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Postcards from the Lower Reaches of the Yarra
Russell Degnan

When I decided, on Thursday, to take advantage of the pleasant weather, and go for a little walk it wasn't actually my intention to saunter twenty-one kilometres. But once you start...

The first destination was Dight's Falls, which meant taking a route directly east across Parkville, Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, and Abbotsford. This is familiar ground, so I contented myself with choosing the more pleasant routes until I got to Wellington Road. Here though, I became more cautious. The last time I went through that area the burnt out cars and unfriendly stares from local porch-sitters made me feel a little unwelcome. However, things are changing here too. Johnston Street still has lots of closed businesses and graffiti, but it is being replaced by cafes, furniture and jewellery stores. Gentrification has been slow getting there, but it has arrived.

The remaining walk down Johnson Street to the bridge is as unpleasant as you'd expect any motorway to be, so I was glad when I got to the river and could make my way to the falls.


And what a glorious disappointment they are. It is a more significant spot to cite than visit: the place where the Yarra winds its way into the suburbs, the spot where the tides (now) stop and the water becomes fresh (though not clean), a former billabong and aboriginal burial site, the confluence of Merri Creek, the place of an old mill for which the falls are named, and now, an unnatural block of concrete, a depressingly boring park, and a noisy freeway to overlook it all.

The other bank is worse again. That part of Yarra Bend Park is one of the few places with reasonable amounts of remnant native vegetation in the inner area, and certainly one of the few that also includes some sort of view. Sure, said view takes in the slums of the inner city, and has almost every attractive building or feature obscured by housing commission towers, but even so the park's condition is a disgrace. Weeds are everywhere, the paths are collapsing under the strain of too many mountain bikes, it makes no use of what it has, and doesn't even dip into its potential.

With not much else to do that afternoon, I decided to walk back to the city along the river, obviously not entirely cognizant of the distances involved. The first part was easy enough, under Johnston Street bridge where the nightmen used to dump their loads, past the Children's Farm and St. Heliers, and across the pedestrian bridge to the stretch under Studley Park golf course. At this point, distracted by the fact that the brewery reeks of fermenting yeast, I almost stepped on a snake crossing in front of me. While I am sure there is no shortage of snakes in Melbourne, this is the closest I've ever seen one to the city, and I'd be just as happy if it stayed that way. The idea of one crawling through the gaping holes in the walls of my terrace abode to nestle on the furniture doesn't appeal.


After this brief flirtation with the dangers of the south-side of the river, I was happy to cross back to the miserable slums where no creature can survive for long. The little strip between the river and Victoria St. is a bit touristy. A couple of riverside cafes have set up shop to attract passing riders, the city's only commercial vineyard lies on the opposite bank and there is lots of new development. Fortunately, the developments are tasteful, and the walk is pleasant.

From the 1850s until the 1960s the next stretch of river had opposing banks as different as the residents they contained: Richmond's "dull, swampy, treeless flat" and Hawthorn's "charming and wooded heights". The cycling trail and new developments are more genteel now, although there is still a certain snobbishness about the houses on the other bank with their river frontages, even if you wonder why they wanted them when the Yarra ran like an open sewer. Other little things remind you how little the Yarra resembles what it was: the bluestone banks, the lack of native trees, and the straight lines and grassed banks, are all remnants of anti-flooding measures dating back to the 1850s.


Finally, at the South-Eastern arterial and the entrance to what's left of Gardiners Creek the Yarra and I turned back to the city. It was about this point I realised two things: I was bloody miles from the city; and there are no marked toilet blocks to be seen (the National Public Toilet Map shows several nearby but not sign-posted). The latter wasn't sufficiently resolved until I got to Birrarung Marr which is fairly poor. Not all cyclists like to do as the professionals and carry a bottle.


The more notable features along the Burnley banks are not necessarily good ones: the freeway, the increased pedestrian traffic, and substantial evidence of homeless people including a virtual encampment near the Burnley Wharves. The other side of the river may be a better walk in retrospect, including, as it does, Como House on other side of Herring Island, Melbourne High School, and the Botanic Gardens. However, you can see some nice bridges, such as the MacRobertson that also bridges the freeway, the Church Street Bridge and after a longish stretch where the trail literally hangs over the water, the always picturesque Morrell Bridge.

