By Fran Horsley, Program Manager, Open Space for Everyone, DEECA

Across the globe, the effective management of urban waterways is becoming a priority. Waterways often intersect with utility land, council land, Crown land, parks or reserves, public land managed by community groups or other committees of management, and private land. So, how do we achieve optimal community outcomes for the varied interest groups? New research commissioned by Melbourne Water and Victoria’s Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) suggests that in many cases, collaboration is the key to achieving the best outcomes for all.

Increasing urbanisation, housing density and the impacts of climate change pose both risks and opportunities for public land management. More and more, communities are recognising waterways’ values, growing the demand for better public access and the use of quality open spaces.

Consequently, there is growing pressure to restore and manage these waterways for multiple benefits, with an increasing number of diverse stakeholders and other land managers (e.g. state transport authorities, park authorities, and Traditional Owners). Shared goals that intersect waterways need more research into how utilities can bring their community and stakeholders along for the journey in an intelligent, meaningful way.

In 2022, DEECA, in partnership with Melbourne Water, commissioned Mosaic Insights consultancy to develop an Integrated Place Management Framework. The framework provides guidance for the collaborative management of waterways and Crown land to deliver environmental, economic, social and cultural outcomes.

Backed by research and evidence, the framework is applicable to a broad range of practitioners and is designed to be adaptable rather than prescriptive. The framework serves as a guide for assessing whether to apply an integrated place management approach (it might not be appropriate for every project) and provides tools and strategies for implementing a collaborative approach.

The histories behind Melbourne’s urban waterways and their varied public values illustrates the complexities of land management collaboration that landowners/managers navigate today.

Melbourne’s liveable legacy

Melbourne, with a history of being ranked among the world’s most liveable cities, hosts a significant range of waterways – around 25,000km of rivers and creeks. For Greater Melbourne’s Traditional Owners, the Wurundjeri, Bunurong, Taungurung and Wadawurrung peoples, the waterways and surrounding lands have held cultural and spiritual connections for thousands of generations.

Waterways have been, and are still seen as living, integrated, natural, and cultural entities by the region’s Traditional Owners. Since colonisation in Australia, Melbourne’s waterways have a varied history of use and value.

The gold rush boom

Europeans colonised Melbourne in 1835 – allured by the geographical advantages like the safety of Port Phillip Bay and the fresh water provided by the Yarra River (Birrarung). By the 1860s, the Victorian gold rush had driven extensive investment into the city, which meant that its population was growing at a rapid pace and expansion was expedited.

Utility services struggled to keep up with booming growth and consequently, much of the city – particularly the Yarra River – became severely polluted, with many small creeks suffering from erosion. By the late 1800s Melbourne became colloquially dubbed ‘Smellbourne’.

The city’s drainage networks and waterways were contaminated with untreated waste, and public health concerns were at an all-time high.

Innovative solutions

In 1891, with a desperate need for an authorising body to take responsibility for the city’s water supply and sewage treatment, Melbourne Water’s predecessor, Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was formed. Approximately 157,000ha of the Yarra Ranges forest area was closed to the public for rainwater catchment, storage and filtration. Melbourne currently remains one of only a handful of cities around the world with protected water catchments.

The following year, MMBW began building Melbourne’s world-leading sewerage and drainage system, which included the construction of a treatment farm at Werribee (now known as Western Treatment Plant). This meant that the stormwater draining system was able to be separated from the sewerage system. This was a great feat for connecting Melbourne homes to sewerage systems, but the decision to split the systems inadvertently resulted in stormwater and urban runoff draining almost entirely into the waterways.

Reviving the open space network

By the 1970s, public opinion on the value of the environment and open spaces was beginning to change. In general, environmental awareness was increasing across Melbourne and other parts of the developed world. By 1971, the Victorian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) had been established, and the Victorian Government’s city planners had published an early vision for Melbourne’s open space network called Planning Policies for Metropolitan Melbourne.

Open space corridors for waterways – including the Yarra River (Birrarung) – were identified in the 1971 metropolitan plan, and soon after, land acquisition began to form green networks as well as trail systems to connect them. In 1980, a campaign ran in The Age newspaper called ‘Give the Yarra A Go’, which brought the poor condition of the lower Yarra (as well as other smaller creeks) to the attention of the public – which was instrumental in highlighting the Yarra (Birrarung) as a valued community asset.

