Greater Melbourne
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Taking the Plunge

Imagine if you could duck out of the office for half an hour to take a dip in the Birrarung (Yarra River) on a hot summer’s day. The water is clean, and all around you, the riverbank and parklands are teeming with life.

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An AI imagining of a swimmable Yarra Birrarung (Image Credit ChatGPT)

How does this help to land us in the sweet spot, the safe and just space?

Imagine diving from the banks of our Birrarung (Yarra River) into clean waters, in the heart of Melbourne. Looking up and down stream, you can see a corridor of swimmable experiences from as far up as Dights Falls running all the way down to Nairm/Port Phillip Bay. It’s a whole system of regeneration.

In the sweet spot of Melbourne’s future, making the Birrarung swimmable is about so much more than just swimming. The opportunity is to reorient our city to recognise our main waterway – which is responsible for 70% of Melbourne’s drinking water – as the living entity that it is; a place inextricably linked to our physical health, our mental well-being, our relationships, the biodiversity of our region and our ability to care for precious water resources.

Our city has had a complicated relationship with the Birrarung. Over time we have invariably regarded the waterway as an extension of our stormwater system, a shipping channel, a rubbish dump, and a dirty dividing line between our city’s north and south. Our current paradigm of extraction draws capital and health out of the waterway, increasing the strain on the rivers natural ability to act as a cleanser and maintain strong ecosystems. Our planning laws and legal mechanisms are oriented towards the expansion of the built environment at the expense of a thriving river.

And yet, in the face of these challenges, many actors and organisations are walking a new path of holistic regeneration, starting by learning the stories of the waterway before colonisation – and how they can help us remember what a thriving chain of pools could look like.

What’s happening across Greater Melbourne?

Of course, the Birrarung has been swimmable before. And for the Wurundjeri, Woi Wurrung and Boon Wurrung People it has been a source of sustenance, joy, wisdom and wonder for tens of thousands of years. And contrary to urban mythology, yes, the river did run clear prior to European settlement.

And while our river has suffered great damage since colonisation, the Birrarung’s journey back to being a thriving life force forMelbourne has well and truly begun.

Across the city we see new infrastructure, rooted in love for our river. Love Stories for the Birrarung is collecting stories from all across Melbourne and RISING festival is drawing on the arts and cultural power of Melbourne and working alongside the Birrarung. Groups like the Yarra Yabbies can be found at Deep Rock most days, testing, swimming and caring for the river and showing passers by what might be possible if we could all swim further downstream. Yarra Riverkeeper Association works to be an advocate for the river in policy and political settings and operates alongside existing community groups to raise awareness and invite everyone to be a river keeper. This works alongside established governance structures like the Birrarung Council, which provides independent advice to the Victorian Government on, and advocates for, protecting and improving the river.

Supporting the Birrarung’s water quality and river health so that the parklands, ecosystems and humans can prosper are organisations like D2K, who are working on cutting edge monitoring technology, community-led groups like Yarra Watch who run citizen science to help complete the view we have of holistic health of the waterway.

Moving upstream we see explorations into how we can stop pollution flows all together with new bioenergy plants with the likes of Hart Bioenergy, creating circular systems that reduce runoff and increase water security. All this energy is working alongside the ongoing implementation of the 50 year Yarra Strategic Plan and Community Vision by Melbourne Water, supported by the alignment of landmark legislation of living entity status.

Regeneration Projects is leading the charge to engage businesses, many of them beloved Melbourne icons, across the stretch of the river as they consider their role in the next economy, where value is returned to place. The Business Pickle are on hand for emerging insights on how the perception and value of the river can change with the organisations along the riverbank. Organisations like GreenSports Alliance are working with our biggest sports icons in service to the future health of the river and the health of the game.Envirobank are sparking a new wave of corporate responsibility with river clean ups and finance exchanges in service of the river.

Local businesses on the riverbank like Arbory and Pony Fish are channelling their entrepreneurial energy to the pursuit of a swimmable river through swimming activations, which builds on the tireless work of Yarra Pools and their advocacy and design for swimming spots on the Birrarung. Wellbeing and bathing experts are drawing on their experience from around the world and the region in the likes of Loyly Studio and Mornington Peninsula Hot Springs to explore what a corridor of diverse swimming experiences could look like in the not too distant future.

A Swimmable Birrarung is entirely possible. And Regen Melbourne’s role in this vision is to connect community, industry and capital to bring this vision to life so that all Melbournians – and the river itself – can benefit.