It’s time to return river to Birrarung

It’s time to return river to Birrarung

By Sean Car

“We renamed Uluru from Ayers Rock. I would love us to rename it [Yarra River] Birrarung, but that’s my personal view” - Kate Nagato, Melbourne Water.

While an unsurprising number of big ideas emerged out of the Yarra River “Big Ideas Forum” last month, there was one pertinent theme that rang true among an overwhelming number of its participants on the day.

Presented by the Yarra River Business Association (YRBA) in partnership with planning firm Arup on August 15, the river’s major stakeholders all converged on Melbourne Town Hall to contribute to its future vision.

Having expressed her own desire for “big ideas” for our city at a YRBA function last year, the Lord Mayor Sally Capp’s sense of passion and ambition for reimagining what our river could offer Melburnians was largely what inspired last month’s forum.

Since being elected Lord Mayor, the development of her “Greenline” vision – an initiative aimed at linking green spaces along the river’s banks (particularly Northbank) – has gained growing notoriety.

It’s an initiative that the City of Melbourne has adopted as part of its new City River Strategy and the kind of thinking that underpinned the forum’s central purpose. Sharing some of her own insights in a typically uplifting opening address, Cr Capp set the tone for an afternoon of more “big ideas.”

Moderated by Arup’s Mark Rowland, a panel featuring the City of Melbourne’s director of city strategy Claire Ferres Miles, Parks Victoria CEO Matthew Jackson and Melbourne Water’s manager of innovation and resilience Kate Nagato helped kickstart discussion.

Representing the three key stewards of the lower Yarra, the three leaders were each prompted on their roles and responsibilities, as well as major challenges and opportunities they saw in the river.

A need to balance commercial activation with social responsibility was one notion shared by everyone in the room. How do we as a city reconnect and reengage people with a river that has for many years been maligned?

Claire Ferres Miles was quick to point out that language was important: “Over the next 12 months you’re going to hear the City of Melbourne talk more and more about Melbourne as a ‘water city’,” she said. “Like Sydney celebrates its harbour, how does Melbourne celebrate its river and its waterways and its catchments?”

Matthew Jackson then reinforced this through the usual acknowledgement of our first peoples. “Parks Victoria is very privileged to work with traditional owners across 20 per cent of Victoria and that is a very significant part of what we do.”

However, it was Ms Nagato who was first to refer to the river by its traditional name. “Increasingly we’re starting to not talk about the Yarra as the ‘Yarra’ but we’re starting to talk about it as the ‘Birrarung’,” she said. “It’s really important that we do recognise our first people. They were here a long time before we were and that they’ve got some fabulous knowledge to contribute in terms of how we manage the river.”

Ms Ferres Miles had also pointed out that a key pillar of the council’s city river strategy was focused on recognising and celebrating our Aboriginal heritage. In fact, the document makes a point of referring to the river as “Birrarung” rather than “Yarra”.

And it was Ms Nagato who would eventually put the topic on the agenda … “We renamed Uluru from Ayers Rock,” she said. “I would love us to rename it [Yarra River] Birrarung, but that’s my personal view.”

According to the Koorie Heritage Trust, while Birrarung was a major food source for the Aboriginal peoples of the Kulin Nations, Birrarung is of spiritual and cultural significance to its people for connecting to the past but also as a means of “shaping our future”.

This theme seemed to resonate strongly among participants on the day, as teams broke off into tables with a map of the river, sticky notes and highlighters to work together and come up with big ideas of their own.

Teams were asked to identify locations on their maps that they deemed both desirable and undesirable. While Arbory, Southbank Promenade and the green spaces along Alexandra Ave ranked highly, further downstream Batman and Enterprize Parks, Queensbridge Square and sections of South Wharf didn’t bode so well.

So, how do we fuse the good with the bad? What makes the desirable locations desirable? Why are some sections of the river so good, yet others so bad? What are some of the missing links that may tie it all together?

These were some of the many questions the nine groups would have posed to one and another as they began articulating their “big ideas”. And interestingly, out of those nine groups, five would incorporate “Birrarung” in the title of their final pitch.

The rationale behind embracing the river’s history for many was about stopping people from turning their backs on the river, celebrating its heritage as a food bowl and cultural centre and creating more spaces to linger and reflect.

Claire Ferres Miles had previously highlighted the longstanding governance issues, which too have plagued the river. Between state government, council, Parks Victoria and Melbourne Water, one could trip from the banks of the river and into the water and fall through four layers of bureaucracy.

It was, therefore, unsurprising that some groups even built on the idea of the existing Birrarung Council to establish a central Birrarung governance authority to manage the river, provide education and help drive a balanced commercial and ecological future.

But what is it all worth if we don’t fully acknowledge our history by continuing to refer to it as “Yarra”? It’s a name understood to refer to “The Falls” next to Queens Bridge, where saltwater met freshwater.

Koorie Heritage Trust CEO Tom Mosby thinks we should start by renaming the river.

“Renaming Birrarung will be a recognition of the continuing journey of our Aboriginal people and a statement of Aboriginal culture and history as a fundamental part of contemporary Victorian life,” he said.

“The Koorie Heritage Trust encourages and supports the use of traditional language as a means of connecting and reconnecting our people to country, but also acknowledging the First Nations history of Melbourne and the spiritual and cultural significance of the river.” 

So, while we might have many “big ideas” for our river, we should truly recognise its past before trying to shape its future. From years of turning our back on the “Yarra”, which was long perceived as a sewer, we as a city continue to try and shake off those perceptions without fully acknowledging what it once was: a cultural and spiritual oasis. Language IS important.

Let’s start again and let’s really reimagine. Let’s return to Birrarung.

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