Yearly Archives: 2018
By Susan Misicka in Basel


Swiss architect Renata von Tscharner has spent the past two decades championing the cause of the Charles River in Massachusetts.

In 2000, she founded the Charles River Conservancy (CRC), a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the urban parklands along the waterfront.

Having grown up swimming in the River Rhine in Basel, Renata wants to get people swimming in the once badly-polluted Charles. The CRC is developing plans for a swim park that would give Bostonians the chance to enjoy the river that inspired the song “Dirty Water” by The Standells.

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by Anna Fiorentino and Lia Petronio


In 1965, the water in the Charles River was so dirty that The Standells wrote a song about it. It was the same year the Charles River Watershed Association launched the first major effort to improve the quality of the river, which had been polluted by raw sewage and rainwater that flowed from old drainage pipes in Boston Harbor.

Now the “Dirty Water” Boston sports fans have come to love could soon host its first public swimming area. But there are still significant hurdles to overcome before that could become a reality.

“We are not on track to equal last summer in terms of water quality at the proposed site for the swimming park,” said Max Rome, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern who received a grant from the Charles River Conservancy to test the quality of the water.

Rome found high levels of E. coli and cyanobacteria at the swimming site, which can cause severe abdominal cramps, headaches, and pesky rashes.

E. coli is an invisible rod-shaped bacteria found in the intestines of humans and other animals.

Blue-green algal blooms from a naturally-occurring ancient organism called cyanobacteria thrive when laced with phosphorus and nitrogen from storm runoff in warm, stagnant, nutrient-rich water. Swimmers and boaters may see strands of the bright green scum on the water’s surface or miso-colored broth when peering into the water.

But the overall water quality of the Charles River received a grade of A- from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017. And the cleanup of the Charles has set the gold standard for restoring the ecological health of toxic city rivers since the EPA’s Clean Water Act was completely rewritten in 1972.


Reducing pollution in urban waterways

The collaborative effort to reduce pollution levels in the Charles—with contributions from Northeastern researchers over the years—speaks to a narrative familiar to city officials across the country who are working to upgrade their urban waterways.

Their goal is to improve the safety of polluted rivers such as the Big Sunflower River, a tributary of the Mississippi River. American Rivers, a river conservation organization, named Big Sunflower the most endangered river in the United States in 2018.

Ameet Pinto, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern, said that drainage from the Mississippi’s polluted waters in 2017 created the largest dead zone” ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico—an 8,776 square-mile of pollution approximately the size of New Jersey.

The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that this year’s “dead zone” from the Mississippi River will be smaller in comparison, about the size of Connecticut.

“A dead zone is where water doesn’t have enough oxygen for fish to survive,” said Pinto, who studies drinking water and wastewater systems in urban areas.

A major effort is now underway to eliminate millions of pounds of chemicals from the Ohio River, the largest tributary of the Mississippi River, which provides drinking water to 5 million people.

And New York officials are working to remove nitrogen from the East River, which treatment plants in New York and Connecticut have long used as their dumping ground. As with the Charles, a proposed swimming area in the East River is now under review.

One thing’s for sure: factories, farms, and waste treatment facilities can no longer get away with dumping chemicals in rivers.

“There are many urban rivers that do not have as consistently good water quality as we see in the Charles,” said Emily Bender, a public affairs specialist for the EPA.


Bacteria in the Charles River

The Charles River flows 80 miles from Echo Lake in Hopkinton to the Boston Harbor. The river travels through 23 cities and towns, including Dover, Natick, and Cambridge.

A federal court order issued by the EPA and the Department of Justice demanded the city of Boston to reduce rainwater combined with sewage in the Charles to 13.1 million gallons by 2021, a requirement that is expected to be met.

Other communities, including Watertown, Waltham, and Newton, have been told by the EPA to clean up their portion of the river.

The level of bacteria in the Charles has dropped significantly over the past 30 years. Thirty million gallons of wastewater containing untreated human waste, industrial waste, and other debris was discharged into the river in 2017, down from 1.7 billion gallons in 1988.

Wastewater creeps into the Charles basin between the Longfellow and Harvard bridges through sewers and cracked pipes. Runoff from heavy rain deposits pollutants into the river via storm drains. This causes the spike in E. coli concentrations in the river’s lower basin.

“During wet weather, bacteria tends to wash off surfaces and into waters like the Charles River,” said Bender. “We would expect to see slight increases, notably downstream from open areas or areas with large impervious surfaces.”

The Boston Water and Sewer Commission is now working to clean up the Muddy River and Stony Brook, two streams located on the south side of the Charles Basin.

The Charles River Watershed Association is monitoring more than three dozen sites this summer, but has only discovered one abnormality: an annual cyanobacteria bloom outbreak.

The testing is based partially on modeling by former Northeastern Professor Ferdi Hellweger, who spent years studying the dynamics of the water quality on the Charles and how and why it changes.

