for the city.

Time is of the essence

The innovative idea is in step with many other initiatives which have sprung up on the banks of the river in an attempt to give it the same kind of pulse enjoyed by other European cities. But Dr. Dietrich Jahn, who runs the planning department of the Berlin Senate, says that although there is currently no necessity to prettify the river, it is a long-term goal worth hanging on to.

"There are industrial ruins up and down the banks of the Spree, and we need to fill them. A Berlin Beach life could be a very special thing, and although the financial crisis in Berlin means it would be hard to finance the project at the moment, we shouldn't lose sight of it," he said.

But Steeg is keen to get started, and if "Spree 2011" is to live up to its name, there's not much time for deliberation.

Vater bringt Kind das Schwimmen bei
The Spree to be?Image: Bilderbox