Near the meeting of the French, Swiss, and German borders is the city of Basel, straddling the Rhine River. Regarded as one of the best cities in which to live, it has a long history as a venue for international gatherings, and a healthy economy as a center for banking and pharmaceuticals. Growing around a Celtic settlement that became a Roman fort, and then as a semi-independent bishopric, Basel expanded its walls and built markets atop the Rhine’s urban tributary, the Birsig River.
The river flows in a park-lined channel through the city, descending into darkness for its final miles beneath the city’s historic center. Above is the tunnel portal at Birsigstrasse, high enough for a small vehicle to enter when the water is low.
Where it Flows
Looking at the official map of its waterways, the historic left bank of the Rhine has four named streams. The Birsig does not spend a lot of its time within the borders of Basel, but it has a long 13-mile course with tributaries in the French Alsace region and the Swiss villages to the south of Basel. Its name is derived from the ancient Celtic term Bersikos, in reference to its fast flow. One source is in the Swiss village of Burg im Leimental, and another in the neighboring French village of Wolschwiller.
One such village is Rodersdorf, which is surrounded by French land on three sides. The landscape here is a valley covered by farms with the Birsig taking on the appearance of a ditch. As it approaches Basel, the stream descends into a heavily wooded ravine hemmed in by buildings and streets.
Birsig in Basel
In the Basel suburb of Binningen, the stream flows past the town castle, and briefly beneath the Baslerstrasse, a wide boulevard that carries a tram route. It receives the tributary Dorenbach at the Basel border, and then flows into the city.
Upon entering Basel, the Birsig enters the grounds of Basel Zoo, the oldest and largest collection of exotic animals in Switzerland. The use of an urban river as a zoo habitat is not unique here. Previously, I documented the Bronx River, Cope Lake, and Northern Ponds doing the same at the Bronx Zoo; Mill Creek flowing through the Erie Zoo; and the Kaitzbach flowing past Dresden Zoo.
To my surprise, the official zoo map does not show the Birsig. In reality most of its water is diverted in a culvert running beneath the zoo, with some of it channeled into ponds used for animal habitats. Between 1954 and 1989, landscape architect Kurt Brägger transformed the zoo grounds into a park-like setting that gave it a more naturalistic appearance.
Upon leaving the zoo, the Birsig is crossed by the impressive Birsig Viaduct, a stone arch bridge constructed in 1886. It is the second of three long viaducts spanning the Birsig valley.
The appearance of a flat arch bridge spanning a river valley is reminiscent of the Nereid Avenue Bridge on the Bronx-Westchester border. There is also the less impressive but quite long and flat 174th Street Bridge, also crossing the Bronx River. In uptown Manhattan there’s High Bridge, the oldest bridge in New York City.
Beneath this bridge is the Nachtigallenwäldeli park, which was redesigned in 2017 to provide more park space while controlling flooding on the river. A building was removed and parking spaces were replaced with parkland. The river flows here through a brick-lined channel.
The verdant linear park shows the possibilities for other hidden urban streams on how to transform a narrow space along a stream into an inviting public amenity. At the park’s downstream end, the Birsig goes underground at the Heeuwaage Viaduct.
When rivers go underground, often their courses are preserved with streets that recall their names, as seen with Birsig Parkplatz, a curving road lined with modern apartments and shops. In 2010 there was a proposal to daylight the Birsig on this street, forcing vehicles to go elsewhere. The city government argued that the plan was too expensive, and disruptive to the heating and telecom lines that run through the culvert.
After taking the tour the Basel-based architecture firm KOSMOS proposed a transformation for the subterranean stream into a linear park akin to the Low Line proposal in Manhattan.
The appearance of this tunnel is also reminiscent of the Little Saint Pierre River in Montreal, whose tunnel runs through the basement of a museum.
Transforming an active sewer into a tourist-friendly passage is not easy but there are not too many places in the world where the public can feel a sense of adventure without risk to life and limb. Along with KOSMOS’ proposal for hydroponic vegetation, there’s plenty of space here for displaying art and screening films.
Birsig in Art
As with my earlier essays on the Bièvre in Paris, Kaitzbach in Dresden, and Dâmbovițaa in Bucharest, I look for artworks that depict the hidden urban stream. For the Birsig, there’s the 1860 painting of the Stadt-Casino by Johann-Jakob Schneider that shows the river descending beneath this concert hall and women drawing water from the stream.
In 1865, Schneider followed with another scene of the Birsig showing a mill on the city wall. At the time the river had become extremely polluted as city businesses and residents dumped their refuse into the stream. Blamed for cholera and typhus, it was nicknamed Basel’s Cloaka (an animal anatomy term for an orifice that excretes urine and feces).
Covering the Birsig
The scene above shows the Barfusserplatz square with the Birsig providing an unsightly distraction from the inns and taverns. The cholera outbreak of 1855 increased public calls to cover the stream. Between 1887 and 1890 the Birsig was covered.
By 1886, shortly before it was covered, another photo was taken of the stream showing how easy it was for residents to dump their trash into the Birsig and expect it to flow downstream.
The news site Barfi.ch has an excellent before-and-after photo essay on the Birsig in the city’s center, showing the same locations in 1885 and 2015. Sadly this news site stopped publishing in August 2018.
The transformation of the free-flowing Birsig into an underground channel began long before the cholera outbreak. This 1642 Matthäus Merian map shows the Barfusserplatz and Marktplatz (marketplace) covering the streambed with their open public spaces. In 1760, the Birsig was also covered between the Kronengässlein and the Blumenplatz. In 1899, the Falknerstrasse atop the stream received trolley tracks that are still in use today.
The confluence of the Birsig and Rhine rivers can be found under Les Trois Rois (Three Kings) Hotel. From a walkway on the water’s edge, one can peer into the Birsig tunnel. From this point, the water of this stream flows down the Rhine along the French-German border, past Strasbourg, into the rich German region of Rhineland where it flows through a picturesque gorge and a dozen historic cities. Upon entering the Netherlands, the Rhine splits into a delta that empties into the North Sea at three points.
The balcony of the hotel above the confluence is famous for its 1897 photo of guest Theodor Herzl by Ephraim Moses Lilien, with the Herzl Room designated as one of the hotel’s attractions. The founder of political Zionism held the First Zionist Congress at the Stadt-Casino, directly atop the Birsig stream. A half century later the Jewish state became reality. Of course for Herzl and the delegates the Birsig River couldn’t be further from their minds. They had a country to build.
In the News:
Independent Record reports on the restoration efforts on Prickly Pear Creek near Helena, Montana.
Revelstroke Mountaineer reports on the daylighting of creeks in Revelstroke, British Columbia.
New Canaan News reports on the upcoming restoration of Waveny Pond in New Canaan, Connecticut.
CityLab reports on the best designed parks of 2018.
The Guardian reports on the swimming culture of north London’s Hampstead Heath ponds.