31.01.2019 – Switzerland has chosen the revitalisation of the River Aire as its entry for the Landscape Award of the Council of Europe. It is the first time the country has taken part in the competition. As a result of the project, the Aire is now not only a valuable habitat for plants and animals and a popular recreational space but also – thanks to the preservation of the old man-made channel – a place of cultural history and a successful example of collaboration within a multidisciplinary team.
Canalised or renatured – or both? The Aire is a small river that rises in France at the foot of Mont Salève, flows through the Geneva Basin and joins the River Arve in the Geneva agglomeration. Rather than simply reversing the original canalisation, the renaturation project has left it as a cultural and historical marker of man's influence on the region. The result is a fine example of the preservation of a cultural landscape that combines both recreational and ecological needs. The 'Revitalisation of the River Aire' project is now set to become Switzerland's first ever entry into the Council of Europe's Landscape Award.
The aim of the award is to draw public attention to the value of landscapes and to raise awareness of their role and the changes affecting them. Conferred every two years since 2009, the Landscape Award will be presented for the seventh time in April 2019. Previous winners include the Parc de la Deûle in Lille (2009), regeneration of the former mining landscape of Carbonia in Sardinia (2011) and a project to preserve ecological value in the Szprotawa River Valley in Poland (2013).
Switzerland's entry was chosen by a jury made up of practitioners, researchers and government representatives. Six entries were considered, all of which had won nationwide accolades in recent years (see box).
Human interventions and their effects
Canalisation of the River Aire began in the late 19th century and was long considered an engineering success: a five-kilometre stretch of the watercourse was channelled, eliminating the threat of flooding, and the former wetland turned into fertile farmland. At that time, the radical changes caused to the landscape and the flora and fauna living along the once meandering river were deemed of lesser importance.
In recent years, however, our understanding of the natural world has evolved: the realisation that there are limits to how much we can control nature has led to calls for rivers to be given more space again in order to strengthen natural processes and the interactions integral to biodiversity.
As early as 1998, well before the revised Waters Protection Act of 2011 in which the federal government called on the cantons to revitalise their watercourses, the Canton of Geneva launched a renaturation programme with a number of objectives. Increasing the amount of space available to rivers would protect local residents from flooding, restore the rivers into valuable habitats and also provide recreational spaces for the public. In 2000, the Canton launched a design competition for revitalising the River Aire.
The project submitted by Superpositions, an interdisciplinary team of designers, biologists and hydrologists as well as civil and environmental engineers, stood out from the rest: rather than restore the river landscape to its natural state, they planned to do the exact opposite by preserving the traces that man had left on the landscape over the preceding decades. The project was implemented in three stages, starting in 2002. A fourth stage, scheduled for completion by 2022, will enhance the Aire from the village of Certoux to the French border.
A diverse landscape
Today, the banks of the revitalised river are a popular recreational area and a precious habitat for water-loving plants and animals. No longer bisected by a concrete channel, the landscape is much more diverse, with the river flowing in a newly-designed bed, slowly or rapidly depending on the water level, and providing an important habitat for a variety of species.
The former channel has been preserved as a reminder of how things have changed: some sections are covered with pergolas and there are picnic areas and steps leading down to the water, creating an attractive space in which people can walk, run and relax as well as a practical thoroughfare for non-motorised traffic. By reading the landscape as an overlay, or 'superposition', of different layers of time, the project designers have created a hybrid of the natural and the artificial that brings the diverse history of the place to life.
The project is valuable not only for its outcome but also for its approach, having evolved in close consultation with residents, farmers, environmental organisations and local government representatives. The involvement of a range of stakeholders has led to widespread popularity and support for the project.
Nature and design in harmony
The project, which has won a raft of awards in recent years both in Switzerland and abroad, including the Swiss Heritage Society's Schulthess Garden Prize in 2012 and the Landezine International Landscape Award in 2018, also scored highly with the jury appointed to choose Switzerland's entry for the Landscape Award of the Council of Europe.
The jury felt that it made a forward-looking contribution to landscape development and harmoniously juxtaposed recreation and ecology, while also providing an answer to the topical question of how landscapes should develop near ever more densely populated urban areas.
Last modification 31.01.2019