4 Lessons learned and way forward

The case studies on urban river and lake restoration reviewed for this report reveal that there are several critical aspects to think about when planning and running such restoration activities.  This section summarises some key lessons learned from the reviewed case studies  and frames some key contextual issues, which are potentially relevant to different urban settings across Europe. These are aspects related to local planning processes, the multi-functionality of urban restoration, availability of space for urban restoration, public participation and the involvement of multiple actors. This section also highlights some significant future challenges for the restoration of rivers and lakes in an urban setting.

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2.1 Local planning

Restoring the water environment in urban areas has very important links with local planning and with flood risk management. Local authorities can use land use planning processes to deliver improvements to urban rivers and lakes. Strategic development plans and local development plans are produced by planning authorities with input from a wide range of stakeholders. They can identify aspirations and assist delivery of restoration, and offer an important opportunity for interested parties to become involved in the decision making process (Natural Scotland – Scottish Government, 2015).

In this context, the planning process and financing of restoration measures in urban areas requires strong collaboration of water and city development authorities, authorities responsible for urban and spatial planning and local residents.

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Several examples for such collaboration and links to local planning and spatial planning processes can be found in the cases reviewed for this report.

-          The spatial development plan of the city of Leuven treated the Dyle river as a separate structure with high importance to be a blue-green corridor throughout the city. The main aim was to enhance the way the watercourse is experienced. General principles such as higher water storage, improved water quality and erosion measures are also integrated in this plan. In addition, cooperation with project developers makes it possible for the Flanders Environment Agency to do more in terms of restoration in the city centre with less money. The project developers are responsible for opening up covered parts of the river and working out the design of the blue-green corridor. The Flanders Environment Agency participates in the river enhancements.

-          In the city of Nijmegen, the main factor that influenced the selection of the interventions on the River Waal, i.e. moving the dyke back from the riverbank and digging a second river channel in the resulting new area of floodplain, was the possibility to combine them with a larger city redevelopment project. In fact, the restoration project has created a catalyst for an integral development of the area, including a new residential neighborhood on the new island created on the River Waal and on the north shore, the revitalization of the other shore at the old city centre and the creation of a unique new river park.

-          In the city of Mérida, the restoration project on the River Guadiana was linked to the Urban Plan of Mérida.

-          In the city of Łódź, the ability to motivate urban developers to consider innovations linked to stormwater management in development projects has been an important aspect for the stream and river restoration. The restoration of the River Sokołowka and its valley showed that local town plans (spatial development plans) are basic tools for the right investments (green infrastructure, water retention, biologically active areas) to achieve revitalization of the valley to its natural form.

-          Ongoing urban restoration projects also show that except for opportunities, there are also many challenges ahead when it comes to linking restoration with other planning processes. In the city of Leipzig, there are still considerable planning challenges on the way to a full revitalisation of the Leipzig floodplain, because the interests of other water users and owners must be taken into account (flood protection authorities, hydropower producers and urban sanitary environmental engineering). It has also become clear that a full floodplain dynamic cannot be achieved only via the measures of the restoration project (Lebendige Luppe).

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4.2 Multi-functionality

In designing restoration projects for urban rivers and lakes, it is important to aim for multi-functional schemes. Multi-functional schemes contribute to the achievement of multiple benefits for different sectors, and are thus in a better position to raise different funding sources and enhance cooperation between different actors in the governance setting.

Multi-functional urban restoration measures are seen as win-win measures that help deliver synergies, e.g. to implement different policies such as the WFD, Floods Directive and Habitats Directive. Except for the strong links of restoration with flood risk management, it is additionally important to create spaces that allow experiencing nature. Such win-win restoration measures can easier gain public and political acceptance and secure multiple sources of (co-)funding.

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-          In the London Rivers Action Plan, there are several examples of multi-purpose restoration. For instance, the design of the restoration of the Quaggy was driven by a multi-disciplinary scheme, which enabled wider community and environmental benefits to be achieved. Demonstrating multiple benefits has enabled a wider range of funding sources to be approached for future schemes. Similarly, in the case of restoring the Mayesbrook Park in London a “mosaic” funding model could be applied, with numerous funding partners collaborating to deliver multiple benefits in the project.