The remaining trail is familiar enough to be boring -- at least to me -- passing the tennis centre, the new parklands at Birrarung Marr, and finally, Federation Square and the boat-houses. It is an interesting, if long, walk, but probably a better bike-ride, since you can pedal through the boring bits and except for one or two bridge crossings that still include stair-cases, it is a flat and well made path that allows a bit of speed.

Tales of the City 7th January, 2006 20:44:11   [#] [4 comments] 

Postcards from Southbank to Brighton
Russell Degnan

Last Sunday, being a day without homework to do, and little else either for practically the first time in nearly 12 months, allowed me to make a little walking excursion. It had long been in my mind to wander down to Brighton for a look-see, and so, camera in hand, with a pleasant sun beating down and a cool breeze floating off the bay I did just that.

It's quite a long way, Brighton.


Coming from the city, Southbank is obviously first, and it must be said, the least pleasant suburb for walking in. As nice as some of the big buildings -- such as the new PricewaterhouseCoopers Building on the right -- are for taking photographs of, the persistent shadows, the heavy traffic, and the lack of interesting frontage make the streets devoid of greenery like concrete tunnels. Worse, the Southbank 'hinterland' as it is called, barely a hundred metres from the river, unlike other urban disasters around Melbourne was actually blessed with substantial investment. If any place demonstrates that developers can afford to be short-sighted, and anti-urban in outlook then Southbank is it. But does the State Government have to persistently help them achieve this through short-sighted lot consolidation and weak planning rules?

Escape the hinterland though, and next to the freeway on Sturt St. you come across a little hill. It is covered in native vegetation, and not actively encouraging people to visit, but it gives a great view of the mess of tower blocks and the city behind. Once again I skipped the Centre for Contemporary Art. Perhaps another day.

And so along Sturt St., following the path of the Number 1 tram for a period. A tram route I have never taken, except by accident, not least because although its winding route is no doubt fascinating, it doesn't really go anywhere particularly.



At the end of Eastern Rd. is Albert Park. It was packed with the normal collection of joggers, walkers, dogs and sailboats; some terrible golfers on the public course; and some terrible umpiring on the football fields at the Southern end.



Enough gets written about St. Kilda without me making much mention of my brief sojourn there, taking in Fitzroy Street; the pier, devoid of the kiosk but still not short of visitors; the beach, whose most charming element was a little girl throwing sand in her sister's eyes; Luna Park; and the marina, of which the less said the better. Even now, a hundred years after it was subsumed into endless Melbourne suburbs, it still retains the day-tripper element of times past. It is hard to see on the tram map, but no less than five trams have their endpoint there. Notably, the 69 and 79 that turn down Church St. and Glenferrie Rd. into inner suburbs. Once upon a time at least, transport planners considered weekend travel a worthwhile exercise.



South of St. Kilda lies the Elwood Canal. The walk along it is very pleasant, shady, and wide enough for bikes and the ubiquitous Elwood stroller. A series of little tile strips depicting elements of the local history keep you entertained with stories of boats and fishing in some parts; and detestable quagmires spreading polio, typhoid and any number of other diseases at others. I left i when it stopped being a canal and became a drain, making my way back to the beach.



From here the trip was a seemingly endless beach path with a seemingly endless stream of the same walkers, joggers, cyclists, skaters and dogs that I'd been seeing since Albert Park. Persistent too, was the view out over the bay, where the sun slowly made its way over the West Gate Bridge, the Yarra Power Station with its noticeable chimney stack, and the cranes of Williamstown. Noticeable too, was the CBD. The Eureka Tower is very tall, but you need to stand back about 15km before you realise just how big.

But Brighton is a different demographic to what was now behind me. The packed restaurants and cafes dried up. The housing became a little lower, a little bigger, and a little more exclusive -- this changes once you get away from the beach though, I might add. Teenagers start to appear, and the elderly. In short, I'd entered the middle suburbs. But other things were a bit disturbing, like the manicured sand dunes. Having grown up in Warnambool I am used to real sand dunes, with scrub and lots of sand. These patches of trees surrounded by crisp grass are somehow wrong.



They are especially wrong at my eventual destination. Not the Brighton Pier at left, picturesque though it is, but the sand dunes over a short promontory at the end of Park Street where the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon shot himself on the morning of the 24th June 1870. I'd expected a memorial of some kind, there being no shortage in other places -- Gordon Place, Flemington, Ballarat, Mt. Gambier, and Westminster Abbey being the most prominent -- but no sign of either the dunes or the tea-tree scrub remains.

