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  • Annabel Sides

The Birrarung

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

This article is the written version of a presentation made during the collaboration event "Sports Dive In" with Regen Melbourne.

The Birrarung winds its way through many lands, from its source at Mt Baw Baw the land of the Gunai Kurnai people to Naarm home of the Bunurong, Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation.

First Nations people have a deep connection to country and knowledge of caring for country, the land, our water ways, and skys. The knowledge and wisdom of regenerative practices that elders past present and emerging have, and their leadership is crucial to the restoration of our landscapes and of our ecosystems of which we and the places we play are part of.

When I have the opportunity to make connections between Sport, Nature and Ecosystem Restoration and talk or write about the dependencies sport has on the ecosystem services that nature provides I get excited. Sport and Nature are two areas I am passionate about.

The Birrarung (Yarra River) is special to me. Early morning bike rides along the rivers bike paths connected me from my school to the old State Swim Centre where I trained for and played water polo – this pathway gave me independence and connected me with my friends, teammates and passion. I also spent hours and years running along the river on cross country runs with my school mates. I was in nature, miles from the regional community I grew up in. The connection to the water and the sense of open space being by the river gave me was important to my wellbeing.

Sport can be part of the advocacy conversation and action to restore and protect the Birrarung ecosystem. As users of the river that services us, we need to consider ourselves as part of this ecosystem, not separate to it.

Sport is in the DNA of Melbournians, as fans and participants. Whether it’s weekend footy or rowing, triathlons, tennis or golf, it knits much of our cultural identity together as a city.

When we see ourselves as part of a living ecosystem and seek to improve the natural ecosystems, we’re part of, then we can improve the services provided not just to us, but the wider community, to culture, and to the green spaces and the biodiversity of plant and animal life that are also part of the places that we play.

Ecosystem services refer to how healthy environments provide us with the things we need to survive and thrive and how learning to look after them services our culture, our recreation, our climate by reducing heat island effects and by providing clean air and water.

The Birrarung has undergone significant changes over time. The river once had no human footsteps here, until Aboriginal people become the custodians of the river thousands and thousands of years and this knowledge of custodianship remains. It is an important part of learning how we can all care for this living entity, the Birrarung.

Over recent centuries the river has seen colonisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation with incredible pressures placed on it as a living entity on the culture and biodiversity. With these changes have come new ways of being in, on and around the river. A lot of this is connected to sport, physical activity, and celebration.

Many of the sports community operate as part of the lower reaches of the river’s ecosystem, in the central business district, and centralised Melbourne sporting precinct.

When we think of the Birrarung its good to put it into perspective what it’s like across the upper reaches for the sports community, this can help us see what the river is like in less urbanised environments, it offers us insights into what it could be like as a water way healthy enough to be swimmable.

Within the upper reaches – it starts at Mt Baw Baw - which is actually a ski field - it covers 242 kms from the source to the mouth of the river the river supports culture, connection to country and learning about country, it supports agriculture, recreation, swimming, walking, bird watching. Supports operations that utilise the aesthetics and beauty and ecology of the river for their businesses, enjoyment things like paddle sports, fishing. It also supports via networks of paths and trails access for local communities to sport and recreation destinations like golf courses and tennis courts, footy fields, cycling and running tracks built around that river environment.

This continues to the lower reaches and as we enter more urbanised environments and an urbanised water way. We enter the Melbourne suburbs, the CBD and central sporting precincts.

In the River users are uncommon – Open Water Swimming as a sport or Triathlon are not considered, Moomba water ski is about as in and out as it gets. There are however recreational swimmers, like the Yarra Yabbies.

On the river participants include – dragon boaters, paddle sports and rowers. Rowers’ area high user group that utilise the river for school, masters, university, social and high-performance pathways and for competitions. The Head of the Yarra has a field of 270 eights that takes to the river with fans, festival, and celebration in parallel to the river.

Other parallel users are those near the river, tennis courts, rowing sheds, major venues and park lands, the skate community, golf clubs and recreational users who walk or run or cycle or utilise facilities for BBQing and kicking the footy. Their connection is via open space, the water space, the green space and the aesthetics.

This includes recreational, social, and high-performance athletes and teams who call the sporting precinct home who may conduct some of their training or relaxation along the river and at the venues on the river.

Probably the most significant group of users is Wayfinders.

Wayfinders fall into a couple of groups.

People who work in the sporting precinct who might walk or cycle along the river or traverse it to get to their offices, visit these offices or work in the teams and organisations that service the venues daily or during events.

Patrons, our sports fan base, that bike ride or walk along or across the river, coming in from different public transport points, parking and drop off points to attend major events.

The last group of users are those who use the river for celebration. This can be for tourism, media and major events.

Thousands of people follow these celebrations on, in and around our river. In this celebration there is an opportunity to tell stories past, present and future of the rivers use.

Some examples of this include the River component of the opening ceremony of the Melbourne2006 Commonwealth Games.

The final leg of the Queen's Baton Relay on the river. All AFL team captains moved on floating pontoons, transferring the Baton between them, one by one, to Ron Barresi, who walked on a semi submerged pontoon, giving the effect that he was walking on water. Ron handed the baton to Herb Elliott on of Australia’s most acclaimed athletes.

The theme of the opening ceremony was My Skin, My Life, recalling the powerful connection between the river and the MCG site for Aboriginal people of the Melbourne region.

The river was also a focal point for Commonwealth Games festivities and hosted nightly 'river shows’ throughout the fortnight of the Games.

In 2022 the AFL Grand Final Parade had a river component which brought thousands of football fans to the banks of the river.

One of the most high-profile celebrations of individuals on the river has been by tennis players.

