Restoring Dynamic Fluvial Processes in Urban Rivers: Learning from the Aire and Isar Rivers

In process-based restoration, the objective is not to create a complex river form directly; instead, interventions are intended to “prompt” the natural processes to restore such forms. The improvements in ecological conditions are actually made over time by flowing water during floods (using the stream’s energy), and by the growth of riparian vegetation (using incoming solar energy). On the Aire River in Geneva, ecological function was restored to a formerly canalized river by providing the river with an espace de liberté. A grid of channels cut into the valley bottom allowed the river to freely flood, erode its bed and banks, and deposit bars, creating complex surfaces on which riparian vegetation established to support the food web of the riverine ecosystem. The diamond-shaped bits of land left between these channels (“lozenges”) gradually erode and evolve as the river migrates, creating complex channel forms. The Isar River in Munich restoration involved adding coarse sediment load, creating erodible bed and banks in place of formerly rigid boundaries, expanding process space for river migration, erosion, and deposition, and increased human access to the river over 8 km. Since restoration, natural transport of sediment has resulted in deposition of gravel bars, whose forms evolve during floods, supporting diverse habitats. The Isar and Aire Rivers provide compelling examples of process-based restoration meeting 4 criteria for process-based restoration: space, energy, materials, and time. They demonstrate the possibilities of urban river restoration to achieve both ecological and social goals through restoration of fluvial process. The paper is available under open access here.