The walk to the station was problematic. Not because it was far, but because inadequate signage meant my approximate direction pushed me to North rather than Middle Brighton, though Brighton Beach would have been better still. On the other hand, while I didn't see any of the ever invisible Melbourne buses -- it was Sunday after all -- I did photograph a good bus sign to go with my large collection of horrifically bad bus signs. One of those routes -- the 61 -- doesn't actually exist at all so perhaps it was an antique sign of sorts.

All in all, a good walk.

Tales of the City 7th June, 2005 18:55:24   [#] [4 comments] 

Postcard from Frankston and Mornington
Russell Degnan

Last Sunday I took the time to broaden my horizon from my little inner-northern Melbourne comfort zone to explore the bare edges of the city. The eventual destination was Mornington, who had, for the past three months, had an exhibition of Arthur Streeton paintings I was interested in. More on that later.

Sunday public transport can be a lottery though. The first step was Frankston, a lazy 68 minute trip from Melbourne Central. It is an interesting train journey well documented already by Agent FareEvader. The particular points of interest follow your arrival in Mordialloc.

At this point the landscape is flat, former marshes drained for suburbia, and remains so until Frankston. Often the line is the highest point in the surrounding area, allowing you to see out across the tree-green suburbs dating from the 60s and 70s and the remaining green wedges to the Dandenongs. On the other, you catch glimpses of the bay, between a mixture of new developments and older beach houses. The strip shopping centres in the procession of suburbs - Aspendale, Edithvale, Chelsea - are both stuggling and exhibiting new growth simultaneously. In short, the are areas ripe for gentrification, despite - or because of - being 30km from the city.


Frankston hasn't got the greatest reputation in the world, but it has benefits that other run-down suburbs don't. In particular, it is a transit-city and a major activity centre. Sure, a young local drove his shoulder into me mere minutes after alighting at the station, but I'd stopped to look at a map, impeding his process, and making him - just for a second - look less than cool. Who could blame the lad? But beyond the roaming youths, there are a few interesting looking bookstores, and a lot of improvements to the urban spaces: on the streets, near the station, and along the beach - such as the bridge to the right. Something is happening here too, and it is all to the good.

Getting away from Frankston is more problematic. My original plan was to take the bus. It runs just five times a day on Sunday! At irregular intervals of approximately an hour and a half. This is better than nothing, but only the way eating grass is better than starving. Fortunately, my Dad was driving down to meet me at the gallery, so I had him meet me there instead. It also gave me the time to walk along the beach for a while, taking in the view across the bay, and the mix of gated communities that sit atop the hill nearby.

Franskton should be the undisputed capital of the Southern part of Melbourne, in an area that is growing rapidly. But it is not the centre yet, and the policies are not in place to make it so. The transit-city concept is broken for this reason, focusing on places with good connections to the city. It is so far to that area that only the insane would contemplate venturing to the city regularly. But they do have a role as the focus of their communities - and others nearby in the absence of rational local council boundaries - and they aren't, because the odd bus is not sufficient make it happen. Unfortunately the transport policy of the State Government hasn't addressed it either, being so woeful as to have ignored the idea of structural change to the transportation system completely.



To Mornington then, where the new growth out beyond the old rail lines is occuring. I found this article on the area well worth reading, reflecting on the changes to the landscape in the past, and currently, and the manner in which it is done. Typically, the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery is not in the town centre where it would attract people, but in a spacious Civic Reserve you need to drive to. But that shouldn't detract from the quality of the Streeton exhibition - 56 paintings, across 46 years, all of various coastlines in South-eastern Australia.

Streeton's use of light was exceptional, and only got better as the years went by. Several of the paintings were of the same view, on different days, highlighting the different conditions, and in different years, showing the changes to the landscape. The latter is particularly interesting from an enviromental history point of view, where the pall that lay over Victorian era cities can be clearly seen, while the residents trying to escape it sit in the foreground.

The streets of Mornington meanwhile, must have one of the most diverse range of architectural styles I've seen. From classic Victorian era buildings, all the way to the last decade. Similar changes are evident on its beaches - with a collection of old boxes - and in the gardens, that are both tidy and well-used, and in disrepair.

Worth the trip. Unfortunately that particular exhibition ended on March 6th, but there is a new one there in its stead.