-          Also in the case of the Oslo city strategy for de-culverting streams and rivers, an important lesson learned from the development and implementation of the strategy is that multi-functionality is very important to consider. Several ecosystem services have been considered and justified the de-culverting efforts in Oslo throughout the last decades, with improved urban stormwater handling as a starting point. In addition, several other services required due attention in the implementation of such a strategy, in order to to ensure good and operational inter-agency cooperation within the city administration (including agencies responsible for the implementation of the WFD and planning agencies seeking to maximise the usefulness and attractiveness of green areas). When de-culverting projects took place in public open spaces, substantial additional financial resources could in some cases be provided that allowed for developing landscape blue-green solutions with high aesthetical and multi-functional value.

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-          In the case of the River Dyle, it has been possible to integrate the objectives of the Floods Directive with those of the WFD by carrying out natural flood protection measures upstream of Leuven to reduce flood risks for the city. In addition, a large part of the valley upstream of Leuven is designated as Natura 2000 area, therefore measures taken there for flood protection should always take into account the natural importance of the valley. Most of the land upstream of the city is property of government and it could be used in multiple ways by combining flood protection with nature protection objectives.

-          In Ljubljana, a reservoir has been re-designed in a multi-functional way to address pollution and flood risk issues as well as enhance nature conservation values.

-          In the heavily industrialised and urbanised area of the Ruhr in Germany, a Master Plan has been adopted to frame the restoration of the River Emscher (Master Plan “Emscher Future”). This addresses several objectives in an integrated way, especially water quality degradation, flood prevention, river restoration and urban landscape design that serves for the living and recreation of people.

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The multi-functional Podutik reservoir   against pollution and floods (Ljubljana)

The   Podutik reservoir, constructed in 1986 to protect part of the Ljubljana Urban   Region from floods, receives water from the Glinščica River and stormwater   from the nearby settlements. The reservoir is facing water quality problems,   as it is affected by occasional overflows from leaking septic tanks, polluted   tributaries and urban runoff from gardens, parking places, etc (Griessler   Bulc et al. 2015).

In 2001,   the Glinščica River as a main recipient of the water from the Podutik reservoir   was found to be increasingly toxic. With the objective to provide additional   flood prevention and pollution mitigation, as of 2006, in scope of the   Environmental Action Programme of Ljubljana (2014-2020), the authorities   started to implement green infrastructure in the catchment of the Glinščica   River. Part of the flood reservoir Podutik was redesigned into a   multi-functional flood reservoir with enhanced ecosystem services, provided   by a constructed wetland and a new, meandering river bed.

The re-design of the Podutik   reservoir into a multifunctional flood reservoir has enhanced water quality   and improved nature conservation value, as well as encouraged recreational   and educational use (Grant, 2016). Efforts to include civil society and   provide education have contributed to public awareness and have stimulated   communication between public authorities, polluters and end users of the   flood reservoir.

The re-design of the Podutik flood reservoir is also   used as a demonstration site. As Podutik is the first multi-functional   flood reservoir in the Ljubljana Urban Region area, as well in Slovenia, it is   used to outline new perspectives for future developments in water management   and flood prevention.

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4.3 Space for urban restoration

In urban areas, where available space is limited, river restoration projects are frequently restricted. However, there is potential to deliver improvements in physical condition, along with significant environmental and social benefits, by using innovative approaches. For example, in Munich, the flood corridor of the River Isar offered some space and thus could be integrated in the Isar restoration project.

Towns and cities are continually changing and it is this process of change which provides the opportunity for restoring river and lake environments. For example, there may be opportunities to remove redundant structures and buildings, and restore derelict land alongside rivers in order to improve local amenity and environment (Natural Scotland, 2015).

