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Cleaning Europe’s rivers

New evidence that restoring rivers and lakes in European cities improves quality of life
River Isar in Munich

Rivers and lakes in European cities and towns are getting cleaner and waterways are being brought back to life, helping to make our cities greener, smarter and more sustainable.

These are the findings of a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA), which assessed case studies in 17 European cities, including Aarhus, Bucharest, Leipzig, Madrid, Oslo and Vienna.

The report, ‘Rivers and lakes in European cities: Past and future challenges’ looks at the major challenges urban river and lakes have to deal with – including availability and supply of drinking water, water quality and flood protection and management – and assesses the strategies employed to tackle them.

Successful measures can serve as useful examples of lessons learned on urban planning and design approaches for socially and environmentally resilient cities.

Urban development

Rivers and lakes have played a key role in the development of European cities and towns, but urbanisation has come at a cost. Most urban rivers were channelled into canals, buried or otherwise confined.

Industrialisation has led to further degradation, with waterways becoming dumping grounds for sewage, pollutants and other wastewater, creating significant public health issues. Restricting or altering the flow of rivers has also increased flood risks.

A cleaner image

However, with improvements in wastewater treatment and reduced industrial activities over the past three decades, urban rivers and lakes have become increasingly important in meeting the demand for a better, more sustainable quality of life.

Urban rivers and lakes have gained a more positive image, providing space for recreation and offering an aesthetically pleasing environment as part of city regeneration projects.

The report stresses that the restoration of rivers and lakes is a win-win situation, improving flood control and ecological functions while offering recreational value and raising the quality of life in urban areas.

Well-functioning and healthy waterways also mitigate the impacts of climate change in the city, such as the increased temperatures already observed in city centres.

The report calls for the proper implementation of European legislation, including the Water Framework Directive, Floods Directive and Habitats Directive to help deliver benefits. It also suggests urban planning authorities take into account more stringent adaptation measures to mitigate the effects of climate change and to step up cooperation between water and development planners as well as including the views of city residents.

Success stories

In recent decades, improvements in wastewater treatment and reduced industrial activities have improved water quality in most European cities, which in turn has been beneficial for river and lake ecology.

Until 2011, Bucharest discharged wastewater from more than 2 million inhabitants without treatment into the Dâmbovița river, but a new wastewater treatment plant that started operating five years ago treats the entire wastewater flow of the Bucharest urban area, eliminating one of the major pollution hotspots in the Danube river basin.

In many European capitals (Paris, London, Dublin, Stockholm and Oslo), the return of fish has signalled cleaner waters, and in some cities it is now possible again to bathe in the waters close to the city centre such as the Harbour baths in Copenhagen or the River Isar in Munich (main image).

Adaptation and restoration

Over the last century, many urban rivers were channelled into canals, buried or otherwise confined. This report describes how several cities and towns have dealt with the impacts of physical modifications such as giving room for the river or opening covered river stretches.

The report also includes examples of multifaceted restoration projects focused on reducing flood risks and opening the city towards the rivers, creating new green recreational spaces.

Click here to read the EEA report ‘Rivers and lakes in European cities’.

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