Swimming, boardwalks, and wetlands could transform a bustling Berlin tourist area—and bring the city together with nature like never before.
Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.
Museum Island, at the heart of Berlin, is an urban tourism haven. The triangle of land, bordered on one side by the Spree River and on two others by a bending canal, is home to five Berlin State Museum buildings, as well as the Lustgarten parklands. Currently in the works are a reconstructed historical palace and a monument to Germany’s reunification.
It’s a bustling place. But a group known as Flussbad Berlin (that is, “Berlin river pool”) wants to re-invent the canal along Museum Island, creating “natural” public space and “restor[ing] the ecological integrity of the river.”
The plan has three components. The first is the “natural” swimming pool—750 metres of canal separated by weirs at either end, reserved for swimmers in the summer and ice skaters in the winter. Those less inclined to dive in could stretch out instead on the sprawling staircases that run along the eastern canal wall, or amble along a water-level boardwalk on the western bank.
But it’s still a city waterway, containing all the oily runoff, drain water, and gunk you’d expect. So the second planned component is a natural filter—a 300-metre-long, 80-centimetre-deep layer of gravel, laid underneath a bed of reeds and other wetland plants—that would let clean water seep into the pool.
The filter would naturally purify 500 litres of water per second, enough to refill the pool completely every day. Also in the plans is a bypass tank for sewage overflow, to stop unfiltered water from spilling into the swimming pool during hard rains. Built on top of the bypass would be a pedestrian and bike path.
Continuing with the eco-friendly theme, the plan’s third component is the re-naturalization of a stretch of canal farther upstream from the filter and around a bend. The area would be converted to a shelter for endangered plants and animals, with a new urban park built at its edges.
The plan is moving along. On January 6, 2014, Flussbad Berlin held the first meeting of its advisory board, which comprises architects, urban planners, academics, and environmentalists. In July 2014, the Flussbad Berlin project received funding, in the form of 110,000 euros from the Berlin Lotto Foundation, the state lottery’s charitable arm, for a feasibility study.
City “flussbads” aren’t unprecedented in Europe. Zurich already has a pair, albeit in neighbourhoods less glamorous than Museum Island. And that’s an important point: as a tourist visiting one of Berlin’s premier architectural and historical hotspots, it would be impossible to miss the Flussbad swimming pool, boardwalk, and wildlife sanctuary. Enacting the three-part Flussbad Berlin plan would represent a commitment by the city to making nature and public recreational space a priority.
In Toronto we make good use of the natural waterways on the edges of the core. Skating on High Park’s Grenadier Pond and swimming at Kew Beach remain childhood staples. And we have our truly excellent paddles down the Don River. In terms of publicly accessible waterfront space near the city centre, we’re somewhat limited—but we’re working on it.
The Waterfront Toronto revitalization initiative has already brought the city recreational waterfront space in the form of improvements to Cherry Beach, and the unfairly maligned Sugar Beach development. Now they have re-naturalizing the mouth of the Don in their sights—a plan that would re-establish lost wetlands and improve animal habitats.
In the spirit of Flussbad Berlin, these waterfront projects make Toronto a true mix of urban and natural space. Not a city within a park, as Toronto often calls itself, but a city integrated with its natural surroundings, which in turn complement and coexist with busy urban space.