Tales of the City 12th March, 2005 15:48:01   [#] [0 comments] 

The Things we Take for Granted: Stormwater and Roads
Russell Degnan

In January 1992, along with thousands of other boys, I went to the scout jamboree in Ballarat. Naturally, because it is Ballarat, it rained the whole time we were there. Rain and thousands of people in a large park creates a remarkable amount of mud. Mud stinks. We traipsed around the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo wallowing in filth, hand-washing our clothes in cold water, and eating nothing but sausages and potatoes. It was as close to the 19th century as I ever plan to get.

In January 1852 all of Melbourne's streets were mud. Or, if it was dry: dirt. They were unsurfaced and dusty, horses were the principal means of transport, and they left their leavings everywhere. A few poorly paid scavengers were supposed to keep them clean, but they would never be in sufficient numbers to make a difference. Melbourne was a filthy colonial outpost, with bad drainage, and a horrific smell.

But it was also rich.

In her novel set in the goldrush period, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson (a pen-name, hence the 'her') describes the changing face of Melbourne's streets.

In the heart of the city men were everywhere at work, laying gas and drain-pipes, macadamising, paving, kerbing: no longer would the old wives; tale be credited of the infant drowned in the deeps of Swanston Street, or of the bullock which sank, inch by inch, before its owner's eyes in the Elizabeth Street bog.

Writing in the years prior to the Great Depression, the author was far too generous with both the roads of 1854 and those of her childhood in the 1870s. Macadamised roads - constructed with successive layers of compacted broken stone - needed constant upkeep. Council neglect meant that muddy streets were common until the 20th century when modern asphalt became the norm.


The drainage system was the biggest problem for the roads - and Elizabeth St. in particular. The impermeable surfaces of the city created a large outflow of water when it rained. Until the large underground drain was built Elizabeth St. was regularly a quagmire or worse; in 1840 it "was seriously proposed to put on a punt or two for the transit of goods and passengers". Deep open gutters were built along the streets to improve drainage, but low-lying areas were still often under-water: Flinders St., Swanston St. and Elizabeth St. being the worst affected, and residents took to referring to the streets as "creeks".

Such flooding also extended to the river, which flooded every few years. The plaque on an 1890 painting by Aby Alston in the National Gallery of Victoria refers to the flooding as "tragic, if it were not so common". By then they had made substantial improvements to the river and more followed, particularly after the MMBW was given control over drainage in 1924; but floods in South Melbourne and Richmond still occured until after the Second World War.


Other techniques were tried on the roads themselves. Large stones - still commonly found in laneways and the gutters of the inner suburbs proved to wear too quickly, leaving a rough, slippery and dangerous surface. Wood blocks - made with Australian hardwoods and lain in concrete were used after 1880; starting with just the new tram-tracks, these were found to be quite suitable, and by 1897 roughly 18km of Melbourne's roads were wooden.

The streets of Melbourne in the late 19th century were often an encumbrance to its citizens: wretched in smell, often flooded, and if not that, dusty, with large potholes and poorly lit. A visitor from those days could only be struck by our streets cleanliness and drainage, by the low level of pollution in the air, on the ground, and in the rivers. That they could be improved further is no doubt true, but, its a start.

Tales of the City 8th September, 2004 13:04:06   [#] [0 comments] 

Travails with the so-called "SmartGuide"
Russell Degnan

A few nights ago I was in the city waiting at the super-stop. No wait, SUUUPER-stop, on the corner of Collins and Swanston St. As well as the extremely useful tram indicators that tell you whether you have time to run and get a jaffle pie before your tram comes, it also has the moderately useful SmartGuide.

Being a bit of a nerd, I couldn't resist having a play, and having done that, and being a sort of uber-nerd, I couldn't resist coming back again to try and break it. And break it I did. The moderately useful thing is that it has a Melway map built in on which you can plan a route and scroll around the city. The useless part is that the route finder is a little bit "indirect" on occasion.

I chose a route to some obscure place in the South-Eastern suburbs. The short story is you need to take the Frankston train to Ormond.

Above is what it gave me. Since the text is hard to read, here it is in text:

Catch Port Melbourne Tram 109 at 9:24pm from Swanston St. to Flinders St., arriving at 9:42pm

Catch Wattle Park Tram 70 at 9:42pm from Spencer and Flinders Sts. to Swanston and Flinders Sts., arriving at 9:55pm

Walk 81 metres to Flinders St. Station. Catch Frankston Train at 9:55pm to Ormond Station, arriving at 10:57pm. Walk 904 metres to your desired destination.

