Park history

The 30th Anniversary book: The Westgate Park creation story

November 2015


The Friends of Westgate Park respectfully acknowledge the Yalukit Wilam Clan of the Boon Wurrung. We pay our respect to their Elders, past and present. We acknowledge and uphold their continuing relationship to this land.

There is little doubt that the site of Westgate Park was once rich in natural features; a low-lying swamp with sandy ridges. It was on the fringe of Melbourne’s early European settlement, part of the Yarra River delta and subject to flooding. The course of the river was substantially altered; the first of many transformations of the area.

Fishermans Bend was considered a wasteland and dumping ground, even in the 1850s. Over the next century or so the area that is now Westgate Park area was sparsely occupied by fishermen’s shacks then a sand mine, runways for aircraft and a rubbish tip.

Its next transformation was as a construction site for Westgate Bridge. Oscar Meyer, chair of the Westgate Bridge authority, wanted to create a beautiful park straddling the Yarra River to complement his sculptural bridge. The idea was put to the Federal Government and the Park became the largest project to be funded for Victoria’s sequincentenary celebration in 1984/5.

The context

The Park is flanked by Webb Dock, Boeing, Holden and Herald & Weekly Times and transected by the Bridge and Todd Road. Further afield but in clear view is Melbourne CBD and Coode Island.

The Yarra River laps its western edge and a punt links cyclists and walkers to Newport and Williamstown. Paths connect the Park to the Port Melbourne foreshore reserve, St Kilda and beyond around the Bay.

Opposite in Todd Road and part of the Park is the go-kart track.

Early transformations

The Yarra River flowed 100 million years ago  and 50-25 million years ago Port Phillip Bay was formed. 8,500 years ago, sea levels were 19 metres below today’s and 4,000 years ago were 4 metres higher.

Surveyor Charles Grimes identified the banks of the lower Yarra as the place for Melbourne in 1803 but it was not until 1835 that John Batman declared it the ‘site for a village’.

The river was full of snags, mudbars and basalt rock ledges. The land to the south, where Westgate Park now exists, was low scrubby flats and marsh that regularly flooded.

These wetlands were highly productive places, alive with waterbirds, fish and plants that sustained the gathering of the Boon Wurrung and people of the Kulin Nation.

In the 1850s numerous bird species, dingoes, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, possums, quolls, pademelons, bettongs, koalas, antechinus, bandicoots, rats, bats and more were recorded in the Melbourne area.

Industry and Westgate Bridge

Commonwealth and Government aircraft manufacturing was established at Fishermans Bend in the 1930s to build military aircraft. A runway was constructed in 1939 on land that is now Westgate Park but by the 1950’s it was inadequate and production moved to Avalon.

Motorbike and car races were held on the runway from 1948-1960 but by then a rubbish tip over the rest of the land made the track unsavoury.

In 1964 plans were announced for a lower Yarra crossing and work started on the Westgate Bridge in 1968. At 2.58km long and 102 metres high, it is Victoria’s tallest bridge. The surrounding land was used as a construction site.

On 15 October 1970 a box girder span at the western side of the bridge collapsed killing 35 men and injuring 18. The reconstructed bridge was opened on 15 November 1978. By 1979 it was carrying 22,000 vehicles/day.

That year an Age article described the land seen from the bridge;

“It is scrofulous scenery indeed … dead water, swamp, sick factories, dead wood, haze, gasping barges, wretched refineries, wheezing chimneys, dead grass, institutional putrefaction.”

Westgate Park is made

A 1985 master plan by Loder & Bayly emphasised the uniqueness and grand scale of the site, to be seen by motorists on the bridge each day.

Its fresh and saltwater lakes were its focal points, the bridge the central, sculptural feature. It would have an island visitor centre, amphitheatre and narrow gauge tourist train.

Creating an inner urban park of this size and with such a special relationship to the CBD and the Bay was one of many far-sighted improvements to Melbourne by Planning Minister, Evan Walker, executed in the Planning Department by David Yencken.

Fill was brought in and shaped into an undulating landscape with hills from which to take in views of the lakes and lagoons.  They occupied a third of the land mass; a reminder of the Park’s swampy past, and the salt lake the result of a deep hole left by 1930s sand mining.

Westgate Park opened on 7 November 1985, dedicated it to the people of Victoria.

It was more modest than first envisaged with just cycling paths, a composting toilet, lawns seeded and garden beds planted with hardy Australian species. The bridge and city views were spectacular and the lakes filled with birds but the Park was nonetheless neglected for much of the next decade.

Sculpture arrives

Lyn Moore produced the Earth Series of eight sandstone, granite and ironbark sculptures, erected  Westgate Park in 1990 – monumental reminders of the beauty of natural materials.

They are settled in the landscape; have weathered and are hosts for lichen and mosses. The stone from one has slid to the ground, a move the sculptor considers entirely appropriate.

Imposing too are the prototype bridge sections, in place as an entry/viewing platform and a bridge over the water between the dam and the freshwater lake.

