To Love or not to Love “Love Locks”

Valentine’s Day is a day when couples show their love or dedication to one another in a variety of ways—a bouquet of red roses, a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a romantic dinner, or even a promise ring. A recent trend has lovers expressing their undying commitment to one another with so called “Love-Locks”—metal padlocks with their names usually written or engraved on the lock inside a heart, that are locked mostly to bridge railings but also to fences, gates, sculptures, trees, and even lighthouses, with the key then thrown away. This modern-day equivalent to carving one’s initials inside a heart into the bark of a tree has been met with considerable controversy in recent years.

While the idea of Love Locks can be traced back over 100 years, they have gained considerable popularity in the past decade in cities around the world, particularly in France, Italy, and Germany. The Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne has over 50,000 locks, weighing an estimated 15 tons, and the Pont des Arts in Paris at one time boasted over 1 million locks. People have come from all over the world to the “city of love” to place locks and admire the extraordinary site.

However, while some municipalities are embracing the idea, using it for fundraising, publicity stunts, and especially as tourist attractions, others consider it littering or vandalism. When exposed to the elements, the metal of the locks causes unsightly rust damage and corrosion to the structures. Moreover, those thousands of metal keys that are thrown into the river below as part of the ritual have been found to be polluting the rivers and endangering their aquatic life. In addition to tarnishing the look of these beautiful bridges, the sheer weight of the locks is actually compromising the integrity and safety of these historical structures. A streetlamp in Rome buckle under the weight of the locks, and in May 2014, one of the grids of the railing on the Pont des Arts in Paris carrying thousands of Love Locks collapsed under the enormous strain—fortunately, no one was injured. As an experiment, authorities mounted three panels of a special type of glass that would prevent the locks from being attached, but despite these efforts, the bridge was deemed in danger of collapsing and on June 1, 2015, all of the Love Locks were removed. In addition to Paris, Love Locks are systematically being removed in many cities around the world including Florence, New York, Toronto, and Atlanta.

Many cities are now prohibiting the affixing of Love Locks to bridges and are imposing fines for violations. In Berlin, it is treated as a misdemeanor and incurs a fine of € 35, whereas in Venice, the fine can be up to € 3000. However, many consider bridges covered in locks as chic, and cities are concerned that forbidding the Love Locks may harm the image of the city. In Heidelberg, authorities have installed a so-called Liebesstein (love stone) to which lovers can attach their locks in an attempt to spare the city’s historic bridges.

The Love Locks fad has not skipped Switzerland, with the Limmat Mühlensteg as the official “love bridge” in Zürich, and the Schönausteg as the one chosen in Bern. Basel’s bridges are mainly concrete, but despite that, the Love Locks trend reached Basel in 2013, transforming the Mittlere Brücke into a “love bridge.” Well over 100 locks adorn the grill of the landmark Käppelijoch, the little chapel in the middle of the bridge that was erected to grant safe passage to shipmen on the Rhein below. The irony of this chosen site is that in the Middle Ages, women accused of adultery (and other serious crimes) were thrown into the Rhein to their death from this exact location!

Several articles on the locks have been published in Basel’s newspaper, and many local residents and even some politicians have weighed in negatively on the issue. But for the time being, the official statement by Basel authorities is that the Love Locks will be tolerated, despite being against the law, as long as they remain “few in number.” The Denkmalpflege (the organization responsible for the preservation of historical buildings) is actually in favor of the idea, citing that if the young generation identifies with these older buildings, they will be more inclined to preserve them as well. The director of Basel Tourismus also likes the trend but thinks that the Wettsteinbrücke offers a more private space for the romantic moment, not to mention a better view!