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The Lower Yarra – 50 years on

This week, people packed the Great Hall of the NGV to Reimagine the Birrarung in 2070 – a symposium for Melbourne Design Week.

The symposium was playful and provocative. Curator Ewan McEoin is passionate about the River. He believes that speculative design can help us leapfrog over the every day constraints of policy, funding and practice into imagining a generous, abundant and healthy future for the River.

The symposium concluded with a conversation with Professor Tim Flannery. As a paleontologist and climate scientist, Tim Flannery has an unusual authority to look back and forward in time. He brought us back to earth in 2024 with his powerful reminder that it is the decisions we make, and actions we take, now, that will shape that 2070 future. Whether it’s reducing greenhouse gas emissions or planting trees, the best time was yesterday, the second best time is today.

Feeling more comfortable time travelling in the recent past than speculating about the future, I returned to the influential Give the Yarra a Go! campaign launched by The Age on 23 February 1980 – almost fifty years ago.

Journalists John Larkin and Peter Ellingsen wrote persuasive pieces in The Age over several weeks. After a boat trip up the River, Larkin wrote:

‘No one could make this trip without feeling anger at the way the Yarra has been neglected, a sense of excitement at the huge opportunities the River offers, and a wholly new feeling about Melbourne. The River waits.’

The campaign struck a chord with Melburnians. Many wrote to the paper in wholehearted support. The Premier, Dick Hamer, was quick to come on board.

The campaign recognised that in order to be effective, the campaign had to be achievable. Six targets were set. The first on the the list was to make Batman car park into a garden. At that time, Batman car park was a poorly maintained, poorly used car park on Vic Rail land.

Withdrawing car parking for a park was controversial, then, as now, but over several months City of Melbourne councillors came to support it.

By July, Batman Park was given the go ahead with the state government contributing half the cost.

In July 1981, Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault1 was re-located from the City Square to the newly created Batman Park.

I visited Batman Park today. It’s a plain park – trees and lawn down to the blue stone River edge where swans visit. The shade is sought after on hot days. Helicopters rise and descend here.

It’s flat apart from a curious mound planted with Kangaroo grass – a public art installation by Tom Nicholson called Chimney in Store. It is a work dense with meaning and references.2

Batman Park with Tom Nicholson’s Chimney in Store

Batman Park, east of Kingsway, was re-named Enterprize Park in 1997 when the historic Turning Basin was recreated. Constellation by Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett was installed at that time.

The Park has recently been refurbished by the City of Melbourne. All the different elements in the Park have now been integrated into a coherent space with a grassy area well used by school groups on excursions to the City. Bench seating along the River enables people on their lunch break to watch the action on the floating wetlands.

Scar – a Stolen Vision (2001) A collaboration of 7 indigenous artists 3

Some dreams of the Give the Yarra a Go campaign are yet to be realised, such as a swimmable River. This was put forward in the 1980 campaign:

‘By now, 1980, we should have been swimming in the river. Yes. The Yarra. … imagine that in your lunch break’.

Now Regen Melbourne brings new life and energy to the campaign for a Swimmable Birrarung.


1 Vault has been recommended for heritage protection by the Executive Director of Heritage Victoria. The recommendation is a fascinating history of this public artwork which may yet be on the move. It includes a picture of Vault at Batman Park. registered object

2 Chimney in Store (Towards a monument to Batman’s Treaty) Tom Nicholson

3 Scar – A Stolen Vision, City of Melbourne (2001)

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