“The Charles River overall does not look to be more polluted than previous years, but it sounds like there might be a more localized source of pollution,” said Elizabeth Cianciola, a scientist for the Watershed. “We don’t sample that far downstream.”

In 2016, E. coli concentrations at the proposed swim site met the standard for safe swimming every time scientists tested the water. This summer, E. coli samples from the swim site exceeded state and federal swimming and boating standards on some rainy days.

“We have already recorded multiple days in which E. coli and cyanobacteria exceeded these levels,” said Rome.

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Architectural Record
By Joann Gonchar, FAIA

A group behind a proposal for Boston’s Charles River is focusing on a spot adjacent to a Cambridge Park. Rendering by Stantec.

As Archie Lee Coates tells it, + POOL—a concept launched in the summer of 2010 for a swimming facility that would float in New York’s inner harbor and be filled with river water filtered by the pool’s own walls—was created almost on a lark. He and Jeff Franklin, his partner in the multidisciplinary design firm PlayLab, along with Dong-Ping Wong and Oana Stanescu, founders of the former architecture firm Family, wanted to make it possible for their fellow New Yorkers to swim in the city’s rivers without worrying about the dangers posed by currents, boat traffic, floating debris, or pollution.

By Coates’s own admission, the four friends, then all in their mid- to late 20s, and who had all launched their firms only a year before, were incredibly naive: “We didn’t understand anything about water quality, how to build in New York, or how to fundraise,” he says. But they had hardly any work—it was the depths of the Great Recession—so they spent a few weeks developing a scheme for a cross-shaped pool 50 meters across in both directions. They made a website ( and a pamphlet that they sent to the parks department and other city agencies. They received little response at first, but the project started getting attention after a friend wrote an article for a business newsletter. A few weeks later, the idea caught the eye of the engineering firm Arup, which offered to help develop the filtering system.

In the intervening years, more than $340,000 dollars has been raised for + POOL in two Kickstarter campaigns, the project has attracted support from corporate sponsors (including Heineken), and it has won grants for the development and testing of its filtration system and for other activities. Friends of + POOL—a nonprofit established in 2015 whose primary mission is to support the development of the facility but which also oversees a number of other initiatives, including a children’s learn-to-swim program—has an annual operating budget of $1 million. Significant hurdles remain. The one that looms largest is finding a site, but, according to Coates—who serves as the organization’s executive director—the mayor’s office has committed to helping identify a spot in the Hudson or East River by the end of the year. Clearly, this seemingly outlandish idea has legs.

New York is hardly the only city considering a swimming facility for waters previously thought unsuitable for such a use. In the U.S. and Europe, there are several active proposals. One with considerable momentum is Flussbad for the center of Berlin, first proposed two decades ago by brothers Jan and Tim Elder, cofounders of realities:united, an art-and-architecture studio perhaps best known for its light and media facade on Peter Cook’s Kunsthaus Graz in Austria. The Flussbad project would transform the Spree Canal, the disused waterway that slowly flows alongside one edge of Museum Island, where many of the city’s important museums are located, into a 2,700-foot-long swimming channel, 50 feet across at its narrowest point.

Although Flussbad involves few built elements—access to the water, a bioremediation zone that would cleanse the water, and potentially changing and showering facilities—Jan Elder says that full realization might not become reality until 2025. It could take that long to sort out questions surrounding land ownership and usage, secure funds for construction and management, and develop a legal framework that would allow safe operation of the facility in the middle of the city. But there has been notable progress in recent years, including two Holcim prizes with a combined cash award of $150,000, financing of a feasibility study with about $130,000 from Berlin’s LOTTO, and the granting of nearly $4.7 million from the federal government for further development of the Flussbad concept. Last November, the state parliament voted to establish a committee that would help the project obtain the necessary permits. It is rare, points out Elder, for a grassroots project to receive so much official support.

In London, a scheme for a floating river pool on the Thames also shows promise. Since the project was chosen as one of the winners of a 2013 call-for-ideas competition organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, the Thames Baths Community Interest Company, led by the local architecture practice Studio Octopi (see page 31), raised almost $200,000 in a 2015 Kickstarter campaign; refined its plans for a pontoon that would accommodate two pools, including a 25-meter lap pool, with marine engineers and other consultants; created a business and operations plan; and assessed a number of potential high-profile sites, including one outside the Tate Modern. But now the project team is evaluating opportunities with the owners and developers of a property in East London. Chris Romer-Lee, a Studio Octopi director, says the move away from the center of the city should benefit the project. “We’ve begun to realize that the baths are a placemaking tool, rather than something you plug into an already established site,” he says.

Launched only two years ago, an effort to create a river swim park in Boston or Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a relative newcomer among proposals for floating urban baths. But the group behind the plan—the Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancement of the river’s parkland—has already completed a feasibility study with the local office of Stantec and has commissioned a second engineering firm, Foth-CLE, to further develop the concept for an enclosed swimming facility that is most likely to be located adjacent to North Point Park in Cambridge, a green space created to replace parkland lost to Boston’s Big Dig highway project. The spot has several advantages, according to Vanessa Nason, the conservancy’s project manager, including sufficient water depths, limited boat traffic, and accessibility from subway and commuter rail stops.