Because of the lack of space in urban areas, some cities have also been developing stepping-stone concepts for restoring the networks of their water bodies. On the one hand, restoration interventions are easier to plan and implement in the outskirts and peri-urban areas than in downtown districts. When it comes to restoration combined with flood risk management, this is even necessary as flood retention should be achieved before the flood reaches the city centre. On the other hand, restoration in the centre of large cities can be time-consuming, costly and technically difficult both in the planning and implementation process. To deal with such difficulties, the city of Vienna has adopted a stepping stone approach to restoring its urban water bodies. The activities have started in the outskirts of the city where the frame conditions are easier. For the more central urban stretches, which are very difficult to restore, master plans are developed in each case for the entire stretch, and implementation takes place in phases (starting with the River Liesing (2015-2021) and continuing with the River Wien in the next WFD planning period (2021-2021)).

The case studies reviewed for this report also show that urban restoration projects can be facilitated when the land in question is in public hands. In the city of Łódź, the investments for restoration are being implemented on land which belongs to the City or other public owners, which makes the implementation process more efficient. Similarly, in Leipzig, large parts of the project area for the restoration of the Luppe are already in public ownership, especially forest sites. Transformation of arable land into more floodplain-adapted land uses like grassland still remains a big challenge as compensation areas have to be found. In the case of the River Guadiana (Mérida), one of the goals of the restoration project was to increase the public domain areas on the river banks. Obtaining new areas close to the river to develop the restoration activities was necessary, and this was achieved by the means of expropriation (according to Spanish law).

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4.4 Public participation

Planning and execution of measures in urban river restoration should not follow a top-down approach. Public consultation and engagement with local communities have emerged as a crucial step in the planning and implementation of restoration measures in cities. Civil society and the private sector are crucial for the development of cities and their hinterlands and will play a major role in coping with the challenges ahead.

Several examples of public participation processes are available in the case studies reviewed for this report.

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-          In Leipzig, a large communication process has been established to show the extent to which the Lebendige Luppe project can mitigate negative effects of the loss of floodplain functioning in the Leipzig area. Due to interventions of NGOs, nature conservation experts and scientific expertise, the objectives of the project have been enlarged to restore more flood dynamics in the river than originally planned. In parallel a floodplain management forum has been installed to bring forward future river and floodplain restoration measures in the Leipzig floodplain context.

-          In London, due to the high public profile for the Mayesbrook restoration and Mayesbrook Park regeneration works, considerable pre-project engagement was undertaken to raise awareness of the potential gains in natural capital and social benefits. In particular, work with local school groups, awareness raising and stakeholder engagement activities were led by key partners. Formal public meetings were held regularly to inform local residents and businesses at key planning stages. These efforts allowed ensuring good knowledge exchange with local residents and park users (e.g. in relation to potential changes to the existing landscape which carried significance to individuals or families) as well as allaying concerns and identifying the best available solution without compromising the scheme objectives.

-          In the city of Nijmegen, many of the regional partners and stakeholders were extremely critical of and opposed to the national Room for the River plans, which was to be implemented for the River Waal. The proposal to move the dike into Lent provoked widespread public opposition and demonstrations. In this case, the key to creating win-win solutions was to align the national goals such as on water safety and nature development with those of the regional stakeholder groups.

-          In Munich, public consultation increased the acceptability of the project on the restoration of the River Isar. From the start of the Isar-Plan in 1995 the public was asked to accompany the planning process. People were interviewed about the new river and their preferences and the results of these interviews formed the guidelines for the planning process.

-          In the case of re-designing the Podutik flood reservoir in Ljubljana, efforts to include civil society and to organise information events contributed to awareness on the multi-functionality of the reservoir. Consultation activities also counteracted the lack of communication of different end-users of the area of the flood reservoir especially regarding maintenance.  

-          Also in Oslo, experience gained with the city’s stream culverting strategy shows it is important to engage the local communities surrounding the stretches being de-culverted. This requires a proper stakeholder analysis prior to the start of the work and their subsequent engagement.  The de-culverting projects including complementary non-water related components may add substantial welfare benefits and improvements in quality of life to local residents with good local participation. Conversely, they may result in conflict-ridden projects if not well received and without good participatory processes.

