What Could Accessible Public Waterways Look Like in Boston?

A MITASC story contributed by Lucy Milde

If Bostonians knew exactly the benefits of an accessible public body of water, the Charles might be a lot cleaner right now. During my summer working in the offshore wind department of COWI, an engineering consulting firm based in Lyngby, Denmark, I easily accessed Copenhagen’s city center via an impressive network of trains and buses. Denmark may boast quite a few stunning castles, but my favorite place to visit was the Islands Brygge Harbor Bath.

Docks extend out into the channel between the islands of Zealand and Amager, forming multiple interior protected pools. Shallow pools lined with plastic lattice allow children to safely wade, while areas lined with netting are deep enough for adults to dive and swim. A five meter jumping platform sticks out into the pool, resembling the bow of a ship. A grassy park just onshore complements the project, and in the summer both spaces are crowded with swimmers and sunbathers. This is the first, and largest, of the harbor baths, but its popularity has led to three more around the city.

This public space did not spring naturally from city development, nor was it even inherited from generous city planning a century ago. In the 1990s the harbor was just as polluted as any old industrial harbor, as the story our tour guide told us goes, and the water was a health hazard to be near. The citizens and their city government decided cleaning the water was a priority and funded extensive restorative cleaning operations. Planning to make the water good enough to swim, the city commissioned Bjarke Ingels (early in his career before he was world famous) to design a harbor bath. A beautiful and functional harbor bath emerged in 2003, inviting toddlers and teenagers alike to cool off and enjoy the space on hot summer days. With high quality water monitoring, the city’s canals are generally just as clean as the sound outside. More recently, the city even commissioned a sauna to be added to the structure to increase its winter use, complete with mosaics from a contemporary artist.

You could visit Copenhagen and marvel at people jumping into the canals anywhere in the city, without ever realizing this is not due to natural currents and the geometry of the coast; it is humbling to realize that this change occurred primarily during my lifetime. Water cleanup is expensive, and the benefits can seem abstract, but the Charles River could be a lot cleaner if Bostonians knew exactly how good it can be.



This public reflection was produced as part of the work of the MIT Action Sustainability Corps. Learn more about MITASC here.