The Gateway to the Bay transformation

In 1996 a new plan emerged from Melbourne Parks & Waterways announcing the Park’s extension to the river and ‘transformation of the site from a derelict wasteland’.

Locked away for more than a century, the bank of the lower Yarra would be opened up as river-front parkland with trails and board-walks, leisure and tourism.  An observation tower at its tip would create spectacular viewing areas with wonderful vistas to the City, St Kilda, the Bay, Williamstown and shipping activity in the port area.

The Westgate Riverside Park, with its position at the confluence of the River and Bay, would be a destination for boats and ferries from the Yarra or Maribyrnong Rivers and the Bay. There would be venues for special events, a children’s playground, a maritime theme park and tourism plaza.

However, a new Port plan designated this stretch of the bank suitable for deep water river berths and so only the area north of the Port survived as parkland. That plan too was shelved in favour of Webb Dock’s expansion leaving this stretch of the River a tantalising prospect for future park expansion!

The Friends of Westgate Park: shaping past and present

Over the past 16 years the Friends have transformed the Park in very significant ways.

All 38 hectares have, to large extent, been mulched and planted. Weeds are well under control – something of a rarity in bush parks.

The Park is now substantially bigger thanks to the Friends’ advocacy and capacity.

These additional parcels of land required major earthmoving work for embankments and mounds, wetlands and lake edge formation; planned, funded and managed by the Friends. (See major projects, page 26.)  Since 2000 they have raised and spent ~$1m cash on the Park.

They routinely construct and repair roads, paths and steps. They collect seeds, their nursery propagates 8,000 plants/year and they organise rabbit control and manage stormwater flows.

The volunteer effort has been equivalent to ~8 full time workers for many years.  But much work remains to be done.

The newly reformed salt lake edge is ready for salt marsh revegetation and paths. The River land is to be planted with endangered Moonah woodlands.  The southern wetland will have aquatic species, some rare.

The Friends of Westgate Park creation story

Founder, 19 year-old Naomie Sunner, a VCA photography student, discovered the Park in 1999 on her transformative trek along the length of the Yarra River. She thought this neglected, abandoned park – the closest she could get to the river mouth – was nonetheless beautiful and had such potential!

Her initial thought was to volunteer but there was no friends group so, with a little help from mentors, she established and incorporated the Friends of Westgate Park and set to work.

“The sheer size was daunting but this land had been so disturbed that nothing I could do would make it worse. There were some areas with remnant salt marsh but wasn’t the same as walking into a real remnant site. There were maybe 10 planted species, a few of them indigenous but lots of invasive like Juncus acutus.”

She took baby steps, roped in friends and some others but it was largely her own efforts. “We started planting indigenous species around the Park entrance, some of the salt marsh areas and the hill overlooking the lake. I knew very little about revegetation at the time but volunteered at SKINC (local indigenous nursery), read an awful lot and identified plants by drawing. I call myself nag-taught – taught by nagging other people for info.”

She organised events and planting days with ‘varying success’, took on school groups, learned to make grant applications and started working part time, running a work for the dole program. While her enthusiasm and energy were essential to the group, it wasn’t until a new member turned up sharing her enthusiasm and commitment, that the group really started to make progress in their goal of creating a rich, biodiverse park. Enter George Fotheringham, a retired landscape contractor with a passion for indigenous plants and birds and a natural landscape designer. He saw a call for volunteers and turned up, impressed that these young people happily worked all day in pouring rain. For 14 years, George has worked well more than full time, leading the on-ground effort, mentoring, teaching; the expert.

The next year Tony Flude joined the team, also full time; a skilled organiser who has built a stable of corporations keen for their staff to put in a day’s work; shifting mulch, planting, cutting out woody weeds, knowing it will be well organised and worthwhile. Service clubs, work programs add to the effort.

Rob Youl OAM, a Landcare movement pioneer, established the Friends’ strong partnership with Landcare. Neil Blake, OAM from Port Phillip EcoCentre gave guidance. Lecki Ord, architect/planner and former Lord Mayor of Melbourne leads the advocacy effort, assists with planning, nursery and on-ground work. The very diverse committee of management also includes Janet Bolitho, Malcolm & Ruth Cook, Lyn Allison, Jackie Kerr and Michael Cole.

Supporting corporations are too numerous to list but neighbour, Holden, has provided generous cash support over time and a very useful park vehicle. Much-valued partners, the St Kilda Indigenous Nursery Co-op give technical assistance and produce over half the seedlings used. The Friends work closely with Parks Victoria, Westgate Park managers, and Port of Melbourne Corporation, taking care of vegetation on the Port’s river section.

Recreating Melbourne’s sandbelt botany

Greater Melbourne, with 1,367 indigenous plant species, is the most botanically rich area of any in Victoria. The Friends of Westgate Park’s aimed to create 10 distinct plant communities using 300 ‘sandbelt’ species that once existed within 5km of the CBD.