Total walking distance: 996 metres


Brilliant I first thought. But.... no.

The first terrible assumption it seems to make is that you have some idea where you are going. Which is why it lists a tram to take from that platform even though it is going nowhere near where you want. Now, the first rule of Human-Computer Interaction is that users don't know what they are doing and will actively break your seemingly logical system. The programmer who did this should be embarrassed. But it is worse than that, because there are lots of reasons people might be trying to do any route from any point on the system. This is a massive failing.

At any rate, this assumption results in a bizarre and unnecessary tram sequence. From Collins and Swanston to Spencer and Flinders, then back up Flinders. Taking a measly half an hour to do something that could have been trammed up Swanston in 3 minutes, or walked in 2. (Leaving aside the possibility to tram down Elizabeth, or get off at Spencer St. station).

Worse still, it assumes trams run on time perfectly, because the tram times match exactly (and the Port Melbourne was already late), so you would not actually catch the Wattle Park tram unless it was late.

A similar error is then made for the Frankston connection. Apparently we have godlike powers to transport ourselves short distances in zero time. A walk of 81 metres (I love the exactitude of that distance) will take 2-3 minutes. Scheduling exactly is plain stupid. Not that it matters, not only is the time to Ormond massively wrong - 1 hour, 2 minutes! instead of 29 minutes, and just 18 from Richmond because the loop is slow - but the timetable is wrong anyway. The train runs on the quarter hour and every 30 minutes in that period. You could saunter up to Flinders St., catch the 9:45pm and be in Ormond by 10:14pm.

But that's ok, because if you are sucked in to taking the tram, its times are wrong too! The Port Melbourne comes through at 9:35pm. The Wattle Park at 9:50pm.


In short, the SmartGuide is as dumb as dogshit, confusing, wrong, with hopeless heuristics on time, a terrible sense of direction, and stupid assumptions. I pity the tourist who mistakenly uses it to try and go somewhere.

Update: It occurs to me that the times may in fact not refer to when the vehicle arrives, but instead the time from which you have to wait for them. In which case, the end point times are correct, whereas the start times are ridiculously counter-intuitive.

Tales of the City 25th August, 2004 22:47:24   [#] [3 comments] 

A short story about Storey Hall
LisaB.UrbnPL

Storey Hall is order against chaos.
The certainties of the past collide with the random shapes of today’s mathematics... and obscure geometric theory.
The new building plays with memories from its former lives.
Modern green politics merge with the building’s Irish Catholic past.
The purple of feminism recalls an earlier tenant, a women’s political association.

Tales of the City 29th July, 2004 20:42:31   [#] [0 comments] 

The Things we Take for Granted: Sewerage
Russell Degnan

If clean and reliable water was an area that the Victorian government has assiduously pursued, then sewerage was an area where the had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age.

The Department of Sewerage and Water Supply was formed in 1860 after an (oft-quoted) government committee reported (in 1852) that:

"In the block bounded by Great and Little Bourke- streets, Elizabeth-street and Swanston-street, there is a space of upwards of one hundred square yards hitherto occupied by a green putrid and semi-liquid mass, partly formed by the outpourings of surrounding privies; and in the blocks north and south of this one, the very passages and rights-of-way are similarly saturated."

But, in the transition to 'responsible government' in 1855 funding was cut. And, in the years following, sewerage was symbolically dropped from the title.


Health conditions in late Victorian Melbourne were horrendous. Melbourne had consistently higher deathrates from typhoid, diptheria and tuberculosis than not only the other Australian cities, but London and parts of Europe. Worse, while in most cities improved sanitary conditions and knowledge were contributing to decreasing death-rates, Melbourne's were increasing! Dumping, or letting the run-off of noxious waste into rivers had the Merri Creek in dry weather "a series of gigantic open stagnant cesspools". The Yarra, into which all these would flow was an open sewer. The Scottish traveller James Goudie described it as "the filthiest piece of water I ever had the misfortune to be afloat on".

The increase in water supply without adequate drainage contributed to the problem. Low-lying suburbs such as Collingwood or South Melbourne were inundated with the liquid waste of surrounding suburbs. They were still tainted with their image as disease-ridden slums a hundred years hence.


