Restoring urban rivers and lakes improves quality of life, report finds

The strategies and measures authorities in urban centres across Europe have taken to improve the state of local rivers and lakes are explored in a new report.

Rivers and lakes in European cities: past and future challenges, by the European Environment Agency, highlights numerous lessons for the creation of socially and environmentally-resilient cities.

Case studies involving 17 cities from across Europe, including Aarhus, Bucharest, Leipzig, Madrid, Oslo and Vienna, were screened for the assessment. The report looked at the major challenges urban river and lakes have to deal with, including availability and supply of drinking water, water quality, flood protection and management, wellbeing and quality of life benefits, and stakeholder involvement in governance issues.

Rivers and lakes have played a key role in the development of European cities and towns, but arguably urbanisation has come at a high 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, generating significant public health issues. Restricting or altering the flow of rivers has also increased flood risks.

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.

Cleaner rivers and lakes are a win-win for cities and towns

The report stresses that the restoration of rivers and lakes is a win-win situation, by 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 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 suggests that urban planning authorities also 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 two million inhabitants without treatment into the Dâmbovița river, but a new wastewater treatment plant started operating five years ago and 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 – including Paris, London, Dublin, Stockholm and Oslo – the return of fish has signalled cleaner waters. 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 swimming in the River Isar in Munich.

Over the last century, many urban rivers were channelled into canals, buried or otherwise confined. The 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.

Photo by tobias.fuchs

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Source: EEA

Cornelis Brand

Project manager, European Environment Agency

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