The “Blue Capital” Of Urban Development – Rivers As The Arteries Of City Life

Kiesinsel an der Isar in München; Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaThe banks of the Spree (Media-Spree) in Berlin. Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaMany cities are once again focusing on their rivers and now see their waterways as the “blue capital” of urban development. Industrial wasteland and old commercial premises are being turned into attractive residential areas with views over large expanses of water; rivers and riverbank paths have become oases of urban recreation. Here are a few examples from Munich, Cologne and Berlin.

The Isarplan

A wide riverbed, lots of pebble banks, lush green meadows – the Isar, the river that flows down from the Alps, has always been one of the most important urban arteries in Munich. And quite a danger, too. Heavy rainfall or melting snow can cause the river to swell and flood whole areas of the city. That is why, back in the 19th century, they started to fortify the banks of the river. Later, in the 20th century, more weirs and retaining walls were built, a strong, stable flood plain was created and the river was partly canalised. In the meantime however the Isar has managed to once again free itself from such fetters. In the year 2000 the Isarplan was put into operation and work has been going on ever since. It is a joint project run by the Free State of Bavaria and the city of Munich and its aim is to bring together flood control, renaturation and urban recreation all under one roof. At the moment about six of the eight kilometres of river earmarked for renaturation have already been completed, the rest is to be finished by 2010. Embankments have been consolidated and in many places raised, the riverbed has been widened, the former steep, reinforced banks have been levelled out, making it much easier for the people of Munich to walk along the river. The Isar now has more space to move in, its riverbank meadows are now much more in natural harmony with the river.

Pebble bank on the Isar in Munich; Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpa

Daniela Schaufuß, the city of Munich’s project manager for the Isarplan, stresses, “The Isarplan’s top priority is the best form of flood control. The great thing about it however is the fact that it can be so easily achieved with a form of hydraulic engineering that is so much in accord with Mother Nature.” The people of Munich can now really discover their river anew , “Before we used to have to walk along the embankments above the flood plain, without being able to see the Isar at all. Now we can go for a paddle in it.”

A new district

A completely different example of the way this “blue capital” has been rediscovered would be the Rheinauhafen in the south of Cologne. It is about 100 years since this former goods reloading yard was opened in 1898 and now it is to become a new urban district with apartment buildings, office blocks, restaurants and a cultural life all of its own.

In the 1960s the Rheinauhafen started to become more and more insignificant as a transhipment yard – a development that took place in the goods yards of lots of other inner-city ports, too. Containerisation was to blame for this –in the meantime two-thirds of all cross-border goods traffic are transported in containers. The container ships with their huge load draughts can no longer use the docks in these harbours that were built at the time of sailing ships; on land, too, the logistics of container transport require lots of space – space that is not available at inner-city locations. That is why for decades the Rheinauhafen was used mostly as warehousing space, artists then started to convert rooms in an old granary into studios. Now however this 15-hectare plot is a prestigious project that has been undertaken by Cologne’s urban developers. A logistics company called HGK (Häfen und Güterverkehr Köln AG) and the city of Cologne are jointly responsible for the overall implementation of the project, it is to be completed by 2011.

A new silhouette on the banks of the Rhine

Cologne/Rheinauhafen. Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpa In the summer of 2008 the southern section of the new “dockland” city was inaugurated. Historical granaries and revamped dockside cranes have been integrated into modern constructions made of glass and steel. The new Rheinauhafen has a landmark – the three 60-metre-high Kranhäuser (crane buildings) designed by Hadi Teherani; they were built, and are still being built, in the northern section. They have been designed with the typical shape of a dockside crane in mind and their strikingly distinctive architecture has endowed the skyline along the Rhine with a new silhouette. “Another highlight for Cologne,” some people rejoice. Others, however, are of the critical opinion that the giant towers are “out of all proportion” to their surroundings and that they degrade the old, historical dockside buildings to doll’s house-size models. The luxury apartments to be found in one of the crane buildings do not exactly contribute to the new district being socially compatible with its surroundings, either. Nevertheless – the riverside promenade is open to everybody.

A controversial idea

View of a modernised former warehouse on the Spree in Berlin. The building houses the German headquarters of the Universal Music group. Copyright: picture-alliance / ZB The people in the capital want water, too. All the docks and industrial works along the river Spree in Berlin fell into disuse some time ago, but now the Berliners have once again discovered their river. In summer they can be found crowding round the beach bars on the banks or on one of the “bathing boats”. “Floating Lofts” are being built, and ambitious visionaries are working on a new project as part of the Spree 2011 project – a new technology that will make the Spree’s water so clean that people will be able to go swimming in it again.

`Spreeufer für alle!´: (Keep The Spree Open For Everybody!) - Residents protesting about the plans made public under the name Mediaspree. Copyright: picture-alliance/ ZBAlong the Spree in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, an area that used to mark the border between East and West Berlin, they are developing the “Waterfront” – a project consisting of old granaries and new buildings. The ideas for this revitalisation of the river bank are quite controversial – even in Berlin. There is an investment project known as Mediaspree, for example, that plans to locate media companies along part of the bank of the Spree and are thus planning to build the appropriate premises for them. To counteract this, a community action group, Mediaspree versenken (Sink Mediaspree), has initiated a successful referendum. The group is now taking part in the district’s planning decisions in the form of a special committee. Its demands – any new buildings will have to be at least 50 metres away from the bank of the Spree and there are to be no high-rise buildings.

Whether on the Rhine or the Spree –the old docklands and industrial estates are casting off and setting course for a new future. These new “waterfront” developments will however only be sustainable and vitalising, if they become an integral part of the surrounding urban environment.

Elisabeth Schwiontek
is a free-lance journalist in Berlin.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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November 2008

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