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4.5 Governance framework

Except for engaging with the public and citizens affected by restoration schemes, it proves equally important to establish effective cooperation between the different actors (especially government bodies and organised stakeholder groups) with a stake and influence on urban restoration.

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-          In the restoration of the River Isar (Munich), the level of cooperation achieved between all stakeholders involved within the Isar-Plan was excellent and one key success factor for the project. An interdisciplinary working group “Isar-Plan” was set up with members from the State Office of Water Management Munich and the City of Munich (different departments). Based on joint scoping work of this group, the development goals for the project were defined. The City Council and District Councils were involved during the progress of the project as well as the Isar-Alliance of NGOs.

-          Similarly in the city of Łódź, stakeholder involvement through a Learning Alliance has driven the success of the restoration initiative for the River Sokołówka. It has also created links strong enough to last beyond the lifetime of the initiative and to sustain the upscaling of research results. Because research foci remained flexible and responsive to stakeholder needs, stakeholders participating in the initiative were able to really take advantage of their involvement. The Learning Alliance provided a well-structured framework to identify needs, develop capacities, define common goals and align the efforts of multiple actors towards reaching them and communicate decisions and achievements.

-          In the restoration of the River Guadiana in Mérida, cooperation between governmental organizations (State, Region, City) has been absolutely fundamental due to the great number of aspects concerned. This approach has been replicated in similar projects.

-          In Leipzig, the governance framework of the floodplain revitalisation project Lebendige Luppe is also highly challenging because of the multi-functionality of the floodplain in an urban setting. There are many actors involved given that the river network in and around Leipzig is a heavily managed system. The planning phase has to bring together many actors responsible for flood and river management, nature conservation, forestry, agriculture, the neighbouring public, NGOs and politicians; different levels of local to regional authorities and agencies are also involved.

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4.6 Concluding remarks – Looking forward

The main challenges being faced by European cities and towns in terms of managing their rivers and lakes have been recently transforming. Due to improvements in water quality in the last decades, there is now increasing emphasis on improving the physical structure of urban rivers and lakes. In addition to benefiting water ecology, this new focus helps to create aesthetically pleasing open spaces and deal with new challenges such as adaptation to climate change. Having said that, we need to keep in mind that water quality problems are not fully resolved yet in all urban centres around Europe and they partly still remain a big challenge in several cities. There are still open issues in terms of compliance with European urban wastewater treatment requirements, in terms of stormwater management and chemical pollution of sediments.

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Urban rivers and lakes are water systems where different water management issues and social needs come together and need to be dealt with in an integrated way. For this reason, it is critical to aim for multi-functional urban restoration schemes. Urban river and lake restoration cannot be designed using a single-objective approach, e.g. to achieve the environmental objectives of EU water policy. Instead, other objectives need to be taken into account such as improving the quality of life of citizens, linking water body restoration to urban regeneration schemes and delivering multiple benefits such as flood protection and recreation. This can prove crucial in gaining political, social and financial support. Decision-making for restoration projects in cities can also be supported in the future by providing more accurate definitions of the expected benefits (both direct and indirect benefits in terms of ecosystem services).

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The value of restored urban rivers and lakes has been highlighted in terms of creating opportunities for leisure, recreation and enhancement of city aesthetic. In the same time, because of the attractiveness of restored water bodies in an urban setting, action needs to be taken on the planning level to minimise the risk of privatisation and overexploitation of areas close to restoration schemes. There is a need to balance the right of citizens to gain access to water with rising prices of private property in newly developed areas on the waterfront.

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Future restoration of urban rivers and lakes also needs to be better balanced and coordinated with interventions in the broader catchment. Cities and towns are frequently affected by the impacts of activities taking place in rural upstream areas either in terms of water quality degradation (e.g. due to diffuse pollution from agriculture) or water flow changes (especially relevant to flood risk which is increased due to the lack of natural water retention upstream).

Last but not least, because of the complexity, multi-functionality and social relevance of river and lake restoration in urban centres, it remains a challenge to design transparent public participation processes and efficient governance structures to accompany urban restoration strategies and projects.

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