The cleaning of the 'night-soil' was - in theory - the responsibility of local government. Councils employed night-men to collect the waste from pans, though this service was often voluntary and required payment of a fee. This was then carted to the edge of the city where it was sold to market-gardeners. By 1890 this system was breaking down. The distance to travel to the edge of town had increased as Melbourne expanded; Boroondara, ever mindful of its image banned the night-carts from travelling through. Nightmen regularly dumped the waste where convenient: in vacant lots, or in one enterprising case, off the Johnston St. bridge which lay in a no-mans land between council boundaries. Councils were also plagued by gross incompetence, building extravagant city halls and protecting their councillors business interests first.

Despite repeated calls for an underground sewerage system, politics played a big part in the inaction. A crisis in London in the 1850s had allowed the creation of a metropolitan-wide Board of Works. Melbourne's Town Clerk from 1856-1891, Edmund Fitzgibbon was behind a similar scheme, but several factors delayed a like implementation. Local councils had varying levels of problems with sewerage. Outer metropolitan areas had little, were concerned at the expense of a sewerage system, and probably percieved - rightly - that they would be last to recieve the benefits. Inner councils distrusted the Melbourne City Council for its money and the influence it would have. State government meanwhile, tried to curb - and continues to curb - the power of Melbourne City Council, while at the same time shrinking from paying for a public works scheme for the capital city that the over-represented country members would resent.

The crisis of the late 1880s finally provoked a response. Under Fitzgibbon's influence, city councils came together to propose a joint board of works. The State Government delayed further, appointing a Royal Commission to study the problem. The commission argued for the appointment of a civil engineer to devise a plan for Melbourne - James Mansergh was payed 4000 pounds (a substantial sum) to come from England to do so. Meanwhile, arguments over the form of the new board dragged on. The commission favoured an expert committee to oversea the works, the councils, a representative body. Fitzgibbon's influence told, he convinced the government to have a smaller representive body. In one final compromise though - for outer suburban councils - the board was given control of not just the main sewers, but for the connections to individual houses. With the state government - strangely - wanting no part in the operation, the MMBW bureaucracy that would later run roughshod over councils was born.
The statue of Edmund Fitzgibbon on St. Kilda Rd.

In the early years though, the MMBW had its own problems. The boom of the 1880s busted shortly after its creation, locking up much needed funds in collapsed banks. As a self-funding operation, the new chairman - Fitzgibbon - had to raise loans at a time when businesses were closing and unemployment was skyricketing. Works proceeded slower than expected, and outer suburban councils tried to reduce the size of the project.

Nevertheless, by the combined wills of Fitzgibbon and the chief engineer William Thwaites it went ahead. The sewerage farm was built at Werribee, and a pumping station at Spotswood - now the Scienceworks Museum. In 1897, Melbourne finally had its first house connected to sewerage: a hotel on the corner of Rouse and Princes Streets, Port Melbourne. The central city was connected the next year, and by 1905 over 100,000 properties had been connected. The rapid growth of Melbourne meant the connections would always lag behind the building of new houses, but the general effect was noticeable. Even The Age - long a stern critic of Fitzgibbon and the board for his authoritarian style, and the percieved waste and mismanagement of the project - was forced to concede that:

"The sewering of the city, in carrying off the scourings from the streets and factories, instead of having that refuse shot into the Yarra, had done a great deal towards purifying the river with the result that the atmosphere of the whole city is much purer, and the death rate smaller than it was. This decreased mortality bill means much more than the mere saving of so many lives every year, though that in itself is a great item, especially in a country which is calling for more popoulation. But the saving of life through the sweetening of life's sanitary conditions means an incalculable lifting up of the average health standard of those who live. It means an immeasurable prevention of bodily suffering. This is worth to any city more than the money it costs, however extravagant may have been the methods of bringing it about."

Tales of the City 24th May, 2004 19:49:07   [#] [0 comments] 

The Things we Take for Granted: Water
Russell Degnan

In a post a few months ago I made one of those throw away comments I'm so fond of regarding Melbourne's water supply and a water tower. It occured to me then that I had no concept of Melbourne's water history - despite it's importance, nor what a water tower is - shamefully. It is a fascinating topic, and so this is the first of several posts on Melbourne's utilities up to and in the early years of the formation of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1891.

But, first, a water tower. The water tower pictured in the Charles Condor painting is related to an unreliable supply of water, but not because there was none. Water towers are actually a way to maintain pressure during heavy usage. Melbourne's water in the 1880s wasn't that unreliable, having built several dams, but the pressure in the system was - and remained so until the 1960s in some higher areas, notably the posh middle eastern suburbs. Water towers were - and still are - an effective way of maintaining pressure, not maintaining supply. For that we need to go back.


