Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The beautiful Isar River is groaning under the weight of parties, barbecues, and trash, say environmentalists.
Can you love an urban river too much? In Munich’s case, it seems you can.
In the Bavarian capital, environmentalists are warning that the city’s charming Isar River is skating close to being spoiled because it’s just too damned popular. Beloved by Munich residents for summer parties, there is now official concern about controlling access to it, lest the Isar’s green riverbanks degenerate into to a bottle-strewn pissoir filled with whooping drinkers and sausage smoke from makeshift grills. As the head of Munich’s Nature Federation league warned newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung:
"The Isar must not degenerate to the next party strip […]The attractiveness of the river that has been achieved through restoration would be lost again straight away.”
That extreme picture might seem a little doom-laden, but there’s some hard facts behind the hyperbole. Last summer, the city had to remove 150 tons of trash from the Isar’s banks, while the city’s fire department were called to illegal campfires 22 times. Now a full-moon party, modeled on the notorious bacchanals held on Thai islands, is looming on May 21, in which 54,000 people have expressed an interest on Facebook. If even a portion of these turn up, mayhem seems likely.
It’s all too easy to see how things got this way. On a summer’s day, the Isar’s pleasures are hard to resist. Rising due south of the city in the Austrian Alps, the river still has many of the characteristics of a mountain stream when it arrives in town, flowing fast and sometimes milky-looking with spring snow melt. Protected by tall embankments from traffic, it carves out scrubby islands as it flows, easy places to tether large log rafts. The banks fill with grillers and sunbathers, and you can even surf off of one of the river’s tributaries, where super fast white water is squeezed through a weir.
You can’t expect people to avoid a spot of such obvious charm. Except, maybe, when its great popularity risks rubbing out exactly that charm. Nature groups such as Bavaria’s State Federation for Birds (LBV) say it’s time to stop the rot:
“The Isar is beautiful—and therefore we risk loving it to death…every love relationship requires respect on both sides. Commercial events such as the planned Full Moon Party, or the leaving of huge amounts of trash go completely against that.”
No one wants the river closed-off. The environmentalists’ suggestions—cutting the number of grill spots and raising fines for litterbugs—actually seem pretty sensible. A public space that’s overly monitored is no one’s idea of fun, but there are few things more dispiriting than visiting a beautiful spot, only to find a pile of trash.