Though these four proposals take varying approaches to bringing natural swimming to cities, they are all motivated by a shared view of urban waterways as untapped resources. As Romer-Lee puts it: “The Thames is the city’s largest public space, but most Londoners just travel over or around it. They have no engagement with it.” This desire to reconnect people with the water that surrounds them is a logical next step, as cities revamp their riverfronts and shorelines for recreational and residential uses, according to Jane Withers, a UK-based design consultant and writer who curated Urban Plunge, an exhibition that explored the relationship between cities and their waterways, first shown at London’s Roca Gallery in 2014. “Why should this activity stop at the water’s edge?” she asks.

Withers points to the turnaround of Copenhagen Harbor, which for many years was contaminated by wastewater, oil spills, and algae. But thanks to infrastructure improvements, the water is now safe for swimming. The harbor has four popular floating swimming facilities that have helped reclaim the former industrial port as a social and cultural center. Another Danish city, Aarhus, is hoping to replicate this success. Earlier this summer, it opened what is being touted as the world’s largest seawater bath, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which also designed the first such Copenhagen Harbor facility, with Julien De Smedt Architects, 15 years ago. Aarhus’s new triangular floating complex has a wooden deck that sits on top of prefabricated concrete pontoons. Surrounded by an elevated walkway, it includes a 50-meter-long pool, a children’s area, a circular diving pool, and two saunas.

For many European and American cities, the main impediment to water that is as reliably clean as that in the harbors of Copenhagen and Aarhus is outdated infrastructure. Often these places depend on so-called combined sewers, which transport stormwater that runs off roadways, domestic sewage, and sometimes industrial waste, in the same pipe. When such a system works optimally, this unsavory mixture is transported to a wastewater plant, where it is treated and then discharged to a river, stream, or other water body. But when it rains, the system can become overloaded, and the cocktail, including raw sewage, is dumped directly into waterways. This release of untreated water is referred to as a combined sewer overflow, or CSO.

New York officials maintain that harbor water quality is better than it has been in a century, due to tightening regulations and increased infrastructure investments. And in dry conditions, the Hudson and East Rivers are often free enough from contaminants to be considered safe for swimming. But 60 percent of the city is still served by a combined sewer system that discharges about 27 billion gallons of pollutants into waterways each year. And at some of its 460 outfall points, as little as 1 ⁄10 of an inch of rain can cause an overflow, according Dan Shapley, director of the water-quality program at Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the Hudson River and the New York watershed. “Basically, every time it rains, sewage is overflowing somewhere in N-Y-C,” he says.

To cope with these conditions, + POOL’s filter, developed by Arup, will consist of multiple layers of fabric membrane that will remove successively smaller particles, as well as bacteria, without the use of chlorine or other chemicals. Further refinement of the system, which was tested in the Hudson for six months during the spring and summer of 2014 and has a provisional patent, depends on site selection, since water quality varies not only with the amount of precipitation, but also with location, according to Nancy Choi, an Arup senior engineer. The team is also still working to determine an appropriate turnover for the water once it is in the pool to prevent the introduction of pathogens from the swimmers themselves. She is confident, however, that “the water will be measurably cleaner going out than coming in.” The pool will filter about 600,000 gallons of water each day.

The Flussbad will take a different approach toward CSOs, which dump sewage into the Spree Canal about 15 to 20 times a year. To create its filtering system, a 1,300-foot-long section of the channel will contain a gravel-and-sand bed planted with reeds and grasses. The water will be microbiologically cleansed as it slowly flows through this zone, driven by gravity, before it is released into the swimming area. Calculations have shown that the scheme works, but a year-long test of a prototype filter has just gotten under way using a barge moored in the canal.

The Thames Baths, like the Flussbad, plans to use bioremediation with gravel beds and reeds, but, as with + POOL, the final configuration is highly dependent on the ultimate site. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” says Romer-Lee. Meanwhile, the Charles River Conservancy also is considering plants as a means of improving water quality. However, the current scheme calls for a pool with mesh sides, with water flowing through unfiltered. The proposal assumes that the Charles is swimmable, explains Audrey Cropp, a Stantec design visualization specialist and landscape architect who acted as the feasibility report’s project manager. And, in fact, the river earned an A- rating from the Environmental Protection Agency last year, which means its water almost always met standards for safe boating and swimming. (As recently as 1995, the Charles earned a grade of D.) But even with these improved conditions, the conservancy acknowledges that, like public beaches, the Charles is unlikely to meet health standards every day of the summer. On days when the water quality is poor, the swim park would be closed.

Naturally, the conservancy and the groups behind the pools in New York, Berlin, and London are also hoping that there will be a day in the not-so-distant future when the water in their cities is clean enough that neither filters nor closures will be necessary. And they hope that their projects will play at least a small part in making this transformation happen. “The idea is to connect the community to an incredible resource,” says Cropp. “If they are connected to it, they will take care of it.”