In the decades that followed, community groups sprang up to advocate for waterways and services or delivered them themselves.

Recognising the multiple values of waterways

Recently, Melbourne – like much of the world – has witnessed a growing focus on the social and cultural aspects of urban waterway management, and the roles these play in greening cities. The COVID-19 lockdowns demonstrated just how vital waterways (blue spaces) and parks, gardens, and other open spaces (green spaces) are to community health and well-being, during which there was a significant increase in visitation to these areas.

There is also a growing focus on the cultural value of waterways, and the connection that Traditional Owners have to Country, despite the dramatic modifications to the landscape caused by urbanisation. The Wurundjeri, Bunurong, Taungurung and Wadawurrung people have cared for and lived on the lands and waters of Greater Melbourne for over 40,000 years.

Though it is well established that Country is central to Aboriginal people’s sense of identity and culture, Traditional Owners have historically been denied sovereignty and a voice in the governance of land and waterways. In 2022, the Victorian Government released Burndap Birrarung burndap umarkoo, the Yarra Strategic Plan – a ten-year plan for the Yarra River corridor. Burndap Birrarung burndap umarkoo translates to ‘what is good for Yarra is good for all’ in Woi-wurrung language.

The first-of-its-kind plan to protect and enhance the Yarra River, Birrarung as one living and integrated entity, and its implementation is being led by Melbourne Water. The plan is designed to support the Wurundjeri and Bunurong Traditional Owners’ co-management of the river and was prepared through a collaborative governance approach by the Yarra Collaboration Committee, with Traditional Owner partnership central to this approach.

This collaborative governance approach will coordinate joint actions laid out in the plan and investment across a multitude of state and local government agencies to ensure the best outcomes possible for the Yarra River (Birrarung).

Policies and plans for activating bluegreen spaces

Plan Melbourne 2017–2050 calls on all public landowners to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits as efficiently as possible by activating under-utilised public land. This is echoed in Melbourne’s Open Space for Everyone: Open Space for Metropolitan Melbourne 2021 strategy.

The strategy stipulates an action to “investigate new governance, institutional arrangements and approaches to support place-based integrated land management and community participation in planning and decision-making” to protect and improve Melbourne’s network of blue-green spaces.

Melbourne Water is the second largest landowner in Victoria, managing 33,000ha of land across Greater Melbourne for operational purposes and managing 25,000km of waterways. In 2022, the Port Phillip and Westernport Catchment Management Authority (PPWCMA) integrated into Melbourne Water, marking the beginning of a single, integrated entity with a shared vision for catchment and waterways management across the Port Phillip and Western Port region.

Acknowledging its role in ensuring that there is better access to places for communities to meet, recharge and connect with nature, Melbourne Water’s Corporate Plan 2021–22 to 2025–26 commits to delivering a new blue-green corridor planning program to maximise opportunities for recreation and leisure. It also commits to implementing strategies, guidelines and projects to make the most of open space for community health and well-being.

Dr Craig Grocke, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Tasmania, said collaboration is key to achieving these commitments in managing open space. “One solution is co management or stewardship with other land managers and communities who are keen to access and activate waterway land,” Dr Grocke said.

This requires understanding what partnership are best to use in different circumstances, which is where the Integrated Place Management Framework is beneficial. The development of the framework was informed by an extensive research process, which included interviews with place management experts; literature reviews of existing policies, guidelines and procedures; and analysis of five case studies.

What is integrated place management?

When multiple land managers, stakeholders, or land tenures intersect within a site-specific project, integrated place management can be a key tool for land management. As evidenced by the research conducted by Mosaic Insights, integrated place management is rooted in two key elements:

Place-based: framing challenges and opportunities with a specific place at the centre
Focus on collaborative processes: keeping collaborative processes at the heart of integrated place management by fostering enduring and trusted relationships between stakeholders

The place-based approach ensures a meaningful connection point between stakeholders. Within the framework, integrated place management is considered to encompass three collaborative stages:

Co-governance: formal arrangements to share decision-making. This includes the institutional and organisational arrangements and usually results in a formal agreement between key parties.

