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Save Berlin: Spree dreamers

Dan Borden checks in with the Flussbad project, which aims to clean up a stretch of the Spree by Museum Island and turn it into a public pool. While you're waiting for that, you can dive in (at your own risk!) at their swimming competition on July 2.

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Axel Schmidt

When New York’s High Line Park opened in 2009, it rewrote the book on inventive public spaces. This derelict elevated train line reborn as a 2km-long urban meadow gave Manhattanites a green sanctuary that transformed the way they experienced their own city. It also gave surrounding neighbourhoods an economic shot in the arm. Cities around the world scrambled to replicate the High Line’s success, planting shrubs on old train tracks, but these slavish copies lacked the original’s charm and innovation.

Now Berlin has a chance to claim a High Line of its own: the Flussbad, or “river bath”. This ingenious proposal to transform a cleaned-up stretch of the Spree River into a public pool would not only inject much-needed adrenaline into the city’s nostalgia-petrified heart, it would give Berlin an iconic 21st-century urban feature destined to inspire copies around the world.

Like the High Line, the Flussbad concept sprang from the minds of a pair of citizen-visionaries, brothers Tim and Jan Edler.Their scheme: revive an unused channel of the Spree, from Fischerinsel to the Bode Museum, by installing a natural filter of plants and sand at one end that feeds pristine water into a downstream swimming hole. After more than a decade of lobbying, they found a sympathetic ear in Gottfried Ludewig, a young CDU member of Berlin’s Senat, who helped secure funding for a feasibility study. In May, the Edlers installed a floating laboratory testing their filtration system. Last month, Berlin’s Urban Development Minister Katrin Lompscher christened an outdoor exhibit promoting their plan next to the European School of Management.

Like the High Line’s advocates who battled then-Mayor Rudolf Giuliani to save the elevated train line from demolition, the Edler brothers face an army of short-sighted naysayers hell-bent on sinking the Flussbad project. Why spend billions reconstructing Berlin’s Imperial Palace and other monuments, they ask, only to turn them into a backdrop for 24-hour, semi-nude revelry?

The Edlers want to shift the debate from pool parties to saving the sacred Spree. Fischerinsel, the filter’s location, is Berlin’s birthplace. For 800 years, the Spree River protected Berliners from invaders, watered crops and powered factories. Today it’s a flowing rubbish dump, carrying waste from upstream sewers, coal mines and ostrich farms. By harnessing nature to reverse these man-made insults, the Flussbad’s filter would be a poster child for the kind of enlightened ecological action humans need to apply on a global scale.

Fans of New York’s High Line base its success on one impact Berliners want no part in: higher property values. The Flussbad won’t spark any real estate boom. Instead, it will help revive a currency whose value has dropped in recent years – Berlin’s transgressive spirit. The Disney-esque re-imagineering of Berlin’s historic centre has left it as stiff and inauthentic as the wax celebrities at Madame Tussauds. That open square bounded by the Berlin Cathedral, the Altes Museum and the rebuilt Schloss is officially dubbed the Lustgarten. A soundtrack of splashing and laughter from the Flussbad next door would restore the park to its original purpose: fun!

Still, preservationists fret that fun has no place in the presence of royal palaces, even artificially replicated ones. Last month, their quest for historical accuracy sparked heated debate about whether the cross on the Palace’s dome should be restored. The Edler brothers point out that another prominent feature of the old castle was a public bathing hall just yards from its front door. The river’s filthy water forced its closure in 1924, but the Edlers vow to get Berliners back in the water a century later, in 2025. If you can’t wait that long, the Flussbad team hosts their third annual swimming competition in the Spree on July 2. And you can join the debate yourself at the open-air discussion “Who owns the Spree?”, held on July 27 as part of HKW’s Wassermusik festival. For details and more events, see flussbad-berlin.de.