Melbourne's first water supply was the Yarra river. A waterfall that lay where the Queen's Bridge now sits meant that the city could obtain fresh water, without being too distant from a place to moor ships. Water was drawn from just upstream of the falls and distributed on water-carts by private operators. But there were two problems.

Firstly, in times of drought - a common occurance then as today - the water level of the Yarra fell so much that the water became brackish and undrinkable. Second, and more importantly, the Yarra river basin represents the entire northern and eastern side of Melbourne. As such, industrial waste, human, animal and vegetable matter drained from the settlements into the Yarra river. By 1852, with a rush of new immigration at the start of the goldrush the Yarra was a sluggish putrid river. In the years to follow it would get progressively worse.

Sewage and water problems are not unrelated, but despite the establishment of a Board of Commissioners of Sewerage and Water Supply, only the water supply was addressed. The area around Melbourne was surveyed, and the Plenty River was decided upon as the best source of clean water. Works began on the Yan Yean Reservoir in 1853 and the supply was turned on in 1857.


The Yan Yean Reservoir in 1862 (courtesy: National Library of Australia)

However, the Yan Yean Reservoir was plagued by problems: first, the tin lining in the lead pipes was destroyed by voltaic action and dissolved, causing lead poisoning. Then, the quality of the water deteriorated. The Plenty River runs through swamplands, and despite works to route the river around them, the water had a "turpid opalescence... mawkish taste... repulsive smell" until into the 20th Century.

Not surprisingly, a constant supply of fresh water led to significant wastage. European gardens, and the hot weather contributed to people using far more than their counterparts in England. But, a policy of unlimited water for Melbourne had been established, and further extensions were made to the system: notably, the diversion of water from north of the Great Dividing Range into the Yan Yean Reservoir, and the building of the Maroondah Reservoir in 1891.


Today, the majority of the Yarra tributaries have been dammed - to prevent flooding if nothing else. Melbourne's potential water supply has probably reached it's maximum extent. Water already gets moved from the Thomson Reservoir into the system during a drought. The policy of maintaining an unrestricted water supply allowed and even encouraged untrammeled growth, but two questions remain: is this policy still in force? If so, how will it be maintained with another million people in 30 years time? And if not, what changes must be wrought in the way we supply water? Melbourne 2030 attempts to address this in Policy 7.1:

Water supply
The Government will protect Melbourne’s water catchments and water supply facilities to ensure the continued availability of clean, high-quality drinking water. It will require that reservoirs, water mains and local storage facilities are protected from potential contamination, and that planning for water supply, sewerage and drainage works receives high priority in early planning for new developments.

Water demand
Water use efficiency will be managed so that existing storages can reliably meet water demand beyond 2030. Sustainable management will ensure that water availability in other parts of Victoria is not adversely affected. Reductions are needed in per capita water consumption, which has already fallen by 12 per cent in the past decade, and in leakage rates, which are estimated as 8 per cent of potable water supply to Melbourne.

Making the answers to the above questions: "yes" and "by reducing demand and not increasing supply". Interesting times ahead.

Tales of the City 1st April, 2004 23:33:05   [#] [1 comment] 

Melbourne in Art: Charles Conder
Russell Degnan

Spring St. Melbourne

One of the many things I like about the National Gallery (of Victoria: for you federalists) are the many paintings (and photographs) of Melbourne, and other Australian cities from earlier times. Others may like the Nolans and the visitors flock around The Pioneer or Shearing the Rams; but I spend the most time looking at the cityscapes, to see how things were.

So, in what will (I hope) be a series, I'm going to scour the Australian collection and compare them to what exists today.

The first selection is Charles Conder, for reasons I'll get shortly. He was born in England and was in Australia only six years, but, like so many artists of all types who would follow, we claim him as our own. He had travelled to Australia at 15 (in 1884) to train as a surveyor. By 1886 he had quit to paint, and soon studied and worked with some of Australia's best contemporary artists, such as Roberts, Streeton and McCubbin.

The ulterior motive behind my choosing him first is the exhibition currently being held at the gallery. It closes November 9th, and I highly recommend it while you have the chance. (Also see the other exhibit Second Sight until the 16th, which is also excellent). Conder's art is amazingly lively, full of colour, and humour, and seems to emphasise the human element where his contemporaries were often more interested in the landscape itself. His work in Melbourne (from 1888 till 1890) was in some ways his best. On returning to Paris, and then England, he seems hampered by trends, and forced into trying styles that don't suit him. But you can judge that for yourself.

