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South Wharf Webb Bridge
Photograph: Christian Pearson/Parks Victoria

We could be swimming in the CBD section of the Yarra River soon, with an ambitious plan in the works

Would you be up for a leisurely swim through Southbank? Well, soon you might be able to

Liv Condous
Written by
Liv Condous

Imagine this: it's a swelteringly hot day in Melbourne and you've made plans to explore the CBD. But instead of this sounding like a recipe for a sweat-drenched venture, you can beat the heat by taking a dip in the cool, clear waters of the Yarra River. 

It sounds like an unrealistic fantasy, right? Well, a determined environmental group is on a mission to make it a reality, with a plan to restore the Birrarung waterway so that Melburnians can enjoy a leisurely swim right in the city centre. 

The organisation behind this pipedream scheme is called Regen Melbourne, and they're working with researchers, environmental advocates, Indigenous leaders, engineers, entrepreneurs and environmentalists – all of whom are committed to the mission of making the Yarra River swimmable. While it would be easy to scoff at this project, the Regen Melbourne team willingly admits that it's "wild and ambitious", and that they are already on the path to making it happen. 

Currently, city bylaws make swimming in the section of the river between Abbotsford and Port Phillip Bay, where the river flows to the sea, illegal. Not only that, but the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), which measures the water quality, states that the water isn't suitable for swimming until it winds out to Heidelberg. There is good reason for this: the waterway has been heavily polluted by rubbish, E. Coli bacteria and other nasties since colonial settlement.

Despite this, Regen Melbourne is adamant that the CBD portion of the river could be transformed into an idyllic spot for a dip. 

“Imagine rushing out of your office at lunchtime on a hot day and cooling off in a beautiful waterway that runs through the very heart of Melbourne,” says the Swimmable Birrarung project's lead convenor, Charity Mosienyane. 

“When you hear that sections of the Thames are swimmable, that’s what gives me the biggest hope. People swim there all the time, and the river goes through the heart of the city. It’s very different to Melbourne, but you can see the parallels.” 

The project goal isn’t just to have a single segment of the river in the CBD safe to swim in, but to create a whole swimmable corridor for Melbournians to enjoy, all the way out to Dights Falls. The plan aims to turn inner-city swimming into the fabric of the city, following in the footsteps of European cities like Paris, Copenhagen and Oslo. 

The team at Regen Melbourne has been researching how to make this happen for the last three years, but now they're ready to start taking action. They plan to work on engaging stakeholders in the coming year, to discuss various smaller projects to work towards their ultimate goal of a swimmable Yarra River. They're building on the work of other environmental groups, particularly the Yarra Riverkeeper Association, to get other people on board with their vision. 

The true motivation behind the project isn't just about having a new swimming spot – it's about getting Melburnians motivated towards environmental regeneration. 

"In the light of rolling crises and the potential for apathy and withdrawal, we need to have initiatives that extend us and connect us with joy,” says Regen Melbourne chief executive Kaj Lofgren. “You can't fight climate change with fear and survival as the only goal. You have to fight it with joy and hope. I think a Swimmable Birrarung is the ultimate beacon of what’s possible when you organise with joy and hope.”

While it's hard to imagine taking a dip next to Flinders Street Station, it's a vision we can get behind. To read more about the Swimmable Birrarung project, head to the Regen Melbourne website

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