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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.”

Read online article here.


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.

Read online version here

View printable version here


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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Cambridge Community Television | Seth Myer

The Charles River Conservancy offers residents the opportunity to swim in the Charles at the fifth annual CitySplash event. The event took place at the Fiedler Dock along the Esplanade on July 18, 2017.

City Splash was filmed by Sam Bruce and edited by Zach Ben-Amots.


By Feargus O’Sullivan, CityLab

Parisians pack the three pools in the city’s once-fetid Bassin de la Villette. Charles Platiau/Reuters

We’ve all heard promises from cities to make their once-fetid urban waterways swimmable—probably too many. Boston has been pledging to extend the Charles River’s swimmable days for years now, while Berlin’s beautiful plans to turn an arm of the River Spree into a naturally filtered bathing pool remain just that—plans. Baltimore’s proposal to render the oft-garbage-y Inner Harbor swimmable via floating islands of pollution-sucking vegetation and a googly-eyed trash-eating boat are edging ever closer to a 2020 deadline, with limited progress so far, while London’s likeable scheme for a Thames Bath remains the preserve of local enthusiasts rather than actual decision-makers. (Meanwhile, when an environmental activist went for a dip in New York City’s Gowanus Canal in 2015, he had to essentially wear a spacesuit to protect himself from the bacteria-laced toxic soup.)Among all these maybes, could-bes, and never-attempts, one city stands out for actually making things happen: Paris. For years, the French capital has been promising to open up its urban waterways for safe, clean public swimming. This month, it’s done exactly that.

On Monday, Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo opened-up new open-air swimming enclosure in the Bassin de la Villette, a basin constructed for barges that links the Canal de l’Ourcq with the Canal Saint-Martinin the city’s inner northeast. In temperatures of over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Parisians lined up to splash about the three new pools fed directly from the canal’s waters, separated from the watercourse’s general flow only by filter meshes to keep leaves and other objects out.Up to three hundred people at any time can use the lifeguard-protected pools, although the pools only have locker space for 80. Located in a part of Paris already popular as a place to stroll in fine weather, the new bathing spot is likely to prove a major hit in an already hotter-than-average summer. Early reports suggest that the water is indeed delightful, though a small residuum of green algae does make a post-bathe shower a good idea.

How did Paris pull this off? The city’s been working on cleaning up the waters here for decades. Paris’s canals here were once unsurprisingly filthy, running as they do through a former industrial area once packed with cargo barges and polluted by sewage. Since the 1980s, however, regulations managing industrial run-off have tightened substantially, while Paris has invested heavily in wastewater treatment and in preventing sewage from being discharged into the canal during periods of high water. Two years ago, following a concerted clean-up, bacteria levels dropped below safe levels, and rogue bathers have been jumping in the water here for a while. Meanwhile, the Canal Saint Martin, which runs downstream from the basin down to the Seine, was entirely drained and cleaned in 2016, a process that sent a powerful visual message to Parisians that the area’s historic filth was being swept away.


By Craig LeMoult, WGBH News

Last week, the EPA released a report downgrading the water quality of the Charles River from a B+ to a B. But that didn’t stop hundreds of people from jumping in the river and going for a swim Tuesday. Nobody seemed to hesitate as they enthusiastically leapt into the Charles.

As Sally Graham of Dorchester waited her turn to take the plunge, she said this was something of a bucket list item.

“When I first moved here, it was almost like Lake Erie,” she said. “You could almost set it on fire. And the fact that there’s been a huge investment in the infrastructure to clean it up, I think is very exciting.” She also said she had no concerns about it. “I don’t swallow. I wear goggles. I wear earplugs. So most of the places where I could develop infections are covered.”

It was a nice summer day to jump in the Charles. Photo credit: Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

As he came out of the water, Josh Posner seemed exhilarated. “The water is great,” he said. “Nice and fresh. Great temperature.” He pointed out, Boston’s a city with a river just right there.

“We see it everyday,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to dive in?”

That’s what the Charles River Conservancy believes. SJ Port is with the group, and says although this is just a one-day-a-year event, they’re hoping in the future it will be more regular.

“We are proposing a designated spot off of the public dock in North Point Park,” Port said. “And the reason we’re doing it there and not in the Esplanade where we’ve held our City Splash events is that this is a prime boating area down here, and we’d like to keep the boaters as our friends.”

The question people might have, of course: Is it safe to swim in the Charles? Port says yes.

“It is safe to swim in the Charles, as long as the water quality is tested beforehand,” she said.

Port wasn’t discouraged by last week’s report that downgraded the Charles from a B+ for water quality to a B. The EPA report was based on monthly water sample tests.

“Some of those samples this year were taken during or after rain events. Rain events, we know, cause a rise in E. coli and other bacteria in the river because you’ve got all the stuff washing off the roads and off the parks into the river,” she said. “And it also includes winter months, when most of us aren’t interested in swimming.”

Swimmers relax the the mild but refreshing water. Photo Credit: Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

The Conservancy hired Max Rome, an environmental engineering graduate student at Northeastern to test the water quality every day this summer. Rome pointed out that Boston has forgotten that back in 1940, people used to swim in the river off Magazine Beach in Cambridge on hot summer days.

