During the 20th century, the railyards next to the river gradually expanded and cut that part of the city off from the river. To compound this, several utilitarian (no - let's not beat around the bush - ugly) public service buildings were erected which blocked the view of the river. Melbournians had talked about what they could do about these eyesores for the best part of a century. Then in the 1990s Victoria got a government that wasn't big on talking, but was big on doing. They decided to knock down the offending buildings, cover a large section of the railyards to create Federation Square and free up a large section of riverside for additional parkland - now Birrarung Marr. (That government also did other things which angered enough voters to unceremoniously kick them out of office soon afterwards.)
The resulting park is quite modern in style and forms a contrast with the parks from a century earlier on the other side of the Yarra.
The first response might be to wonder what a large expanse of finely ground gravel is doing in a park. However that is there to cater for major events such as circuses and to carry the large amount of foot traffic to and from the MCG and Tennis Centre. There are two large grassy terraces that are suitable for picnics or just reading a book. These provide a unique view of the city - the hustle and bustle of street level is masked out allowing the upper structure of some of the better modern buildings of Melbourne to take on an aura of dignity and calm. Buildings like Harry Seidler's Shell Building which turns its back on the city and faces out can be appreciated in a way that was not possible before.
Walking and cycling paths run through the park, including a 1.5km circuit suitable for jogging and providing an alternative to "the tan" on the other side of the river. Some paths have been designed to be suitable for for beginning or endings of fun runs, marathons and the like.
Perhaps the strongest contrast Birrarung Marr presents to its stately Edwardian sisters over the river is its ecological sensibilities. Australia is a dry continent, and the European style gardens on the south of the river require large amounts of water for their maintenance. The modern park is planted with hardy natives that need little watering and the gullies (or swales) are designed to catch and filter the water from the large runoffs and return them to the aquifer. The soak and the gravel area perform a similar function.
Crushed shell path at Birrarung Marr
There are several features which link it with the past. Some are tokenism - eg the small soak is "a billabong which pays homage to the history of the Yarra River". However, that is no bad thing. Similarly, an old railway building of no particular merit compared with other examples around Melbourne has been retained. Why? Melbournians are justly suspicious of knocking anything down - particularly after the removal of heritage in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Hence we tend to cling to anything more than 30 years old, even if it is to be replaced by something better and more significant. (If Sydneysiders had this attitude they would still have a grungy old tram shed on Bennelong Point rather than the Opera House.) So we have an old railway building converted into a children's activity centre called ArtPlay.
However, the area that has the strongest resonances of the past is Speakers Corner. The speakers mounds are where you could find orators of all persuasions at the weekend. They had their heyday from the late 19th century through to the 1930s. Here the crowds would mill around people spouting anything from inspired oratory to arrant nonsense. (A sad and pale parody of this can now be witnessed on the lawns of the State Library on Sunday afternoons - but be warned the speakers are often foul mouthed.) Colourful characters like Chummy Flemming had their own mounds and he eventually had his ashes scattered there. The remaining mounds (several of them have been moved and reconstructed) underneath the elms are a reminder of earlier, and sometimes violent times.
As for the name, we are told that the two words "Birrarung" and "Marr" come from the Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri tribe of aborigines who originally inhabited the land. They mean "river of mists" and "side of a river". I don't speak the language - nor to my knowledge does any other living soul - so I am prepared to accept this name as a belated recognition of the original dwellers in this area. However, the local Aborigines are said to have played a subtle trick on we whitefellas when it came to naming our main festival. Maybe they have done the same again. Who knows? I certainly don't. There is a certain irony in this naming because, of course, this is not "side of the river" that the original aboriginal inhabitants knew. The Yarra Yarra flowed through the area which is now the Botanic Gardens and the ornamental lake there is part of the original river. With flood control works in the 19th century the colonials altered the course of the Yarra and the park is therefore on the banks of the new artificial channel created by the Europeans.
In the meantime, I often wander through the park and ponder many aspects of Melbourne's history both before and after European settlement.
In October 2004, Birrarung Marr won the Walter Burley Griffin Award for Urban Design.
(Melways Ref. 2F C7)