Spring Street, Melbourne was painted around 1890, and isn't in the aforementioned exhibition - actually, I am not sure I have ever seen it. It has been painted from in front of Old Treasury, on the corner of MacArthur St. and Spring St. looking north up Spring St. I suspect - having the two pictures side by side - that Conder was painting from the top of the steps, rather than the street corner, but they are close enough. The photo on the right was taken on Cup Day. It should, in theory, be at approximately the same time, to get the same shadow across the road, but, one of the ugliest buildings in Melbourne has been built in the way for that. And yes, it is from the 1960s.

This area of town went through some radical changes in the decade before the painting was done. On the left, out of shot, is the "Parisian end" of Collins St. On page 84 and 85 of Melbourne: the city's history and development, you can see them clearly. Several new buildings have been constructed, and the elm trees that still exist today have been planted. In the painting, but not the photo, you can see them along Spring St. as well, on the left. In the photo you can see the remnants of another change from Melbourne's boom. Down the middle of Collins St. and running across Spring St. and along MacArthur St. are the tram tracks. These existed in 1888 although, unlike today, they were cable and not electric. Conder has either neglected to put them in, or they have faded over time. I can't tell from either the black and white photo, or the painting if the streets were paved (asphalted) at the time - it certainly wasnt of today's standard - but the gutters and footpaths had been put in before 1880. One final change at the street level. White and Yellow Lines.

But enough of Collins St. The small park you can see is the Gordon reserve, and the statue in the centre of both pictures is of General Gordon. It was put there on 26th June 1889, which provides a reasonable clue as to the painting's date. The landscaping of the reserve has changed considerably: whereas in 1890 flowers predominated, it is now all grass, with the two statues (the other is of poet Adam Lindsay Gordon), and a fountain. The fountain dates from earlier than 1890, but may have moved; the flowers are certainly no more, and what appears to be a hedge is now an entrance to Parliament Station (or a ladies toilet). The biggest change though, are the trees, the large green (native?) has been removed, and several large palm trees dot the reserve. They also provide very little shade.

Behind the reserve lies Parliament, which hasn't changed substantially (although it may not have been completely finished then). The trees surrounding it are a little bigger perhaps. But there are two more substantial differences behind that. In the photo, you can see the ICI/Orica building, I think, Melbourne's first modern glass-fronted office building. In the painting, and again across the street: a water- tower. In a city with no running water, these were essential. And, I am guessing, so ubiquitous as to go almost unnoticed.

The last, and probably biggest, changes can be seen on the western side of Spring St. The Windsor Hotel - formerly the Grand Hotel - (visible in the photo) was built in 1883, and must be slightly out of frame in the painting. The other buildings on the left in the painting are not recognisable as anything (one should be the Imperial Hotel - 1856), however, the distinctive widow's walk atop the Princess Theatre (1886) is very noticeable. By contrast, in the photo the red building obscures the theatre, and the most prominent building by far, is Casselden Place, former site of brothels and now the Federal Government offices.

Overall, the changes are actually quite few. Both sides of Spring St. from Little Collins to Little Bourke are almost unchanged. And the most prominent, and attractive of the landmarks remain (albeit obscured). There are even, blessedly, few cars in the area, which does hark back the 113 years since Charles Conder sat and painted there. Few streets in Melbourne can say that.

UPDATE: After a week of looking at a not-quite-right cropping I decided to change it. The major change is that the Windsor Hotel is not visible in either picture. The 'artistic' effects put on the statue are more visible too, the plinth and the statue seem slightly broader, and taller, giving it emphasis in the painting.

Tales of the City 7th November, 2003 00:40:05   [#] [0 comments] 

Of Platforms and such...
Citizen #381277

Well, today I decided to go and investigate Platforms 12 and 13 in Flinders Street Station...

Needless to say, I was shocked and appalled at the disgusting waste of space under there! Seriously! It's quite dark and confined there, but I daresay the area could be used...in some way or another. Perhaps you all (all 7 of you now! )can suggest ways in which the area can be utilised in a more holistic and social way. At the moment, it' just a horrible dank alley with the occassional Vline train passing through. It could be so much more!!

Thus ends my attempt at bringing this site to life.

Tales of the City 11th September, 2003 22:34:40   [#] [7 comments] 

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