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Curbed Magazine


Reclaiming rivers, one pool at a time

Opening day in 2017 at the Bassin de la Villette swimming pool on the Canal de l’Ourcq in Paris. Shutterstock

Some of the world’s busiest and largest cities have long had a water problem. Historically a lifeline for trade, production, and travel, city rivers have also suffered from devastating pollution.

However, cities around the world are now working to make once-polluted rivers safe for swimming. That might seem shocking to urbanites who grew up seeing—and smelling—everything from raw sewage to trash in the waterways, but it’s no longer a pie-in-the-sky future plan. It’s actually happening.

This revolutionary idea aims to connect neglected river fronts with the people and businesses that surround them. From open-water swimming areas to filtering pools that help clean river water while people swim, we’ve rounded up impressive projects in nine different cities.

Some—like a canal in Paris—have just opened, while other projects are still in the planning stages. But all show that for more and more cities, a dip in your local river could be the perfect way to cool off.


The Charles River in Boston

A rendering of what a swim-park could look like in Boston’s Charles River.
Courtesy of the Charles River Conservancy

The Charles River Conservancy calls the formerly polluted Charles River the cleanest urban river in America. Recreational swimming has been prohibited in the Charles since the 1950s, when the beaches and bathhouses were closed. But since 1995, years ofenvironmental health initiativeshave cleaned up the water.

Since 2013, the Conservancy has hosted public swim days and a one-mile swim race with over 1,400 people participants. The water is tested 48-hours prior to each event to ensure public safety, and the goal is to build an accessible and permanent swimming facility in the Charles. If implemented, the swim-park would be located within North Point Park, along the border of Cambridge and Boston. While still in the planning stages, the Conservancy has held public meetings to get feedback on its plans and is actively working to bring the swim park to reality.


The Baignade Bassin de la Villette in Paris

Opened in 2017 as a temporary—and free!—swimming zone at La Villette canal basin in Paris, this river pool is proving that even in historically polluted urban areas, swimming can be possible. The pool actually features three different pools, including one for children, and it returned this year as part of the popular summer festival Paris Plages. It’s likely that last summer’s popularity will continue; the pools were so in demand that they maxed out their daily quota of 1,000 swimmers and inspired long queues.

The success of the new canal pool has prompted increased attention for the city to tackle Paris’s most famous waterway: the Seine. Swimming in the Seine has been banned since 1923, but the city’s successful bid to host the 2024 Olympics includes plans to make the river officially swimmable.


The East River in New York City

A rendering of +Pool, a plan to create a filtering public swimming pool in New York’s East River.
Courtesy of +Pool

Eight years ago, a group called +Pool proposed what many derided as an outlandish idea: To create a floating pool in New York’s waterways that would have the ability to filter the polluted water, provide a place to swim, and help cleanse the river at the same time.

According to Curbed NY, since then +Pool has taken many small steps toward realizing the aquatic project, including launching two successful Kickstarter campaigns to raise funds and conducting feasibility studies (including one in the Hudson River) to see if its technology is viable.

The +Pool has also enlisted the help of Joshua David (co-founder of the High Line) for planning and the Tribeca Film Festival to create a documentary about their work. Another high-profile partnership includes the Heineken-sponsored “The Cities Project”, which will donate $100,000 to the cause once +POOL successfully garners 100,000 pledges. If you’re interested in signing your name, head to


The St. Lawrence River in Montreal

For the 15th time, swimmers recently jumped into the St. Lawrence River next to the Jacques Cartier Pier in Old Montreal. “Le Grande Splash” is organized to promote the river’s recreational possibilities, especially because many locals still fear the sewage that has historically overflowed into the river after rain events.

But groups like Montreal Baignade want to prove that the St. Lawrence is safe to swim 99.9 percent of the time during the summer. They also want to encourage more access sites, like a new $4 million beach in Verdun that was announced in 2016, but won’t be complete until next summer.


The River Thames in London

A rendering of a proposed pool in the River Thames.
Courtesy of Picture Plane & Studio Octopi

Similar in concept to the New York +Pool idea, a group of architects and designers in London want to build a series of open-air pools in the middle of the River Thames. Called the Thames Baths, the project was originally launched in 2013 by Studio Octopi architects and has been supported by thousands of backers on Kickstarter.

Each pool would be filled with filtrated Thames water and heated in winter. Current designs include plans for locations adjacent to City Hall, the South Bank, and Temple Stairs and the hope is that events like cinema-and-swim nights would help make the pools cultural destinations and revitalize the river. It’s been quiet for the Thames Baths team in 2018, but according to their Facebook page, they are hoping to have better progress to report later this year.


The Los Angeles River

A rendering of what the LA River could look like in the future.
Courtesy of LA

Anyone familiar with the Los Angeles River of the past may recall an ugly concrete flood control channel that runs through the heart of the city—and sometimes runs dry. That’s changing, however, thanks to massive restoration project s both the central and lower waterfront into something much more riverlike. And that’s just the beginning for nonprofit advocacy groups like River LA who want to see all 51 miles of the river transformed.