Melbourne’s vegetation is astoundingly beautiful, especially up close. It is also mostly subtle in colour and form; perhaps shaping a cultural aesthetic more under-stated than other Australian cities. However understood, these plants have created a landscape at Westgate Park – an inner-city bushland – without parallel.

The rich biodiversity that follows

The Park is richer in plant species than it was originally – perhaps more like a botanic garden than natural bush. This diversity has created habitats to which all manner of fauna and fungi have come. That they found the park, surrounded as it is by freeways and factories, is astounding. That a food chain has developed sufficient to sustain so many is even more amazing.

Reliable data has been collected for almost a decade on birds that visit or are resident and breed in the Park. On average 50 species are observed each monthly survey and in all 156 have been recorded in the Park. Andrew McCutcheon has long led the surveys and guided planning for bird habitat. He and Euan Moore take beautiful photos of bird life.

For three years fungi have been recorded and over 70 species identified.

Possums, bats, frogs, blue-tongue lizards, snake-necked turtles and tiger snakes are present though keep well out of sight.

The discovery and identification of invertebrates has just begun but already dozens of species have been photographed.

First decade of Friends’ major projects

2001-2: Frog habitat created with Port Phillip Ecocentre

2002-3: First heath created on northern boundary at Todd Rd

2002-11: Two largest islands in the Freshwater Lake planted

2003: River Hill planted

2004-5: Land at north incorporated. Tonnes of waste timber covered, road constructed, redgum embankment, compound, chain of ponds and large lagoon created.

2005: Todd Road Embankment planted in preparation for Commonwealth Games pistol shooting in venue opposite

2007-8: Lookout Hill planted

2007-9:  Carpark grasslands created

2008-9:  Edge of oval planted

2008-10: Coast Banksia woodland planted on River section

2009-11: Gully beside disused Webb Railway line planted

2011-3: Horseshoe Lake Peninsula planted

2009-10:  Area east of toilet block planted

Recent and future major projects

2010: Windmill Soak. A shallow, open wetland with a sandy edge and dense sedge cover suiting frogs and some birds.

2013: Gahnia Flat. Weedy buloke cleared, root barrier installed and planted with Gahnia for clear lake views.

2014-16: Howe Pde Extension reserve on southern boundary incorporated. Vehicle road constructed and narrow drainage channel splayed with earthmover to create a long wetland. Thick weeds cleared and revegetation, boardwalk, bird hide and shared path direct from Todd Rd to River planned.

2015-16: 1.4ha Port land opened up for park use in exchange for land used for Port development on Todd Rd. Earthmoving for mounds and paths done and garden beds, revegetation, seating and drinking fountain underway.

2015-17:  Salt lake edge reconstructed for salt marsh revegetation. Fill imported and used to create more suitable conditions for salt tolerant plants and a new path proposed around southern edge.

Done by volunteers

The success of the revegetation effort at Westgate Park is due to volunteers and the Friends acknowledge and thank their big team of generous, skilled helpers, some over more than a decade.  Amongst them are Malcolm Jennings, Paul Harper, Paul Smith, Brendan Jury, Hart & Liz Greib, Sue Gubby, Imogen Abernathy, Jo Cathie, Phillip Nahed and Sean Walsh.

Corporate teams, school groups, service clubs, work for the dole and marginalised groups regularly work in the Park, enjoying the benefits of fresh air, exercise and social interaction. They also gain a better understanding of biodiversity and a love for this environment.

….and now the future

Parks Victoria has initiated a master plan for the Park, due for completion in 2016. The future, as the Friends see it, is for the Park to be visited and valued by people for its great beauty and tranquility, the importance of its biodiversity and for the bushland recreational experience it offers. A nature-based park, juxtaposed with industry and shipping, a short bike ride to the CBD and the sea. What could be better?

Improvements should nonetheless be made. More of the fresh and saltwater lake edges could be opened up to walkers and cyclists with paths and boardwalks. Better toilets are definitely needed, drinking fountains, rest areas and interpretative signage would be helpful, as would more stormwater into the lakes and wetlands. The extraordinary birdlife could be observed from hides and children engaged in adventure play. More land could be incorporated and the disused rail line turned into an off-road trail to the City. The Park is now included in the Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal zone.

A bushland park of this size and developing ecological complexity is unique in Melbourne. The challenge now is sustainability. With the likelihood of a hotter, drier climate, locally indigenous species are headed for extinction unless knowledge about conservation is improved. Much can be learned from the successes and failures of the effort so far. The Park supports healthy populations of rare and endangered plants and revegetated salt marsh is so far doing well. Perhaps other parks can benefit from this knowledge.

The Friends have shown what can be done by a well organised community group working alongside park managers, taking over key functions, building solid relations with corporations, industry and neighbours and forming partnerships that generate funds and volunteer effort.

This next phase in the transformation of Westgate Park is sure to be as exciting as the last!



Celebrating the 30th anniversary of Westgate Park, November 2015                                                                                                                   Written by Lyn Allison.                                                                                                                  Photography Lyn Allison, also Andrew McCutcheon, Euan Moore & George Fotheringham