Berlin Map from 1688, drawn by J.M.F. Schmidt. 

Berlins water, topography and river bath history 

The sandy Warsaw-Berlin glacial valley is a result of the last ice age that occurred twelve thousand years ago. Having been swept along with the ice, the debris formed valleys and moraines through which the ensuing rivers eroded their routes. Berlin lies within an end moraine that encompasses both a plain and sandy ground. This meant that the Spree ran slowly and thus formed a marshy landscape. The source of the Spree lies about 400 meters above sea level in the Lausatian mountains but on reaching Berlin, after a retaining dam at Spreewald which slows its pace further, it’s level reduces to 23 meters above sea level. 

There are indicators that the Spree was an important artificially-altered transportation medium even in prehistoric times. Long before, during the Middle Ages, Köpenick and Spandau were the two important trade ports en route to the Baltic sea. During that period, the current area of Berlin was most likely completely submerged and only became inhabitable after the fall of these trade centres. 

New trade routes emerged away from the war-ridden outposts of Spandau and Köpenick and people began to settle down on four sand banks that later became Berlin and Cölln. For example, the Berlin TV tower had to be constructed on one of these islands because only the sandbank is capable of supporting the weight and foundations. These former islands were surrounded by streams, ponds and marshland. The three Spree channels were the most important preconditions for the development for both settlements because they provided safety and could be dammed to create a lake and thereby harbour and mills on the opposing side. The cities were connected by the „Mühlendamm“ (eng: mill dam) which still exists today. Due to the resulting trade, they slowly began to prosper and gained further importance when the first Märkisch parliament met in Berlin in 1280 A.D. To develop and expand the cities, the spaces between the islands were filled with sand to gain stable ground to build upon. A subsequent step was taken in 1658 when the elector Friedrich Wilhelm gave the command to build a fortress after Dutch models. In Cölln’s section, the walls were built upon mighty oak trunks with wide dikes surrounding them.


Celebration for the 50. anniversary of the Pfuelsche Badeanstalt 1867., n.d.

As a result, the groundwater level sunk, the rivers were turned into canals and given an artificial riverbed and the surrounding marshland became partly dry and arable ground. Yet still the cities had to regularly deal with floods from the Spree and Panke, so the elector of Cleve declared in 1674 that dams should be constructed all over the city to hold back the waters at high tide. Today these can still be seen at Monbijou castle, Friedrichstraße (previously Dammstraße), Oranienburger Straße, Schiffbauerdamm etc. As the influence and power of the Brandenburg-Preußisch state grew, nobleman, the electors and later Kings, needed space and housing near to the castle. Consequently, the land west of the castle was impounded by building wooden frames, sometimes including steel structures, into the ground that then were filled up with gravel to create stable dry ground. Consequently, the land west of the castle was buttressed with both wooden and steel foundations and embedded with gravel to create stable, dry ground. These dwellings housed the rich. Living adjacent to the water became chic as the river carried a fresh breeze into the otherwise rancid-smelling city, where sewage and waste continued to run in open grooves cut into the streets. The inhabitants of the united city Berlin(-Cölln) had to live and deal with the sewage water for a long time. During a spring flood in 1829, the water levels of the Spree and Landwehrkanal broke their banks and flooded the whole city; today‘s Mehring-Platz stood one meter underwater. The Mühlendamm (mill dam) was constantly under construction and was of great importance to the city until the mills became redundant due to industrialization. Due to this, the dam became too small for the growing size and the amount of ships. Hence the dam was demolished in the late nineteen hundreds and a water gate was built instead, big enough to taxi the ships through the city. Due to the exponential growth of Berlin, not only were more streets and bridges were needed but the so-far disregarded irrigation systems were brought to attention. Up until then then, wastewater, sewage and other trash flowed through open stone gutters in every street and gradually found its way to the Spree, where it was thought to be taken care of. The same was true for many industries, such as butchers, who were usually situated downstream of the Friedrichsbrücke in Berlin and who dumped everything that could not be used into the river.

Fresh water came from drawing the wells as Berlin was rich in groundwater and the council saw no reason to make costly improvements. This was until the cholera that had spread from India to Russia hit Preußen. The first instance was in 1831 when over thirty-two thousand people were killed by the outbreak. More outbreaks followed. In 1866 the number of victims rose to over 114,000. Scientists early on started seeing a correlation between the urbanization, bad sanitation and outbreaks of the disease. They were proven right after Robert Koch in 1883 discovered the cholera virus. The city government, consistently broke, still refused to build a centralized water system. But the state could not let its capital city stay in this condition and finalised a contract with two English businessmen in 1856 to build water treatment plants. One was close to the Oberbaumbrücke and from then on it pumped water from the river into a purification plant and then through pipes straight into households. 


However, the wastewater still ran open through the streets and gave way to an unbearable stench, which gave Berlin the questionable accolade as the dirtiest, most pestilence-breeding and malodorous capital city of Europe, in German; “»schmutzigste und pestathmendeste« und »übelrichendste«” (von Simon 1983: 123). Thanks to Rudolf Virchow‘s endeavour as a city councillor, the construction of an underground sewage works finally got approved in March 1873. From then on the hygiene, health and quality of life improved dramatically. Old customs, such as swimming in the natural bodies of water were revived. This was the norm in the sixteenth century, when mostly the younger generation bathed in one of many public bathing facilities located at the Mühlendamm. In fact, the last public swimming facility in the Spree, the Pfuelsche Flussbadeanstalt, was closed by officials only 92 years ago owing to health risks incurred from toxins flowing into the river from adjacent factories. In the 1950s, recreational uses of Berlin’s bodies of water, like sailing, camping, kayaking, swimming and ice skating became more widely accessible as public transport spread. In view of declining industry within the city, potential residential lots became vacant and living by the waterside became commonplace for those who could afford it (Demps 2000).

Several factors should be taken into consideration as Berlin’s unique topography and history stipulates certain features in the design process. Owing to the marshy ground, artificial foundations and citywide water-channelization through dams and water gates, it is not possible to restore natural watersides. The high gauge of groundwater would turn the banks into marshes which are naturally hard to integrate into an urban environment. Above all, the water would start to macerate the surrounding area and would critically destabilise the foundations of neighbouring buildings. Therefore any adjustments to the city’s water system would have to work with the existing preconditions. However the current system also means that due to the widespread water gates, the water level is very stable and controlled. Thus diverting larger amounts of falling rainwater directly into the river will not cause a significant difference in the water levels. The lake land behind Berlin covers a sizeable surface area therefore it has a seemingly large capacity to deal with the extra volume of water.


As the sewer network predates the 19th century, all additions and adjustments were set by its initial construction method, resulting in a limited capacity for rainwater. This leads to a recurrence of the issue of contaminating the waterbodies with overflowing sewage when rain falls heavier than usual. To make the possibility more likely of reviving the river and its channels and to instigate the tradition of using the city-waterside for swimming and leisure, it is crucial to elaborate on the existing, limited sewer network. In summary, Berlin’s unique topographical and historical circumstances need a custom-fit and inter-coordinated approach to tackle the challenges it faces. 

Städtisches Flußbad Lichtenberg with view on the Treptower Park, Landesarchiv Berlin