The city plans to convert the industrial Taylor Yard space into a riverside park, and California’s 2017 budget set aside $98 million for the LA River, money that theLos Angeles Daily Newssaid could be used to build “soccer fields, picnic areas and hiking paths.” In the section from Vernon to Long Beach, new draft plans for the 19-mile stretch show parkland, trails, bridges, landscaping, and paths for walkers and cyclists.

Friends of the LA River has not only conducted massive cleanup projects, but the organization has also helped to educate the public on kayak tours, river tours, bird watching, biking, and other waterfront recreation. While it will likely still take years for swimming in the LA River to be legal and safe, this is huge progress for a river that was basically a massive storm drain for decades. To stay updated on everything that’s happening with the river, head over here.


The Spree River in Berlin

Since the 1990s, various groups have wanted to clean up a canal off the German capital’s Spree River and create a place for public swimming. The idea has come under the umbrella of the Flussbad project, which advocates transforming the Spree Canal into a swimming area in the city center while also building natural water filters and an ecological regeneration zone.

While the project is still in the planning stages, the organization has conducted water quality studies and raised more than $4.6 million in funding to turn the concept into a reality. The group also has hosted summer swim days in the canal, most recently on July 1, 2018 after testing the water and finding it to be “excellent quality.”


The Willamette River in Portland

Long-time residents of Portland have avoided swimming in the Willamette River for decades, likely because of weekly sewage overflows that created unhealthy, nasty conditions. But the recent completion of a $1.4 billion sewage pipe in 2011 has people reconsidering their options, especially after the city hooked up with a group called the Human Access Project to hold several public swimming events. One of the biggest each year is The Big Float, a river float parade that supports the river’s preservation and gets people on the water.

Swimming in the Willamette downtown is now perfectly safe, and the Human Access Project offers a list of beaches and swim spots in downtown and around the city. There’s even a swim team that swims a lap across the Willamette River and back before or after work, about a half-mile swim in total.


Harbor Baths in Aarhus and Copenhagen

aerial view of harbor bath
Photo by Rasmus Hjortshøj courtesy of BIG

Once terribly polluted, the Port of Copenhagen now hosts several harbor baths that are some of the busiest summer spots in the city. The water was first declared clean enough to swim in 2001, and shortly thereafter the city opened its first harbor pool at Islands Brygge. Quick popularity prompted the city to make the facility permanent, and since then more harbor baths have been added.

The country’s most recent pool is three hours away from Copenhagen in Aarhus, where Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG designed a floating platform that can host 650 people. The popularity in Danish harbor pools shows just how successful cities can be when reclaiming industrial ports and transforming them into recreational oases.


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Beacon Hill Times

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who served as the event’s MC, handed Renata von Tscharner an Official City Resolution declaring June 2nd Renata von Tscharner Day. Photo by Paige Brown Photography.

Annenberg Hall of Harvard University is famous for Hogwarts-esque architecture, but on Saturday June 2nd, it wasn’t Harry on his broomstick flying through the air, but a puppet of Renata von Tscharner, founder of the Charles River Conservancy, on her bicycle in her signature yellow jacket.

The 19th century wooden space hosted over three hundred friends, family, and parkland supporters attending the Conservancy’s Ribbon of Blue, Ribbon of Green gala marking von Tscharner’s retirement and the inauguration of the new executive director, Laura Jasinski. The celebration honored von Tscharner’s 18 years of leadership and accomplishments, and rallied support for the future of the organization.

Since its founding in 2000, the non-profit has distinguished itself through innovation and advocacy. In addition to the CRC’s volunteer program, which enlists more than 2,000 landscaping volunteers annually, the organization is known for converting a brownfield under a highway into the Lynch Family Skatepark in North Point Park, and co-founding “RiverSing” with Revels, an annual musical celebration of the autumnal equinox.

Mirroring the organization’s inventive track-record, the event program was unique and whimsical, with various artistic elements woven into the evening. Guests could meet and take pictures with Sariel the Charles River mermaid during the reception before a procession of large blue and green banners led guest into Annenberg Hall. After dinner and the program, guests got out of their seats for participatory singing and dancing led by Revels and the Elixir band.

 “It was a beautiful night in a picturesque location,” said C.A. Webb, President of the Kendall Square Association. “The Ribbon of Blue, Ribbon of Green gala was definitely one of the most memorable events I have attended.”

Boston City councilor Michelle Wu served as MC. “I was honored to be a part of this amazing celebration and farewell to Renata,” said Wu. “I have treasured my connection to the Conservancy, from serving on the board to joining the exhilarating Charles River swim day. Thanks to Renata’s and now Laura’s leadership along with countless volunteers and supporters, we will continue to see activation and access along the beautiful Charles River for generations to come.”

DCR Commissioner Leo Roy also attended and spoke about the importance of the partnership between the Conservancy and the State.

