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München, the Disneyland of Water Cities

Some of you may have been wondering why no posts for the past couple weeks. Well you need not fret no more. I’m back and ready to deliver more content to my thousands upon thousands of blog subscribers. Okay dozens. Okay seven of you. This one’s going to be a bit of a long one so buckle up, but it’s pretty epic story in my opinion. Especially if you’re into water stuff. It was a life changing experience for me, personally. A story that I felt needed a full dedicated blog post.

At the end of September and into early October I spent two weeks traveling across Europe on various trains. The trip primarily consisted of walking around looking at various old buildings and mountains and drinking only the finest, cheapest wines and beers France, Switzerland, and Germany have to offer.

While on the trip we spent four nights in lovely München, Deutschland. Or “Munich, Germany” as us English speaking folk like to call.

Admittedly, I’m not much of “research” guy when it comes to vacation planning. I tend to like to go where the wind takes me. Or rely on my amazing and wonderful wife to herd me like a farm animal in the right direction of where I should go next. Who am I kidding, it’s mostly the latter, and not just on vacations. I do appreciate the prodding, otherwise in all likelihood I’d be lost.

So when we were planning this Europe trip, my only request was a stop off in Munich for Oktoberfest and Neuschwanstein Castle. Both were great. I won’t overload you with obnoxiously envious vacation photos. That’s not what this blog is about. That’s why Instagram exists. What the hell, here’s one of me in lederhosen just to prove I was there. Hash tag, no filter.

Side note: lederhosen are surprisingly more comfortable and warm than they are described or appear. Would wear again.

Now for the main point of this blog post.

We spent one afternoon visiting Munich’s riverfront parks, network of man made canals, and flood mitigation projects. I walked away pretty much in awe. More determined for why this blog even exists in the first place. Before we get into these details I think a little background and history about Munich is necessary. Minus all the Hitler/Nazis/beer hall putsch stuff (insert nervous cough here). I’ll just stick to water history. Thanks.

Munich Background & History

(No Nazis. Nazis suck. Water stuff only.)

Munich is located at very southern portion of Germany at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps near the border of Austria and Switzerland. See Europe map pulled from Google:

Some facts about Munich:

  • Has a land area of about 120 sq. miles which is about double the area of the City of Pittsburgh’s 58 sq. miles.
  • Has about 1.5 million residents which is nearly identical to Allegheny County’s 1.2 million.
  • Averages about 37 inches of rainfall annually which is nearly identical to Pittsburgh’s 38 inches.
  • All things considered, Munich and Pittsburgh are pretty similar in a lot of ways. Also, both cities drink enough beer to kill thousands of small pets on an annual basis.

However, there is one major difference between Munich and Pittsburgh. That would be Munich’s central river, the Isar River. The Isar River is much much smaller than either the Allegheny or the Monongahela Rivers. Maybe the nearest local Pittsburgh comparison would be the Youghiogheny River. Both rivers are roughly equal in length, but the Isar River has about double the average annual flow rate as compared to the Youghiogheny. So just imagine for a second if Pittsburgh had only one river and this river was about twice the size of the Youghiogheny. That’s about what Munich looks like. See below:

Like Pittsburgh, Munich’s main reason for existence is its location next to a river. In the 10th century, a lucrative salt trade route passed through the present day location of Munich. Humans, as always, ceased upon an opportunity to make money and erected a toll bridge across the Isar River and charged a tax to the traders passing through. Eventually the toll bridge became a stop off for traders, town walls were constructed, and about 2500 people called Munich home.

To serve its growing population and support the trade and shipping route, beginning in the 13th century Munich began diverting water from the Isar River and constructed artificial man made canals throughout the city. Lots and lots of canals. Over 40 miles of them. The canals were constructed over several centuries until about the 18th century. These canals would serve an important function in present day Munich’s water character. More on that later.

Then the 19th century happened when a little thing called the industrial revolution diverted the course of humanity. Like most cities in the western world, including cities like Pittsburgh, population saw a dramatic increase in Munich in the late 1800s as people abandoned their farms for factory work. Coal plants were constructed to generate electricity which replaced the need for canals and hydropower.

Lots of people moving into a relatively small footprint in a short amount of time without adequate preparation led to some issues. Maybe the biggest problem was Munich’s lack of adequate sanitation methods to accommodate all the new people. Clean drinking water and a sewer system to carry away foul water were lacking or non-existent. Munich’s canals and water bodies basically became open cesspools due lack of a sewer system and a sewage treatment plant. Sure enough people started getting sick and dying from water born illnesses such as typhoid fever and cholera outbreaks. Also just like Pittsburgh around that time.

So the people of Munich went ahead and filled in most of the canals or turned them into combined sewers. Hey, also just like Pittsburgh around that time.

And that brings us up to right up to the start of the 20th century. At this point of the blog article I’ll just yadayadayada over the next few decades of Munich history. Yadayadayada, Germany lost two wars.

Note: If you want to read more in-depth about Munich’s awesome water history I would suggest the following research paper where I got most of my information for this blog post, “The rise and fall of Munich’s early modern water network: a tale of prowess and power” by Verena Winiwarter, et al.

Modern day Munich and it’s Disneyland water system

OK now that we have those unfortunate wars behind us, let’s skip ahead to modern day Munich.

Munich’s river park system and water network is absolutely freaking amazing. To me, I was in Disneyland. Except it was free and there was no one dying of heat exhaustion inside a mascot suit in 90+ degree weather. Which I guess on second thought makes it not like Disneyland at all. But you get the point, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

What makes Munich’s water system so amazing are three things:

Amazing Water Thing Number 1: The Remaining Canal System and the English Gardens

Here’s a map taken from wikipedia of Munich’s remaining canal system. The remaining canals are shown in blue and abandoned/filled in ones are shown in purple.

