Europe’s urban rivers regain life after neglect


Beaches in Paris and Warsaw, a bucolic cycle in Madrid: Capitals around Europe are slowly transforming their riverbanks from noisy, polluted thoroughfares to green, leisurely havens.

Keen to boost their image, environmental credentials and their economy, authorities in many cities are giving rivers pride of place again after years of neglect.

“We can’t live without water,” said Jean-Pierre Gautry, honorary president and former head of the French Society of Urban Planners, explaining that for centuries cities had depended on rivers.

But with the growing popularity of cars during the 1960s and 1970s, he said some cities decided to transform riverbanks into roads to make way for drivers — a process that is now slowly being reversed.

Authorities “poured concrete on the linear routes along rivers because they were easiest to take over as they often belong to a quasi-public area and are mostly flat”, said Gautry. “(Georges) Pompidou,” president from 1969 to 1974, “had a famous saying — ‘The city must adapt to the car’ — but today we’re saying the opposite.”

In Paris, drivers who used to whizz past the Seine in a cloud of exhaust fumes are increasingly having to change their route as authorities gradually take back some of the riverbanks for public use.

The capital inaugurated a 2.3-km-long pedestrian walkway along the Seine near the Eiffel Tower in June.

“I wanted a place that respected one of the most beautiful areas in the world . . . by bringing it back to life,” Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said.

Every summer, the riverbanks are closed to traffic to make way for a beach — the now-famous Paris Plages.

Truckloads of sand are brought into the capital and poured onto the asphalt next to the Seine. Sun worshippers are then able to lie on deck chairs and under parasols in front of the murky water — almost like being at the beach.

In Madrid, the riverbanks of the Manzanares sprung back to life in 2011 as part of the Madrid Rio project, after years of neglect.

Long leafy promenades and cycling routes lined with some 25,000 trees replace a polluted and noisy ring road that now runs under the project area.

The riverbank park also includes an urban beach, similar to the one that lines the Vistula River in Warsaw — the difference being that the Polish capital’s shore is natural.

Completely forgotten in the reconstruction of the city after World War II, the riverbanks in Warsaw have become fashionable again in the past decade.

“The presence of water is a magnet,” said geographer Maria Gravari-Barbas, who wrote a study on the transformation of riverbanks in urban areas. “There are now countless parties and festivals that have an urban section of a riverfront as a background, and even as a raison d’etre. As if the presence of water was an excuse for partying, for gathering there.”

In Vienna, for instance, the Danube Island was created in the 1970s and 1980s with earth taken from the river. Every year, a three-day music festival is held on it.

Berlin has long partied along parts of the Spree River, which once upon a time divided the city like a second wall.

But part of the waterway is the subject of a tussle between property developers and opponents who want a “green zone.”

In Rome, residents and ecologists decry the state of the Tiber’s riverbanks, which are littered with trash and dilapidated pontoons.

Nevertheless, authorities are making an effort with a 34-km-long cycling route along the Tiber’s banks.

Gautry said that apart from bringing a better quality of life to urbanites, the transformation of riverfronts also has an economic advantage: “It’s a whole series of jobs that spring up, starting with tourism.”