The gala program also honored the urban river swimming success of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo with the presentation of The Urban River Champion Award. French Consul Valéry Freland accepted the award on her behalf. The award recognized her innovative work launching urban river swimming in the Bassin de la Villette that flows into the river Seine, which serves as a major inspiration for the Conservancy’s urban swimming work.

Returning swimming to the Charles River has remained a central goal for Renata since founding the organization. To build community support, the Conservancy began hosting an annual sanctioned river swim, called “City Splash,” five years ago. With expert analysis from a feasibility study conducted by Stantec, the group selected a site in North Point Park to pursue building a permanent swimming facility. A master swimmer herself, Jasinski is excited to advance plans for the swim park. She participated in the One Mile Swim put on by the Charles River Swimming Club in the river the same morning of the gala.

The event raised over $800,000 for the future of the Charles River Conservancy and their mission to make the urban riverfront parks more active, attractive and accessible. Laura Jasinski has over ten years of experience in the creation and activation of urban open space and will carry on the Conservancy’s efforts through programing, advocacy, volunteer engagement, the arts and partnerships.

If you missed the event and still would like to make a contribution for the future of the Charles River Conservancy, you can donate at

Video and photographs from the event can be found on the Conservancy’s website at


View a PDF of the article here



The Cambridge Chronicle

Renata von Tscharner and French Consul Valery Freland, who accepted the Urban River Champion Award on behalf of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. [Courtesy photo/Paige Brown Photography]


Editor’s note: The following was submitted by the Charles River Conservancy:

Annenberg Hall of Harvard University is famous for Hogwarts-esque architecture, but on Saturday, June 2, it wasn’t Harry on his broomstick flying through the air, but a puppet of Renata von Tscharner, founder of the Charles River Conservancy, on her bicycle in her signature yellow jacket.

The 19th Century wooden space hosted over 300 friends, family and parkland supporters attending the Conservancy’s Ribbon of Blue, Ribbon of Green gala marking von Tscharner’s retirement and the inauguration of the new executive director, Laura Jasinski. The celebration honored von Tscharner’s 18 years of leadership and accomplishments, and rallied support for the future of the organization.

The event program was unique and whimsical, with various artistic elements woven into the evening. Guests could meet and take pictures with Sariel the Charles River mermaid during the reception before a procession of large blue and green banners led guests into Annenberg Hall. After dinner and the program, guests got out of their seats for participatory singing and dancing led by Revels and the Elixir band.

“It was a beautiful night in a picturesque location,” said C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association. “The Ribbon of Blue, Ribbon of Green gala was definitely one of the most memorable events I have attended.”

Boston City councilor Michelle Wu served as MC, and DCR Commissioner Leo Roy spoke about the importance of the partnership between the Conservancy and the state.

The gala program also honored the urban river swimming success of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo with the presentation of The Urban River Champion Award. French Consul Valéry Freland accepted the award on her behalf. The award recognized her innovative work launching urban river swimming in the Bassin de la Villette that flows into the river Seine, which serves as a major inspiration for the Conservancy’s urban swimming work.

The event raised over $800,000 for the future of the Charles River Conservancy and their mission to make the urban riverfront parks more active, attractive and accessible.

Read article online here.


The Cambridge Chronicle


Charles River Conservancy’s new executive director, Laura Jasinski. [Photo Credit/Hao Liang]


The Charles River Conservancy recently announced the appointment of new executive director Laura Jasinski, an urban planner with 10 years of experience in development and activation of urban open space, who will officially take over for founding president Renata von Tscharner on June 1.

Most recently, Jasinski served as the associate director of the Boston Waterfront Initiative with the Trustees of Reservations, an effort to build world-class, resilient open space on the Boston Harbor. Previously, she was the director of programs and planning for the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, where she managed significant improvements and installations including the monumental aerial sculpture by Janet Echelman, “As If It Were Already Here.” In addition, her team facilitated over 400 free, public programs each year and was responsible for earned income initiatives on the Greenway, generating over $700,000 annually to support park operations.

“The board could not be happier that our thorough search resulted in finding Laura,” said Jennifer Gilbert, Charles River Conservancy board member who chaired the search committee. “She brings to the CRC both heart in her passion for parks and mind in her experience with projects like the Greenway carousel and Echelman sculpture which have delighted us all. We know many Boston-area nonprofits are facing the retirement of their long-time leaders. While change is not always easy, we feel incredibly fortunate and energized to be moving into our next phase with Laura as our next leader.”

“Laura brings her unique experience and deep commitment to open space activation to the Charles River Conservancy. I look forward to seeing her lead the organization to the next phase of success,” said Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy.

“Laura takes on a strong and well-respected organization and she will be able to grow it further and imprint it with her own personal style,” said Kathy Abbott, president of Boston Harbor Now. Abbot has known both Laura and Renata for several years and is familiar with the challenges of leadership transitions and of running a nonprofit organization that works with multiple public agencies and many stakeholders. “I am looking forward to working with Laura as our two water bodies are touching and are both crucial to the livability and vitality of the Greater Boston region”.

