On a recent trip to Munich, I suffered from a severe case of river envy. It was fairly hot weather for a Friday in July and my friends that I was visiting decided to play hooky from work. Taking a leisurely bike ride from the center of the city south along the Isar river, a lush, meadowy plain hugging the riverbanks emerged, filled with swimmers, picnickers, joggers, bikers and sunbathers (most in bathing suits, but many not). When we arrived at our preferred destination, we wading across some shallow water and plopped ourselves down on a gravely island in the middle of the river, moving only to occasionally dip into the refreshing alpine water for a swim. Ahhh.
The Isar has not always been such an urban riverine fantasy. In the 1920s, the free flowing, braided river system was channelized into two straight canals to control flooding and produce hydropower. For the last several decades, however, the 8-km, 35 million euro Isar Plan has been underway to soften the river banks into recreational floodplains as a means of providing additional flood protection, creating public open space and improving ecological conditions. Investment in the sewage treatment plant has improved water quality, including the use of UV radiation in the summer to eliminate bacteria in water discharge. Construction of the Isar Plan began in 2000, and most recently they completed the portion of the river closest to the urban core—the most challenging section to design given the existing developed land and lack of space for wide flood plains. The result in this area is a stepped, hardened edge that still allows people to dip into the water.
I left Munich dreaming of New York’s own “Isar Plan.” I had to pinch myself to remember that New York’s Hudson and East rivers are of an entirely different breed. They are large, deep and fast. They are filled with large boats. They are salty. They are constricted by development. They support industry. They are clean…but not swimmable clean, at least not for the faint of heart.
However, there are pockets throughout the City where Isar-type design is possible, and some even exist: On the various coves and inlets, such as on Randall’s Island and Hallet’s Cove, which are exploring ways to soften their waterfront edges. Along the vast network of waterfront parks where people can get close, if not in, the water. The Bronx River, which has emerged as a haven for restoration, boating and recreation. The untapped potential along the Harlem River. And one day, maybe even along those now-underwater freshwater streams and rivers, once an important part of the regional ecosystem, if they were to see the light of day again.