An ambitious project is under way to transform a polluted canal in central Berlin into an urban swimming area.
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Today the Spree Canal is a unloved and murky stretch of water that winds its way around the back of the city’s famous Museum Island, away from the cathedral and the views captured in a few million tourists’ selfies.
Built to relieve congestion on the Spree river, it’s closed to shipping and known locally as the Kot d’Azur — a play on the German word for excrement — because the sewers overflow into the canal after periods of heavy rain, leaving it polluted and stinking.
It’s a far cry from the nineteenth century, when Berlin was famous for the many swimming spots dotted along the Spree river and its many canals.
But Flussbad Berlin, a team of engineers, scientists and activists led by two brothers believe they can bring those days back.
They say they can transform the Spree Canal into a clean and safe swimming area using natural reed beds as an a filtration system.
“It’s a lifestyle expression for an active and environmentally conscious urban society,” Tim Edler, an architect and one of the brothers behind the scheme told Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. In eight to ten years, he says, the first swimmers will be able to dive in.
When Mr Edler and his brother Jan first came up with the idea in the 1990s, they were dismissed as crazy. One critic said the project was “so unrealistic we don’t even need to talk about it”.
But the brothers didn’t give up, and they have secured €4 million (£3.5 million) from the German government and the Berlin city authorities.
At the moment, the project is still in the testing stage, but when it is completed a 900-yard long swimming area is planned, framed by the grand architecture of the city’s famous museums and the newly reconstructed City Palace of the Kaisers.
“The Spree is actually clean enough to swim in for most of the year, but there are overflow events from the sewer system,” Kai Dolata from the project told local RBB radio,
The problem arises when heavy rain overloads Berlin’s aging sewer system. With nowhere else to go, the water floods into the river, carrying sewage with it.
Flussbad Berlin’s scientists think they can solve this problem using natural cleaning methods alone, A 400-yard stretch of the canal upstream from the swimming area will be transformed into a natural filtration system, using a combination of reeds and gravel beds to provide what the scientists desrcibe as “microbiological cleaning”.
And if there is any doubt whether they can entice swimmers in to try the water, more than 100 turned up for a race in the canal earlier this month to promote the project.