This is the river Isar in the middle of Munich, just blocks from the city center. Today it looks like a wild natural river but until a few years ago much of the greenspace along the shores was orderly and park-like, the banks straightened and stabilized with stone, concrete and earthworks. This is the story of how a city with a stuffy, uptight reputation (whose accuracy I neither verify nor refute) tore out the orderly, linear shores and restored the river to about as wild a state as possible in an urban center, embracing nature in all its wildness and messy, ecologically healthy vitality – something which even places that are said to be the opposite of stuffy <coughberlincough> are often slow to do.
Bavaria – conservative, yet super pro-environment
Munich is the capital of the state of Bavaria, which is – as I’ve mentioned elsewhere – sometimes called the Texas of Germany: conservative, strongly religious, boastful to the point of nationalism about its identity, located in the south, the largest state and the only in its country that was once a sovereign nation (OK, Alaska is larger and Vermont was once a republic, and California was too, for 25 days). The analogy, however, has two major flaws. Bavaria is arguably the most pro-enviroment German state, its only rival being, perhaps, Baden-Württemberg with – if anyone’s counting, and sorry, no way to sugarcoat this, but facts are facts – so-called eco-capital Berlin performing at a level peculiarly below its reputation, for reasons beyond our scope here. Whereas no one has ever accused Texas of environmental leadership. And in fairness it must be said that Bavaria’s environmental record is far from spotless, for example in having produced the last two, obscenely anti-environment and corruption-scandal-plagued Ministers of Transport in Merkel’s cabinet (not to mention multi-talented – they are both plagued by racism scandals, too.)
Munich is no Portland, to put it mildly
Nor has Bavaria the traits that are intrinsic to the places in America that have a high level of environmental awareness and stewardship, such as Vermont, Oregon or California: free-thinking independent spirits, DIY counterculture, progressive viewpoints on topics such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, spirituality and recreational drugs, and resistance to capitalist and patriarchal conformity – not by a long shot. It’s hard for Americans to wrap their heads around the idea that cultural conservatism can coexist with serious, committed environmental conservation. Then again, conservation is in fact “conservative” in the good but nearly obsolete sense of of wisely prudent.
As for their largest cities, Munich frequently tops most-liveable-cities lists, as rated both by Germans and by outsiders, on account of its beauty, culture, prosperity, safety and all-around high functioning, which not even Texans can claim of Houston. Politically it is not as conservative as the rest of Bavaria. All of which is to say that when you combine trailblazing environmental stewardship and an engaged populace with lots of money and competent institutions, you can do things like return a concrete-lined canal-like urban river to a reasonable facsimile of wild nature in the middle of a city, which Munich has done.
From 2000 to 2011, the city tore up banks of earth, stone, and concrete that had been built over the course of centuries at various points along five miles of the Isar where it runs through the city center, and through herculean effort restored the channel to a relatively natural state of winding meanders, islets, shifting shorelines, and a mosaic of shallow and deep stretches and slow and fast currents. The result is a linear nature park where fairly natural wildlife habitat coexists with ample room for swimming and sunbathing. This is the polar opposite of most urban rivers, where the city has been built up to the banks and the channel straightened and stabilized.
Restoring rivers in this way is a top priority in conservation, but it almost always takes place in rural and suburban areas because in city centers there simply isn’t any space for it. In nature, rivers – more or less all of them – are irregular and messy. The channel twists and turns through the landscape; it splits and rejoins in a disorderly braid, and it shifts course every few years or decades as new islets and bars form and old ones dissolve, new banks are formed and old ones eroded, and some branches fuse together while others split. Floods, an entirely natural and normal part of healthy ecosystems, are common due to the mild slope of the banks. Clearly there’s no way to restore an urban river to this state, no matter how much money is available, because the banks are fully built-up and the river has become for all intents and purposes a man-made canal.
Munich, however, was lucky in this respect. For various historical reasons, the city’s urban fabric does not extend right up to the Isar’s banks for much of its length. Even though it had been a commercial waterway (mostly in the pre-railroad era), and still has now-disused lateral industrial canals, much if not all of the Isar has always had more the character of a suburban or semi-rural river than an urban one. Its banks are largely bounded by a band of green space. In some places the riverside zone is narrow, rigidly straightened and park-like, which is to say entirely man-made, while other stretches still retain a fairly natural character with broad winding gravel shores and bars. This is an extremely uncommon situation in the center of large cities.
