Hydrogeomorphic processes within alluvial river systems create, maintain and degrade riparian habitat. The dynamic interactions between water, sediment, aquatic–terrestrial landforms and biotic elements control the functional processes and biodiversity patterns within the riparian zone and, thus, contribute directly to their ecological integrity and societal value. Numerous researchers from different disciplines publish work on the physical, biological, economic and societal functions of the riparian zone within various physiographic areas. The present paper aims to review the hydrogeomorphic processes of unconfined alluvial channel–floodplain rivers within the temperate zone. These processes and their interactions with the biotic environment provide the basis for understanding the physical as well as the ecological functioning of fluvial hydrosystems. The review focuses mainly on the European context, but major advances in riparian research from other continents are also considered. Rehabilitation and management strategies for the riparian zone are summarized and recommendations for further research conclude this review. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.