Water for the canals is diverted from the Isar River here (Canal Intake 1 shown on map – see the side canal going to the upper right of the screen immediately in front of the white apartment buildings) and here (Canal Intake 2 shown on map – notice the grates in the side of the wall where water enters underground). Water from these two points then travels north underground through the heart of Munich for a couple miles where it eventually reappears near the palaces at Hofgarten and cascades down into the English Gardens at this great little waterfall where if I lived in Munich I would likely sit every day and picnic. Here’s my super awesome wife posing in her Dirndl for a photo at the waterfall.

I know what you are thinking. Tom did you get prior clearance from her to post this photo to the blog? My response to that question would be: Are you insane? Of course. I may be clueless when it comes to the female sex but I know when to not put my life in jeopardy.

From there the water heads down to this great little pond that has a small island with a freaking Japanese Teahouse at the center. Below is a gallery of some photos of the pond and the surrounding canal streams.

Finally, one cannot mention the English Gardens without the urban surfing. As mentioned earlier, the canals were originally constructed for hydropower, so as a result there are some pretty crazy artificial standing waves and waterfalls within the park. Below is a 20 second video I took of the surfers. You can also google “Munich Surfing” and read tons of articles about surfing in the middle of 1.5 million person city center and the pros and cons that come with all that. From my limited research on Munich surfing, I get the sense it’s been a bit of a blessing and a curse for the city with respect to safety and idiot tourists especially around Oktoberfest time.

Eh, no comment.

Amazing Water Thing Number 2: The Isar River Banks and Flood Protection Projects

One thing I did not mention in the history of Munich is how in the 1800s the Isar River was purposely engineered within a concrete channel. This was done to make sure that the Isar River would stay in the same place year after year so that the river would be more “predictable” in its location. Although the river may be more stable in its location, this resulted in increased flooding in the City because now the flood plains are removed. The water when it gets high after it rains has no where to go except stay inside the man made channel.

If there’s one thing this blog promotes first and foremost, it is that flood plains should be protected from encroachment and development. Flood plains are there for a natural purpose and should not be developed within or touched under 99% of circumstances. When rivers and streams inevitably rise during large storms, water needs a place to safely disperse. That is the primary function of a flood plain. Without them there are problems, especially when it comes to flooding. For a good local Pittsburgh example, see Saw Mill Run. The flood plains in Saw Mill Run are now occupied by used car lots and self storage unit buildings. The stream has been completely restricted inside of a mostly man made channel. Both of these conditions make for a bad recipe for increased flooding.

Munich over the past few decades has taken on a grand challenge (see this blog’s first post) and has developed the Isar Plan. The plan sets out to correct past mistakes with respect to the Isar River and its flood plains.

As part of the plan, the City of Munich in partnership with several German government agencies and local citizen groups are taking on a complex problem together. The plan calls for restoring the Isar River by re-creating the flood plain banks and removing the channelization. Below is a great time lapse video of the construction process in action for a section of the Isar River in the city center of Munich. Essentially, the machinery in the video are pulling down the concrete channels and allowing the River to “breathe.” And what makes this video even more awesome, is that an actual flood happens about halfway through the video! It gives you an idea of how the process of flood plains actually work. It’s one of the best videos on restoring natural flood plains I’ve seen.

Amazing Water Thing 3: The Isar River’s High Water Quality

The Isar River has very good to high water quality most of the year. So good in fact that most of the river is used by residents for swimming and bathing in summer months. Also surfing! And public nude bathing. Don’t knock it until you try it. It’s European! Sorry no pics. Will not send nudes.

Below is a photo taken this year in July 2019 in Munich during the record heat waves that spread across most of Europe.

Here’s another more interactive location of a popular spot near the Marianne Bridge. And another a little further upstream. And another near the Deutsches Museum.

You get the idea. Pretty amazing huh?

But how is the water so clean? Munich has 1.5 million residents (more than Pittsburgh), is highly developed (just like Pittsburgh), has a combination storm and sanitary sewer system (just like Pittsburgh), and gets a lot of rain every year (just like Pittsburgh). Shouldn’t Munich have the same combined sewer overflow issues?

The reason is because Munich captures and prevents most of its combined sewer overflows in 14 massive underground storage basins scattered throughout the city. These things are gigantic. Below is picture of one under the Hirschgarten, a city park located in Munich.

I liked this description of the basins taken from this article:

“The dimensions, reminiscent of the Moria Mines of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, are gigantic: 200 meters long, 60 meters wide, six meters high. Directly below is a second pool. It’s even bigger.”

Converting from meters to Murican Freedom Units that’s roughly 650′ by 200′ by 20′. And there’s two of these directly on top of each other. And this is just one of 14.

Below is an animated video of how the basins work. Note: there is no sound on the video, so you will just have to go to your kitchen and run the faucet while you watch the video to mimic the background sound of running water.

Here’s another great article I found, stating that these are the likely the largest underground stormwater basins in Europe, if not the entire world.

So there you have it. The land of Munich and it’s Disneyland like system of amazing water things.

Some of you may be saying to yourself, “Tom, what’s the point of all this? We can’t do this in Pittsburgh.”

And to that I say “Nonsense. All of this is possible.”

There’s no reason why Pittsburgh can’t be Munich. We really aren’t all that different, as discussed throughout this post. It will take time, no doubt. But we can do it. There’s examples all around Pittsburgh of people trying to make it happen. Watch this video of Saw Mill Run for example.

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