This transition and the retirement of von Tscharner will be celebrated with a gala on June 2 at Annenberg Hall, when Laura will be inaugurated. “I feel the Charles River Conservancy has been like a child I put into this world,” expressed von Tscharner. “I nurtured it for 18 years and will now step back onto the Advisory Board. Passing the leadership role into Laura Jasinski’s caring and competent and hands fills me with great satisfaction and confidence for the future.”

Jasinski, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in architectural studies and a Master of Arts in urban and environmental policy and planning from Tufts University, is also a former co-captain of the Tufts Women’s Basketball team and a long-time athlete. She has trained for several half marathons and the 2016 Boston Marathon along the Charles River. “The Charles River and its surrounding public space is a defining landmark and asset of the Boston region and a place of personal significance,” said Jasinski. “I look forward to building on the CRC’s successful track record and to working with DCR and the surrounding communities to create new physical and cultural connections along the river. There are so many special places along the Charles to celebrate.”

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By Margeaux Sippell THE BOSTON GLOBE  MARCH 29, 2018

KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2017 Volunteers cleaned garbage and debris from the Charles River in Cambridge.

Renata von Tscharner is retiring after 18 years as president of the Charles River Conservancy, which she founded in 2000 with the goal of cleaning up the river and its banks to make the Charles swimmable. The Globe recently spoke with von Tscharner, who was trained as an architect and urban designer in Switzerland, about her tenure and the challenges the conservancy faces moving forward.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: What were some of your proudest moments leading the Charles River Conservancy?

A: The opening of the skate park [in East Cambridge] in fall 2016 was extraordinary because land that was contaminated, that was not used by anybody, suddenly was a place where athletes could gather and practice their sport. It created a space that helped people do something healthy and active in the city.

Another thing I’m very proud of — 14 years ago, together with [the performance group] Revels, we started something called River-Sing. It’s a celebration of the autumnal equinox, where thousands of people gather in late September at the Weeks Bridge to sing songs, and then a boat comes down the river . . . it’s an absolutely magical celebration [that] brings out the beauty of the river.

Q: What were the most challenging parts of your job?

A: There are always a lot of challenges when you work with different agencies. We work both with the Department of Conservation and Recreation and also with the Mass DOT on bridges. Whenever you work with different agencies to coordinate all those efforts, it’s a challenge.

Q: Do you swim in the Charles yourself?

A: I certainly do — on those official “City Splash” days. I’m also a windsurfer, so sometimes I fall in. It’s a wonderful experience to swim in the Charles and look up at the greenery and up at the State House. We’ve picked a location for a swim park [downriver from the Museum of Science] where there’s no conflict with boats and there’s parkland next to it. It’s a wonderful place to swim.

Q: What kind of challenges does the new executive director, Laura Jasinski, face?

A: We have a new capital project that we’re working on, and that is to create a swim park — we will raise the money to build it, just as we did with the skatepark. The water is swimmable most of the time, but there is no approved location for swimming, so the conservancy has been offering what we call “City Splashes” one day a year. So far 1,200 people have participated and many are on the waitlist. So that will be a major effort, where people can swim not just one day a year, but for the [whole] season.

Q: Do you have any plans for retirement?

A: I have a granddaughter in Paris, so I guess I will see her a bit more often! I deeply care about [Boston], about the river, so my main goal is to make sure that the organization is ready for the new leader. I will remain on the advisory board — I will not be in the office after my retirement gala on June 2, but I will definitely be available if Laura can use my help.

Q: What do you see as the future of the Charles?

A: I think that the Charles already is an enormous asset, but it could be so much more than it is today. This is a very densely settled city, so to have this publicly owned land in the middle is an extraordinary chance. The potential of the river is not fully used yet, so that’s what the conservancy will be working on — to make the river and parkland on both sides more accessible and attractive, to have places where people can sit in restaurants along the river. There are many improvements, and we’ve only just started.

Margeaux Sippell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MargeauxSippell.

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By Amy Saltzman
Cambridge Chronicle 

Renata von Tscharner, founder and president of the Charles River Conservancy, bikes along the river in Lechmere Canal Park on Feb 5. [Wicked Local Staff Photo/Ann Ringwood]


She’s been called one of the most remarkable women in Boston — and a pain in the ass — but if there’s one thing Renata von Tscharner is known for: she gets things done.

As the founder of the Charles River Conservancy — a position she plans to retire from in June– von Tscharner has made it her mission to improve the water quality of the Charles River and to beautify its surrounding parklands, from Boston Harbor to the Watertown Dam.

She’s done just that and then some over the last 18 years since the start of her nonprofit in 2000. And in the process she has raised more than $14 million; wrangled over 28,000 volunteers; built a $5 million skatepark; made swimming in the Charles River attainable; helped start Revels RiverSing, the annual autumnal equinox celebration; and filmed over 100 CCTV shows, to name a few of her accomplishments.

But the Charles River Conservancy had a very humble beginning.

