Case Study: The Isarauen

Case Study: The Isarauen

If you have ever had the chance to visit Munich or have perhaps even lived there, it is likely that you have gone for a stroll along the Isar river that runs through the city. The shallow alpine river is a fundamental part of the city’s landscape and its clear cool waters attract residents and visitors alike by the thousands, especially on warm summer days when the Isarauen (the name of the Isar area) hosts grill (bbq) parties, swimmers, exercise enthusiasts, and people of all ages (and amounts of clothing). 

However, the current natural state of Munich’s Isarauen is a relatively recent development following a massive renaturalization project that was completed ten years ago. Prior to that the river had been heavily altered in order to mitigate flood risks in the city and to harness it for  commercial and energy-production purposes. As will be discussed in this brief introduction to the Isarauen, the renaturalization project that sought to restore the area’s natural beauty within the city became a monumental success—too successful some may argue—and has had many unintended consequences as now the river and its many nonhuman residents continuously face pressure from the crowds that flock to its waters and shores every day.

Urbanites flock to the cool waters of the Isar just south of the Flaucher on a warm summer's day. Source: Usien via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The first human alterations to the river took place in the nineteenth century as the city expanded. The river banks were fortified, weirs were built, and the river bed was narrowed all in an effort to mitigate flood risk and to allow for more construction immediately along the river’s edge. At the start of the twentieth century, hydroelectric plants were also built to harness the river’s power.

However, the human influence on the river due to its increased flow and velocity adversely impacted both plant and nonhuman natural habitats through the city. Moreover, the river no longer had sufficient space for seasonal flooding, which often led to overflowing into neighborhoods along the Isar.

View looking south along the Isar. Notice the channel-like shape of the river to the right. Source: Wasserwirtschaftsamt München.

Aside from the physical challenges posed by the human-altered flow of the river, calls for renaturalizing the Isarauen began in the 1980s, fueled in part by the growing environmental movement. City residents and activists succeeded in lobbying the local government, which agreed to initiate a process of redesigning the Isar in 1988. This in turn led to the creation of the Isar Plan Working Group in 1995, which brought together citizens, local organizations, and political entities to define the scope and timeline of the renaturalization project. The plan’s goals were 1) to offer better protection against flooding, 2) foster greater ecological integrity of the river landscape, and 3) provide high-quality recreational spaces for city residents. 

View of seasonal flooding in early 2020 along the river adjacent to Munich's Hellabrunn Zoo. Prior to the renaturalization project, flooding represented a serious risk to many neighborhoods along the river. Source: Carolin Maertens.

Once a plan was agreed upon, work began on the ground in 2000 and continued until 2011. The renaturalization project focused on an eight-kilometer stretch of the river from the Groshesseloher Weir to the south of the city up until the Deutsches Museum in the city center. Upon completion of the project, vast new green spaces (which also acted as flood plains) were created throughout the city. Thanks in part to the Isar’s relatively clean waters, which allow for swimming, the newly naturalized banks of the river provided residents with both a blue and green backyard for their everyday enjoyment. The success of the Isarauen’s renaturalization was immediate and served as a prime example of urban renaturalization for other cities.

View of the Grosshesseloher Weir at the southern end of the renaturalization project. Source: Sara Kurig via Unsplash.
View of the Deutsches Museum at the northern end of the renaturalized section of the Isar River. Source: Bbb via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.

As hinted to above, the success of this monumental landscape transformation project was perhaps even too successful. Although special considerations were made for nonhuman flora and fauna, including protected areas for birds, fish, and plants, the popularity of the Isarauen brings large and often invasive grounds to the area. On a hot summer’s day, thousands of Munich urbanites descend upon areas such as the Flaucher (a series of gravel islands approximately halfway along the renaturalized corridor), to swim, barbecue, exercise, and simply enjoy. The scale of use is so large that on such days, a massive plume of smoke is created and lingers above the river due to the sheer number of barbecues in use. Coupled with the associated rubbish that is leftover, these human activities are evidently taxing on both the natural and nonhuman environments of the Isarauen. As a result, many awareness and citizen campaigns have been created in order to protect the river environment and advocate for the responsible use of its spaces.

More recently, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Isarauen became a space of escape for many. This was especially the case in the late spring and summer during the first wave when the weather improved. Walking along the Flauchersteg, a popular boardwalk crossing the Flaucher islands, it appeared as if a pandemic wasn’t happening at all, with heavy pedestrian traffic and minimal social distancing. This in turn led to a temporary ban on barbecuing and the increased surveillance of security guards patrolling the Isarauen’s shores to enforce this ban and to break-up large gatherings. 

Although the Isarauen has come to represent a key natural staple in the city’s urban landscape, it is only recently that it has come to occupy this role largely thanks to the renaturalization project initiated by Munich’s City Council and the Isar Plan Working Group. This relatively massive space of urban transformation has effectively created a shared backyard and playground for thousands of urbanites.

Public ads located close to the Isar. Source: Daniel Dumas.

However, the success of these transformations has led to many unintended and unplanned consequences, sometimes requiring strict regulation and surveillance as has been the case during this pandemic. 

For more information about the Isar River and its history, you can visit this post as part of the Ecopolis Exhibition on the RCC’s Environment and Society Portal

Cover image: Eastern shore of the Isar river just north of the Brudermühlbrücke. Source: Jan Antonin Kolar via Unsplash.  

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. John Burt, NYU Abu Dhabi

    It is heartening to see that restoration initiatives are occurring both here and elsewhere around the globe to try to reinvigorate our lost nature along coastlines and rivers that have been so heavily transformed by humanity. It think it would be interesting to probe some of these initiatives a bit further, to look at what extent they actually model nature versus simply creating more “natural” (but unnatural) habitat for human use. Common urban parks, for example, are clearly a major draw to urbanites around the world, but from an ecological perspective do little to restore natural habitats as they are designed mainly for human needs/priorities, and are generally populated with plants/habitats that suit our aesthetics (often non-native) rather than replicating what nature would put in place. Are similar approaches being used in restoring the ‘blue belts’ running through our cities, or is a more ecologically sensitive approach being pursued? Is it restoration or reclamation?

  2. Anne Rademacher

    John’s comment reminds me that when I first visited Munich and the Isarauen, I simply assumed that this shallow alpine river had always been cared for — that is, it did not occur to me that the river’s present state is a result of a massive restoration effort. It was only months later that I learned the river’s deeper history, and having studied many cases of river restoration in urban settings elsewhere in the world, I was (and still am) quite astonished. The short essay wonders if restoration can be “too successful,” and I wonder if part of that notion is the extent to which society continues to tell the longer history of any restored landscape, and the extent to which it works to reset the collective narrative of landscape history with restoration.

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