Boris Beker swam in the river in 1991 when he won the AUS Open men’s single titles.

Jim Courier dived into the river in 1992 and in 1993, he was very connected to the River precinct;

“Brad Stine and I have been running after every match and every practice that we’ve had for 2 weeks, running down by the river every day, and when I was in the Quarters he said “If you win this thing, I’ll dive in that river”, and I said well, if you go in, I’m following.”3

In 1992 it went off without a hitch, however in 1993 Courier actually contracted a bad stomach bug.

The swim was replicated in 2016 by Angelique Kerber. Kerber has made a bet that if she won The Open, she would swim in the river like Courier did in 1993. She beat Serena Williams in the final and as promised she took the plunge. She did not put her head under.

The river is a backdrop for us to play, celebrate and showcase the world of sport that takes place in Melbourne. We have multiple dependencies on the river and it being a beautiful, healthy space. It gives provides us with

- Aesthetics

- Jobs and industry

- Recreation

- Connection to country

- Health and well-being, physical activity and social connection.

It reduces the heat island effect of our city. It is part of the tendril like connections of the green spaces we know as Melbourne. The Botanic Gardens, parklands, avenues, golf courses and residential landscapes. These provide an urban bio link for people and wildlife. These spaces are critical to our resilience as a community in our urban landscape and as our climate changes we will need to absorb water in times of extreme rain and storms and need to stay cool in times of extreme heat and heat waves

River health also impacts the bay and its ecosystem, its biodiversity, and the sports that call the bay home like sailing, Surf Lifesaving, Kayaking, Kite Surfing, and the loads of open water recreational and competitive swimmers. Who relish swimming every day, all year round, yet find themselves relegated to the beach when water quality is bad.

What are our impacts on this backdrop?

- Emissions impact our climate, changes to water flows and water temperature which impacts water quality due to algae and bacteria growth, water quality is also impacted by extreme flooding which can lead to pollutants from urban and industrial waste systems being released into the river.

- Air particulate from travel and transport eventually ends up in the river.

- Waste disposal by our patrons of materials provided by us, food and beverage, promotional material, even equipment, including tennis balls can find their way into the river. "Studies show that 30 per cent of non-organic litter in the river is drinking bottles," [1]

- Celebratory materials like glitter and plastics in tick a tape for parades and events near the river can escape clean ups.

- There are stringent EPA rules on wash down of equipment and herbicide mixing so these chemicals are managed, although leaching can occur.

- Synthetic Turf fibres and fill are found in water ways around Australia and although new gen surfaces and practices are reducing this impact there are still many old surfaces that will not be replaced for up to 8-10 years depending on the surface’s life cycle.[2]

- The light and noise pollution we create that impacts biodiversity on the river and in the surrounding green space and further afield.

Cities around the world are aspiring to make their major waterways swimmable. Sport can be a unifying force to achieve these legacies. The City of Paris aims to restore the health of the Seine enough to allow the public to swim in sections of it in time for the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games. Imagine if we could do this for the Birrarung without an Olympic Games incentive – driven by community and collaboration. Imagine if AO athletes and patrons could take a dip to cool down whilst watching the tennis or we could host a city triathlon swim leg…

Restoration groups who can help make this possible have an amazing ability to see what was and what will be and to take step by step approaches to restore the health of landscapes and restore biodiversity in these landscapes like the Birrarung. As sports people we can learn from the ecosystem restoration community this regenerative mindset that looks at people, place and nature, together, to build resilience and is often doing so with or led by traditional owners.

There is opportunity for leadership and mindset exchange… Sport can share grit, determination, and our ability to bring more people, from more places, more often along on a journey with our vision, our celebrations, with our athletes and our teams.

We can support restoring the river in so many ways from reducing our impacts, educating our business, our business partners, our participants, and our patrons, by amplifying messages of restoration and care and, by advocating for restoration projects and the river as a living entity. We can get involved in on the ground initiatives with groups that are already out there starting this work, initiatives that reduce our impact and support river health step by step.

To connect with organisations supporting the River visit the Regen Melbourne Donut and Swimmable Birrarung Project and the Yarra River Keepers.

I would love to know what your favourite memory, moment in time or connection that you have with the Birrarung in the comments.

[1] [2]

Event Information "Sports Dive In"

Held virtually on July 11,2023 to help regenerate Naarm's iconic waterway: The Birrarung.

Many sports have deep connections with and dependencies on the Birrarung (Yarra). Some connections are built from single moments in time, others from annual or daily experiences.

Rowers and kayakers, commuters and river cruisers, bikers, runners and walkers frequent the waterway and its banks.

Fans that traverse and walk beside the river to sporting venues and events in the heart of Melbourne City.

Jim Courier once celebrated his AO win by taking a dip and Ron Barassi walked on water to carry the Queens Baton across the Birrarung during the Opening Ceremony for the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Seldom seen now are swimmers moving through the waters.

“The idea of a swimmable Birrarung is not new. There is a long and proud history of Traditional Owners, community groups, activists, and government initiatives who have progressively worked towards the regeneration of the river, and swimming activations.” *1

Cities around the world are aspiring to make their major waterways swimmable. Sport can be, and is in some instances, a unifying force to achieve these legacies. The City of Paris aims to restore the health of the Seine enough to allow the general public to swim in sections of it in time for the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Regen Melbourne is helping us connect and reimagine the Birrarung as Swimmable again. With this comes river health, biodiversity, and an even more special and safe place to recreate and celebrate beside, on and in.

Annabel will be co-facilitating a virtual session with Regen Melbourne on July 11th to explore the possibilities that this ambitious project brings to those sports who are connected as users or aspiring users to the River.

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