A logo etched on an envelope

When von Tscharner first moved to Cambridge from Switzerland in 1979, she said her first instinct was to jump into the Charles River. But that wasn’t something people did, she was told, unless they fell in or were dared. The river, which hadn’t been open to recreational swimming since the 1950s, was too contaminated with E. coli and blue green algae.

So, she decided to do something about it, becoming a water tester to help improve the quality. And therein lies von Tscharner’s character.

“She is one of the more remarkable people I know — very creative, very caring, a big heart, but also very determined to succeed with great knowledge about city planning and public space,” said Cambridge Councilor Dennis Carlone, a city planner who has worked with von Tscharner for decades. “I consider her, truly, one of the few very special people in Cambridge and Greater Boston. Even though I’ve known her over 30 years, I’m always impressed by her success, again largely through determination and being a very outgoing, friendly person, but bright as all can be.”

von Tscharner originally moved from her home in Bern, Switzerland, where she was an assistant city planner, because she fell in love with an American. They married and had three children together. When she decided to start the Charles River Conservancy in 2000, she used her daughter’s bedroom as an office and a logo her husband, Peter Munkenbeck, etched on an envelope.

Then she wrote a letter to 100 friends, colleagues and officials, describing her idea and organizing a symposium. Several of those 100 sent money, and she was able to hire an intern. Then the nonprofit really blossomed.

Around that same time, in 2000, the state’s parks agency, then known as Metropolitan District Commission, had finalized its master plan for the banks of the Charles and they estimated it would cost several hundred million dollars to implement.

“What could a brand new nonprofit do to help the state implement that plan,” von Tscharner said. “We started recruiting landscape volunteers who would form a powerful corps of people who would physically improve the banks and who cared and could become advocates. Thus the Conservancy Volunteers were launched with now well over 28,000 participants.”

Making the river swimmable

In addition to cleaning up the banks of the river, von Tscharner still had her sights set on making the river swimmable. After years of work and years of testing and years of advocacy, the first public swim event in the Charles River in over 50 years was held on July 13, 2013. In 2007, the Conservancy and Charles River Swimming Club organized the first one-mile swim race in the Charles River, which is now an annual tradition.

Recreational swimming had been prohibited in the Charles since the 1950s, when a growing awareness of the health risks posed by pollution in the river caused the beaches and bathhouses lining the river to close.

Now, the Conservancy wants to open up a seasonal swim spot at North Point Park, eventually expanding that concept in other areas along the river. In her native country of Switzerland, von Tscharner said swimming in rivers is a part of the “urban culture,” a concept she wants to bring to Cambridge. Despite misconceptions that people may be disinterested in swimming in the “dirty” water of the Charles, von Tscharner said it’s been made clear residents are eager to make the river a swimming destination.

According to a 2016 feasibility study, the water quality of the Charles River went from a “D” grade in 1995 to an “A-” in 2013. In 2011, the Charles River won the Thiess International Riverprize for being one of the cleanest urban rivers in the United States.

While they may never get to 100 percent swimmable days in the Charles, von Tscharner said residents should be able to enjoy the investment in clean water on the days that are.

“Renata is a visionary and a determined advocate. That combination resulted in improvements to the banks of the Charles, a yearly swim in the Charles, and the incredible skatepark on land that would otherwise have been junk,” said Alice Wolf, a former mayor of Cambridge and state representative who worked on legislation with von Tscharner to work toward making the river swimmable.


A gala celebrating von Tscharner’s work and retirement will be held June 2 at Harvard University’s Annenberg Hall. Over 350 people are expected to attend, including elected officials, volunteers, donors, family and friends.

A committee to find a new CRC executive director has already made its selection, according to von Tscharner. A formal announcement of her successor will be made prior to her retirement.

As she sets her sights on her retirement day, von Tscharner reflects on her time at CRC, calling the skatepark one of her biggest accomplishments.

“I am so glad I did not know about the challenges of working with so many different agencies and the toxic soil we would encounter and would have to remediate,” she said, looking back on the difficult first steps of the skatepark. “But 12 park commissioners later, a million dollars in legal fees (all donated by Wilmer Hale), 400 skaters participating in workshops, and more than $5 million in design and construction, we opened with 2,000 people at the event.”

At the November 2015 groundbreaking, von Tscharner recalls with a smile when Congressman Mike Capuano spoke, calling her a “real pain in the ass” but in the “best possible way” since she gets things done.

In a followup interview, Capuano said he believes he called her a “pleasant, persistent pain in the neck.” But, either way, he feels “Renata is a perfect example of how an effective activist should work.”

All in all, the skatepark groundbreaking was a “very happy day for the skaters, the Conservancy, my son and for me,” she said.

When asked what she hopes to do in retirement, von Tscharner said she plans to remain an advocate for the parklands and the river.

“I’m not going to Florida to play golf. I care about the river and the organization, so I want to make sure we have a good transition,” she said.

To learn more about CRC, visit or call 617-608-1410.

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