What the Isar project did was to tear up the more artificial shorelines whereever possible and literally reconstruct the channel in a natural form, using boulders, rocks, gravel, earth, and careful use of concrete and metal where necessary. Everything you see here is the result of painstaking planning by ecologists, hydrologists, engineers and landscape architects.
Gravel bars like these are designed to be inundated when the river is high and more exposed when it’s low, which is how it works in the wild.
The topography and placement of boulders were, like everything else, the result of exhaustive hydrological studies and planning, including a one-twentieth scale model built in a huge shed (the model river was about ten feet wide). Where there used to be a series of linear concrete sills that ran across the river for erosion control, looking like low dams, clusters of rocks now create a patchwork of zones with slower currents and faster, rougher currents. This in turn creates a diversity of aquatic habitats that are required by aquatic fauna and flora, which again is how it is in nature.
The dead trees you see below are typical of a healthy, natural river ecosystem. To the flora and fauna, they are not “destruction” or “waste” but rather critically necessary habitat. Many insects, fish and animals require the nooks and crannies, shade, and patches of calmer water in order to live. The eroding, muddy banks are also indicators of a healthy ecosystem, or at least they are in this case. These cut banks are also common in developed areas where the erosion is too rapid and intense, the result of unnaturally strong currents caused by excessive urbanization upstream.
Looks nice, but is it wild?
So is it fair to say the river is wild now, or at least natural? I would have to sum it up as: it’s definitely not wild or truly natural but it’s much better than it was and definitely worthwhile. The Isar is far from having a natural complement of flora and fauna and it probably never will. Although this stretch may be passable by migratory fish, I believe there are impassable obstacles elsewhere on the Isar. It will never have a natural flooding regime and it will never be ecologically connected to a surrounding matrix of forests. But no one is claiming it’s truly natural, only that it’s more natural than it was, which is absolutely true.
Nature is not orderly in outward appearance. People like the idea of wilderness when it’s in a national park or state park but they often want city parks to be tidy and picturesque. Or rather, Americans generally like to have some of both: wild parts and tidy parts along with the playgrounds and baseball fields. Germans on the whole are not as big fans of wilderness as Americans, whether it’s located in the city or in the country, a topic on which many shelves of books have been written. That itself is an interesting juxtaposition to the fact that it was largely Germans who originated our notions of the benefits of fresh air and hiking and exercise as we know them today, as well as the science of – and the very term – ecology, starting in the nineteenth century (among Western cultures, that is; non-western cultures are a different story).
So given the German penchant for order, it’s all the more interesting that such as untamed-looking landscape got built in the middle of a city with a reputation for stuffiness even compared to other German cities. I am just repeating the reputation. I can’t vouch for its veracity. But I can confirm from first-hand experience that in many ways the reputations of New Yorkers, Berliners and Parisians are undeserved.
And I can confirm that nude sunbathing is legal on the banks of the Isar right in the city center. (In fact the law that allows it was strengthened just in 2019 after an outsourced private security firm hired by the city started telling topless women they had to cover themselves. The city council swiftly and unanimously put an end to the puritanism by making the regulations clearer. This is part of a venerable tradition, over a century old, of nude swimming and saunas that until just recently was central to German culture and an ordinary part of everyday family life that was almost never questioned. Body shame didn’t exist up until around the 90s or 00s. Since that time, prudishness has sharply increased and clothing-optional swimming has greatly declined.)
Urban surfing is real, sort of
If people have heard anything about the river in Munich, it’s often about how you can surf in it. This is true but there are caveats. The surfing has nothing to do with the restoration or nature, but instead takes place at two or three specific points in canals that were constructed for various practical uses long ago and they only have room for one or two surfers at a time. Other than at these spots surfing isn’t possible because, as in most rivers, the waves aren’t nearly large enough. Further, you can cross-country ski along the Isar in winter. However, Munich seldom gets enough snow for this and in some years skiing isn’t possible at all. Still, that’s more surfing and cross-country skiing and clothing-optional swimming than in any city center I know of, regardless of whether the reputation for stuffiness is deserved.
Two excellent sources in English are:
Photo credits: All Wikimedia, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, except Before/After #1, Google Maps and Before/After #2, Wasserwirtschaftsamt München