According to the findings of an interdisciplinary research project of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the transformation of the Viennese Danube was shaped by natural processes in the river, flooding, transport, human settlements, war and excrement. The project analysed the environmental history, social ecology and hydromorphology of the river over four centuries. The project team reconstructed the transformation from a dynamic river landscape into a regulated channelin detail. To this end, new, and by now, internationally recognized methods were developed and a prestigious journal dedicated a special issue to the project findings.
Rivers shape not only landscapes, but also people, and vice versa: People adapted rivers to meet human needs through regulation measures, such as straightening, redirection and canalisation. Analysing this relationship is a complex challenge that requires not just historical knowledge but also expertise in river morphology. Within the context of an Austrian Science Fund FWF project, an interdisciplinary team has now investigated the environmental history of the Viennese Danube over four centuries, the first time a river has been studied as a "socio-natural site".
Going With And Against The Flow
The ENVIEDAN project provided the framework for the first integrative environmental history of the Viennese Danube from 1500. A completely new approach was of fundamental importance to the work, as project director Prof. Verena Winiwarter, Dean of the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies at Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, explains: "For us, the Viennese Danube is a socio-natural site. The river and the people in its vicinity are socio-natural hybrids." This integrative perspective makes it possible to understand the causes and effects of the Viennese Danube's development.
This understanding cannot be achieved without scientific expertise and detailed work in archives. Not only were topographical sources analysed, but also fluvial patterns and dynamics were reconstructed from the current state backwards to 1529 based on historical maps, charts and files. A geographic information system (GIS) was used. The team researched the military importance of the river since 1529, as well as the gradual expansion of the urbanized area into the river landscape and the role of the Danube for supplying Vienna and disposing of its waste. This enabled identifying the driving forces that so strongly transformed the river's course. Says Prof. Winiwarter: "Threats from flooding and the use of the river as a transport route and for sewage disposal were influential throughout the period under investigation. By contrast, the use of the river for military protection of the city and the reclamation of settlement area had an impact only at certain times."
A Flood of Findings
The project findings resulted in multiple publications. A particular achievement is the recently published special issue of the International Journal of Water History, in which no fewer than six articles appeared. One of the papers deals with the river's changing transport function over the centuries: Initially used to supply energy carriers, the river later became the main artery of grain supply. Transportation decreased in importance from the 16th to 19th century, as the growing city used the Danube more and more as a sewer. At the core of the project are the unique reconstructions of the river landscape, which depict the changes from 1529 to 2010 in 11 steps. A further two publications in the special issue address the – both naturally and technologically induced – displacement of the course of the river. That such basic research can be important for decision makers is evident from the fact that the project was selected as one of just twelve examples from across Europe showcasing the relevance of the humanities for a brochure by Science Europe presented at the EU summit in Lithuania. The extensive array of international publications of this FWF project impressively demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary scholarship, which can establish new connections leading to unique results.