By Amy Saltzman
She’s been called one of the most remarkable women in Boston — and a pain in the ass — but if there’s one thing Renata von Tscharner is known for: she gets things done.
As the founder of the Charles River Conservancy — a position she plans to retire from in June– von Tscharner has made it her mission to improve the water quality of the Charles River and to beautify its surrounding parklands, from Boston Harbor to the Watertown Dam.
She’s done just that and then some over the last 18 years since the start of her nonprofit in 2000. And in the process she has raised more than $14 million; wrangled over 28,000 volunteers; built a $5 million skatepark; made swimming in the Charles River attainable; helped start Revels RiverSing, the annual autumnal equinox celebration; and filmed over 100 CCTV shows, to name a few of her accomplishments.
But the Charles River Conservancy had a very humble beginning.
A logo etched on an envelope
When von Tscharner first moved to Cambridge from Switzerland in 1979, she said her first instinct was to jump into the Charles River. But that wasn’t something people did, she was told, unless they fell in or were dared. The river, which hadn’t been open to recreational swimming since the 1950s, was too contaminated with E. coli and blue green algae.
So, she decided to do something about it, becoming a water tester to help improve the quality. And therein lies von Tscharner’s character.
“She is one of the more remarkable people I know — very creative, very caring, a big heart, but also very determined to succeed with great knowledge about city planning and public space,” said Cambridge Councilor Dennis Carlone, a city planner who has worked with von Tscharner for decades. “I consider her, truly, one of the few very special people in Cambridge and Greater Boston. Even though I’ve known her over 30 years, I’m always impressed by her success, again largely through determination and being a very outgoing, friendly person, but bright as all can be.”
von Tscharner originally moved from her home in Bern, Switzerland, where she was an assistant city planner, because she fell in love with an American. They married and had three children together. When she decided to start the Charles River Conservancy in 2000, she used her daughter’s bedroom as an office and a logo her husband, Peter Munkenbeck, etched on an envelope.
Then she wrote a letter to 100 friends, colleagues and officials, describing her idea and organizing a symposium. Several of those 100 sent money, and she was able to hire an intern. Then the nonprofit really blossomed.
Around that same time, in 2000, the state’s parks agency, then known as Metropolitan District Commission, had finalized its master plan for the banks of the Charles and they estimated it would cost several hundred million dollars to implement.
“What could a brand new nonprofit do to help the state implement that plan,” von Tscharner said. “We started recruiting landscape volunteers who would form a powerful corps of people who would physically improve the banks and who cared and could become advocates. Thus the Conservancy Volunteers were launched with now well over 28,000 participants.”
Making the river swimmable
In addition to cleaning up the banks of the river, von Tscharner still had her sights set on making the river swimmable. After years of work and years of testing and years of advocacy, the first public swim event in the Charles River in over 50 years was held on July 13, 2013. In 2007, the Conservancy and Charles River Swimming Club organized the first one-mile swim race in the Charles River, which is now an annual tradition.
Recreational swimming had been prohibited in the Charles since the 1950s, when a growing awareness of the health risks posed by pollution in the river caused the beaches and bathhouses lining the river to close.
Now, the Conservancy wants to open up a seasonal swim spot at North Point Park, eventually expanding that concept in other areas along the river. In her native country of Switzerland, von Tscharner said swimming in rivers is a part of the “urban culture,” a concept she wants to bring to Cambridge. Despite misconceptions that people may be disinterested in swimming in the “dirty” water of the Charles, von Tscharner said it’s been made clear residents are eager to make the river a swimming destination.
According to a 2016 feasibility study, the water quality of the Charles River went from a “D” grade in 1995 to an “A-” in 2013. In 2011, the Charles River won the Thiess International Riverprize for being one of the cleanest urban rivers in the United States.
While they may never get to 100 percent swimmable days in the Charles, von Tscharner said residents should be able to enjoy the investment in clean water on the days that are.
“Renata is a visionary and a determined advocate. That combination resulted in improvements to the banks of the Charles, a yearly swim in the Charles, and the incredible skatepark on land that would otherwise have been junk,” said Alice Wolf, a former mayor of Cambridge and state representative who worked on legislation with von Tscharner to work toward making the river swimmable.
A gala celebrating von Tscharner’s work and retirement will be held June 2 at Harvard University’s Annenberg Hall. Over 350 people are expected to attend, including elected officials, volunteers, donors, family and friends.
A committee to find a new CRC executive director has already made its selection, according to von Tscharner. A formal announcement of her successor will be made prior to her retirement.
As she sets her sights on her retirement day, von Tscharner reflects on her time at CRC, calling the skatepark one of her biggest accomplishments.
“I am so glad I did not know about the challenges of working with so many different agencies and the toxic soil we would encounter and would have to remediate,” she said, looking back on the difficult first steps of the skatepark. “But 12 park commissioners later, a million dollars in legal fees (all donated by Wilmer Hale), 400 skaters participating in workshops, and more than $5 million in design and construction, we opened with 2,000 people at the event.”
At the November 2015 groundbreaking, von Tscharner recalls with a smile when Congressman Mike Capuano spoke, calling her a “real pain in the ass” but in the “best possible way” since she gets things done.
In a followup interview, Capuano said he believes he called her a “pleasant, persistent pain in the neck.” But, either way, he feels “Renata is a perfect example of how an effective activist should work.”
All in all, the skatepark groundbreaking was a “very happy day for the skaters, the Conservancy, my son and for me,” she said.
When asked what she hopes to do in retirement, von Tscharner said she plans to remain an advocate for the parklands and the river.
“I’m not going to Florida to play golf. I care about the river and the organization, so I want to make sure we have a good transition,” she said.
To learn more about CRC, visit thecharles.org/ or call 617-608-1410.