Co-planning: planning together under co-governance agreements. This represents a collaborative approach to project development whereby the interests and values of each of the stakeholders are incorporated into project plans.

Co-management: actions and responsibilities implemented jointly by the parties. This can build on the previous two levels of collaboration and is a stage in which responsibilities and actions are clarified and establishes how the desired goals or outcomes will be carried out and achieved.

When asked what integrated place management meant to them, the expert interviewees gave varied responses, but with consistent messaging when it came to the principles of authentic collaboration and partnerships to achieve shared outcomes. “Place is about delivery and connections and relationships rather than legislation.

Often, place is a really valuable anchor point for bringing people along,” Expert Interviewee 1 said. For another interviewee, integrated place management was not just about collaboration, but about distributing power. “In its purest sense, co-governance is the devolution of power so that each party that sits around that table has equal decision-making authority,” Expert Interviewee 3 said.

Using integrated place management

When integrated place management is well executed, it can create enhanced and more holistic outcomes including efficient and effective management; longevity in relationships; faster resolution of issues; a stronger sense of community and place attachment; and improved community health and well-being. For Traditional Owners, integrated place management supports self-determination and delivers greater cultural and heritage outcomes. Traditional Owners see Country as whole and connected and implore agencies to walk together across boundaries.

Importantly, integrated place management helps situate the specific site within the broader context and landscape allowing for opportunities to connect with broader green infrastructure and open space networks. This enhances the potential for biodiversity corridors contributing to urban greening and cooling objectives to improve climate change resilience.

That said, integrated place management is not always the appropriate solution, particularly within the co-governance stage. The Integrated Place Management Framework provides guidance in this assessment process and prompts practitioners to consider important factors like the number of stakeholders involved, the stage of the project, the duration and longevity of the project, and whether it’s a public or private project (e.g. whether the project involves the private use of public land).

Where it’s appropriate to use other approaches, the lessons from integrated place management can be used as a reference, however, it’s critical to clearly communicate with stakeholders whether integrated place management is occurring and in what capacity. Without clear communication, trust and rapport between stakeholders are put at risk.

A recipe for effective collaboration

The framework sets out a five-step process to guide the application of integrated place management:

Step 1: Decide whether integrated place management is appropriate for your project
Step 2: Ensure that your project supports the principles of integrated place management
Step 3: Consider your project’s complexity and the likely proportion of time and effort required for each stage
Step 4: Identify the appropriate tools and strategies for implementing each stage
Step 5: Document and share progress, outcomes and lessons learned on integrated place management

While there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to integrated place management, these steps can help guide the practitioner in determining the appropriate approach for their project.

Lessons learned

Developing the framework provided several key learnings about integrated place management approaches and highlighted that, for practitioners, applying a ‘learning by doing’ process and adaptive management philosophy will be integral to success.

A key theme that emerged during the development of the framework was the importance of allowing time to build meaningful relationships and seeking genuine involvement, rather than merely seeking feedback. “You don’t go in asking ‘what are your thoughts on this plan?’, you go in seeking a relationship, and that takes a lot of time,” Expert Interviewee 1 said.

There is also a fine balance to be struck between having a trusted administrator to facilitate and manage relationships (particularly in co-governance arrangements) and relying too heavily on an individual ‘champion’ within an organisation. The latter can be challenging when dealing with staff turnover, which can result in the loss of a stakeholder relationship. However, this is manageable by engaging entire stakeholder organisations, including senior management, and developing succession plans for stakeholder representatives.

Finally, a critical lesson to keep in mind is to ensure bureaucratic processes are fit-for-purpose, transparent and streamlined to avoid missing out on opportunities. It is important to ensure projects are outcome-focused and responsive to the needs of the community – which means developing and maintaining strong stakeholder relationships.

Collaboration is often key to achieving shared outcomes, but there are complexities and nuances to each project, landowner/manager, and community. By implementing a considered and tailored integrated place management approach the community and key stakeholders can be brought along the journey towards a shared vision. Not only does this minimise social licensing risks, but it also means more support for landowners and utilities in achieving collective outcomes and optimising shared spaces.

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