I grew up in the suburbs not far from Scotchman’s Creek, a minor tributary of the Yarra (Birrarung), and a patch of remnant bush called Valley Reserve.
I used to run around there playing war games with my friends and siblings. It was a small oasis of nature in the suburbs. It was a place where we educated ourselves about nature – because we were in it.
There was something about this place that prompted us to care about it and now other people, including the Friends of Valley Reserve, care for it. That something is that it is a public place, a community place. Its trees and plants, animals and waters are a type of commons.
The Yarra (Birrarung) is rather like this, but writ large.
Multiple layers of concrete, asphalt, re-engineering and humanity have changed the Yarra (Birrarung). But it is also a natural place, which we recognise as a powerful urban landscape and an important green corridor.
A distinct feature of this landscape is that – despite the layers of concrete, asphalt, dams, drained wetlands, damage and neglect – it is still a very significant natural commons.
The thing about commons is they need to be looked after. That doesn’t occur by accident. It happens through organisation, planning, cooperation and governance.
There are examples of commons governance working well – and many examples of it not working well.
In the history of the Yarra, the experience has perhaps been a little of both. It is notorious that the river was effectively used as an industrial sewer for a long time. Its flows have been very significantly modified. Its lateral connections to wetlands have been disrupted. Its governance has been fragmented under the responsibility of many agencies and decision-makers.
Yet, there was the foresight to reserve the upper catchment, to maintain public lands and bushland along the corridor and more recently to establish environmental flows for the river.
In my view, the prospective Yarra River (Birrarung) legislation will potentially take a major step forward in the good governance of these commons.
The idea of a Yarra River Act would not have got anywhere without public participation.
Legislation to manage the entire River owes a great deal to a community group – the Yarra Riverkeeper Association – which has assumed a special role combining advocacy and something akin to ‘guardianship’.
Since early 2015, Environmental Justice Australia and the Yarra Riverkeeper Association have worked together on the task of achieving a Yarra River law to improve the management and governance of the river, with long-term perspective and strong outcomes for the environment and public.
Getting the involvement of the community – friends groups, environment groups, residents’ groups, organisations involved in managing particular places along the river – at every step of the way has been central to the process.
I don’t want to overplay the influence of our model of community participation, as I think there has also been a considerable meeting of minds about the direction of reform across community, government and the Ministerial Advisory Committee, but I am pleased to report that the Government’s Action Plan for the Yarra contains significant overlap with some of our key proposals.
And that’s great news for the Yarra.
Because I believe community input, direction and indeed leadership will be crucial to making sure Melbourne’s most important green corridor is still a beautiful, accessible and ecologically rich place in another 10 or 20 years.
This input and direction needs to occur at the local level and at the level of the Yarra River basin as a whole.
It is a unique opportunity.
I urge everyone who cares about the Yarra to seize this opportunity and contribute to a new way of managing our urban rivers.
This is an abridged version of an address by Bruce to the Yarra River Community Forum in Abbotsford on 5 April 2017, which was attended by about 60 keen, engaged community members.
Learn more about how you can get involved on the Act of the Yarra website
One step closer to a Yarra River (Birrarung) Protection Act
Image: Anna Carlile, Viola Design