“What happened since then was that as we started caring more and more about sanitation, perversely we built more and more wastewater treatment plants and sewer systems that ended up dumping into the river,” he said.

In recent years, though, since the cleanup of Boston Harbor began, we stopped that kind of dumping and the water quality has improved.

“And then the next place after that is, where are there places where our storm water system is connected to our sanitary sewer system?” Rome said. “That’s kind of the trickier problem. Places where those systems are connected, when it rains really hard, some sewage can end up getting washed out into the Charles River. And basically, Cambridge, Boston have done a really good job. As you go father up the river, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.”

So, it’s actually cleaner in the more urban area.

For many, jumping in the Charles has been a dream for a long time. Photo Credit: Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

Another concern these days is outbreaks of a blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria, which is pretty toxic. But Rome says that tends to show up later in the summer, when the water gets warmer.

“We test every single day, we’re kind of looking under the microscope to see who’s swimming around in there. And there’s not much to speak of yet.”

It was a sunny one, and pretty hot. Port gave one more guarantee this was a good idea: “This is safe for your health, it is good for your health,” she said.

And that was enough to encourage anyone, including a radio reporter, to jump in the Charles.


By Philip Marcelo (AP)

People dive into the Charles River during the “City Splash” event, Tuesday, July 18, 2017, in Boston. For the fifth year in a row, intrepid swimmers get a rare chance to beat the summer heat with a dip in the once notoriously filthy Charles River, where conservationists are working to build a permanent swim park.

BOSTON (AP) — They dove in, splashed around and blissfully floated in the murky river water.

Intrepid swimmers got a once-a-year chance to beat the summer heat with a dip in the once-notorious dirty water of Boston’s Charles River on Tuesday.

The annual “City Splash” is one of the few days the state permits public swimming on the city’s stretch of the 80-mile river, which gained notoriety in the Standells’ 1960s hit “Dirty Water.”

The event, now in its fifth year, spotlights the nonprofit Charles River Conservancy’s efforts to build a permanent feature on the river that would allow visitors to enjoy the water without coming in contact with any leftover contaminants. They call it a “swim park,” which would include floating docks for swimmers to safely jump into the river without touching the hazardous bottom. The water quality would be regularly tested.

Nearly 300 people signed up to take the plunge.

“It felt refreshing and wonderful,” said Ira Hart, a Newton, Massachusetts, resident as he hopped out of the river, goggles in hand. “They used to talk about how it was toxic sludge and you’d glow if you came out of the Charles. Well I’m not glowing, at least not yet.”

Boston is among the cities hoping to follow the model of Copenhagen, Denmark, which opened the first of its floating harbor baths in the early 2000s. Paris opened public swimming areas in a once-polluted canal this week, and similar efforts are in the planning stages in New York, London, Berlin, Melbourne and elsewhere.

In Boston, the Charles River Conservancy still needs to raise a few million dollars and garner approvals from state, federal and city agencies.

But S.J. Port, the group’s spokeswoman, said the biggest hurdle already has been overcome: The Charles is now among the cleanest urban rivers in the country.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced this month the river earned a “B” grade for water quality last year, meaning it met the standards for boating 86 percent of the time and 55 percent of the time for swimming. That’s a marked improvement from the “D” the Charles was given in 1995, when cleanup started in earnest, but down from 2015’s “B+” grade.

Here’s a sampling of where other efforts to reclaim urban rivers for swimming stand:



The city partnered with a local civic group to entice residents to take a dip in the Willamette River this summer.

They opened the first official public beach with lifeguards on the river earlier this month. They’ve also launched a public awareness campaign and scheduled a range of water-centered events.

Among them was last weekend’s Big Float inner tube river parade that drew about 2,500 revelers.



A group of architects, designers and engineers have proposed a series of pools in the middle of the iconic River Thames, where river water would be constantly filtered.

Chris Romer-Lee, a lead organizer of the Thames Baths project, said the group aims to submit plans to local authorities by early 2018.

The group launched an online crowd-funding campaign last year that raised about $182,000 to refine their design but are working to secure almost $19.6 million in outside investment for the project itself.



Four local artists and architects launched the idea for +Pool , a floating, filtered pool in the shape of a plus sign in 2010.

Since then, they’ve successfully tested a filtration system that removes bacteria without using chemicals, said Kara Meyer, deputy director for the nonprofit effort.

She said organizers also have raised nearly $2 million to continue developing the project, are exploring potential sites on the East and Hudson rivers and are preparing to seek necessary city approvals.



The nonprofit Yarra Swim Co. unveiled its concept for a floating pool on the city’s Yarra River at Australia’s Venice Biennale Exhibition last year.

Michael O’Neill, the effort’s co-founder, said the company will be reaching out to community groups and government agencies starting next month to get their feedback on what the Yarra Pools project should offer and to promote its broader vision for use of the river.



The long-gestating Flussbad project calls for cleaning up a canal off the German capital’s Spree River for public bathing.

Barbara Schindler, a spokeswoman for the effort, said the idea has been around since the 1990s, but has reached notable milestones in recent years.

She said the organization completed a water quality study in 2015 and has received $4.6 million in government funding to hopefully turn the concept into reality.