Urban rivers and pollution

Two PIREN-Seine researchers, historian Laurence Lestel and geographer Catherine Carré, have published a book with Editions Quae which reports on the pollution conditions in urban rivers across four iconic European cities: Brussels, Berlin, Milan and Paris. Titled "Urban Rivers and Pollution", the work traces the history of the relationship of these cities with their respective rivers, presents the solutions which are currently being applied, and offers an evaluation of their effectiveness.


Over two centuries, the rivers which cross European cities have transformed from being the garbage chutes for all of their waste to living aquatic environments, to be preserved and integrated into the city. However, this reversal in perspective came as the result of the sacrifice of their rivers by these cities during their urbanisation and industrialisation in the 19th century. The four cities of Brussels, Berlin, Milan and Paris were chosen because they are located on rivers with slow or very slow flows. The cities have for many years exerted pressures which altered the operation of their rivers, and even compromised their ability to retain their function.

Applying an interdisciplinary approach — ranging from ecology through hydrology to social science — the authors reconstruct the awareness which societies had of the operation of these rivers, describe the monitoring techniques involved, and list the measures taken to improve their condition. They then evaluate the effectiveness of the responses, by tracking the evolution of the state of the rivers and of their fish populations, which are used here as a tracker of the pressures exerted and the response of the aquatic environment.

These case studies illustrate the diversity of paths of these city-river partnerships, and the lack of causality between an awareness of the quality of these waterways, their monitoring and the decisions taken. They reveal the importance of political choices in these four cities — irrespective of the financial and technical means available — and provide feedback for the world’s major cities which, a century later, face the same challenges.


Urban rivers and pollution

Éditions Quae, Indisciplines collection

Coordinated by:

Laurence Lestel, environmental historian in charge of research at CNRS’ Environmental Laboratory, Transferts et Interactions for hydrosystems and soils (UMR 7619 Metis, UPMC) and the PIREN-Seine research programme.

Catherine Carré, professor at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, researcher at the Social Dynamics Laboratory and Spatial Redesign (Ladyss) and an associate at the Water, Environment and Urban Systems Laboratory (Leesu).

292 pages, €42.