The 1920s plan that’s weirder than any of Boris Johnsons’: draining the Mediterranean Sea

Spoiler: this was not a well-thought out plan. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

Long before Boris Johnson was advocating a Channel Bridge, and various other pointless infrastructure projects, there was the Atlantropa project of the 1920s. Like something born out of the fevered dreams of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, this involved building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar to effectively seal off the Mediterranean.

Without its main source of water – 35,000km3 per year of the sea’s water comes from the Strait, compared to just 1,200km3 from rivers – the plan was for the isolated Mediterranean to start to dry up. The receding sea would create usable land, which the architect of this bizarre project, German engineer Herman Sörgel, envisaged would be used for agriculture.

The project, which would have also had the potential to create vast hydro-electric energy, called for the Mediterranean to be lowered by 200m, which would completely rewrite the topography of the existing coastline, including the complete disappearance of the Upper Adriatic and the sealing of the Dardanelles. You can just imagine how annoyed Putin would be if this plan was enacted in the contemporary world. He’s gone through all the trouble of annexing Crimea only for a crackpot inventor to seal off access to the Mediterranean for Russian warships.

But petty geopolitical quibbling was never a concern for Sörgel. His idea was utopian, intended to solve post-war European issues such as the dire economic situation and the perceived lack of living space (Lebensraum in German). The latter became a rallying cry for the Nazis and Sörgel half-heartedly pitched his idea to them in 1938, including a quote from Hitler at the front of one of his books.

As with much of that era, the project must also be understood within the colonial context. Sörgel hoped this new land would bridge the gap between Europe and Africa, creating a new continent called Atlantropa – hence the project’s name.

As if the big plan wasn’t big enough, phase two involved creating another sea in the middle of the Sahara to be used for irrigation of the desert and, in Sörgel’s words, make Africa a “territory actually useful to Europe”. This seems to ignore the hard work Europeans were already doing to pillage the continent, but I doubt many people are going to shed tears for them.

Sörgel thought that his plan would be a panacea to all of contemporary Europe’s problems and prevent another war. Noble ideals indeed but also really stupid. Imagine the devastation to the lives of the millions of people who live along the Mediterranean coast. Ancient cities like Algiers, Barcelona and Athens would be obliterated. And what would happen if Sörgel’s imagined dam was bombed? A flood that would make the Old Testament God blush wiping away all this new land.

This is not to mention that convincing the countries of Europe to work together on anything for a long period of time is no easy feat. That said, after WWII the Nato allies revisited the Atlantropa plans, hoping to stave off communism’s spread to Africa but the plan was ultimately dropped. Luckily for everyone, the end of formal colonialism and the lack of money killed off any remaining appetite for the project.

Sörgel himself died in relative obscurity. He was only allowed to dream so big because his wife, Irene, was a successful art dealer. This meant he could dedicate 25 years of his life to promoting this terrible idea without actually needing to profit from it.

Atlantropa can remain in the big dustbin of big engineering projects. Hopefully even Boris Johnson will leave it there – after all it would involve working with Europe (which he hates)… but then again it would also involve recolonising Africa (which I imagine he would love).


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.