Melbourne – metropolitan parks and waterways system evolution ………

The beginnings:

Formal reservation of land for public open space in Melbourne has been undertaken since the Domain Parklands were established in 1854 and gradually expanded. In 1877 Studley and Yarra Bend Parks were held back from private sale and formally ‘declared’ for recreation and recuperation. Together they provide the largest area of natural bushland (250 hectares) left in inner Melbourne and represent the first and most important indigenous parkland area.

Current status:

An array of public parklands now exists within the Yarra River corridor from Port Phillip Bay to Warrandyte. Note: this length has descriptively been divided as upstream and downstream of Dights Falls (the extent of salt water and tidal influence). Along this stretch the riparian strip and associated open space, variously managed by local governments and Parks Victoria, offers diversity of both landscapes and of experiences. Most provide for passive recreation although some sporting fields do exist. Highly popular, they are especially busy on summer evenings, weekends throughout the year and for a wide range of events and festivals. Typical park infrastructure is plentiful and generally well maintained with outdoor exercise equipment becoming increasingly introduced. Common passive activities include traditional barbecues, informal play, bird watching and photography whilst more active pursuits are cycling, walking and team sports. Thus these cater for individuals, family groups, sporting clubs and community gatherings. Parks also offer secluded places where rest and relaxation can be enjoyed. Most parks have ‘wheelchair friendly’ facilities.

Within this overall length of the corridor there are in excess of forty named parks together with a large number of small pockets of open spaces, river frontages, school playing fields and thirteen major golf courses. Whilst many of the latter two are private, they provide a continuity of view-shed, vegetation and habitat along the corridor. Most of the parks are linked by the Main Yarra Trail and its subsidiary routes along the many tributary systems.


Open space planning in Melbourne has nearly a century of history. It was first formalised in 1929 with the Plan for General Development commissioned by the then Metropolitan Town Planning Commission. This was a planning scheme to prevent ‘misuse’ of land and protect property values. In Chapter 5 it highlighted the distribution of recreational open space. The plan also recognised the value of Melbourne’s waterways as an open space network. Over subsequent decades a variety of formal plans were produced.

In 1949 the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was authorised to prepare a comprehensive plan for Melbourne and the metropolitan area and in 1954 the MMBW was established as the permanent planning authority for that area.  It then compiled the Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme Report which planned for a population of 2.5 million in the 1990s (a population subsequently actually reached in the 1970s!). Specifically, under  Public Recreation, it proposed a major open space network along rivers and creeks together with five district centres – Footscray, Preston, Box Hill, Moorabbin and Dandenong –“They will offer to residents of the locality many of the facilities of the central city area under more attractive conditions nearer to their homes “. Related references include:;; and

As part of its planning role the MMBW created Interim Development Order Extension Area No.1 coming into operation on 1 December 1971 and the Amending Planning Scheme No.3. See

This was a far-reaching initiative of fundamental importance to arresting development and committed the MMBW to purchase land along the valleys and therefore by implication to developing a regional scale parks system. Individual municipalities continued to be able to reserve land for local parks and reserves as public open space or proposed public open space. Funding for these (and subsequent) open space purchases, development and operation initiatives was sourced from a new component of the MMBW’s Metropolitan Improvement rate levied on all properties within the metropolitan area.


The whole concept derived from the MMBW’s functions as both a planning entity and an operational entity, granting it both strategic capability and line command. As an immediate result, in July 1971 MMBW reserved large tracts of land (13 sq miles = 3,400 hectares = 34 sq km) for a series of regional (large) parks, with development of a network of ‘metropolitan parks’ under a newly established Metropolitan Parks Branch commencing in 1974. See ‘Vital Connections’, Dingle and Rasmussen, P227-330. ISBN 086914259.3.

In 1981 the MMBW produced a Metropolitan Strategy Implementation Report which in Chapter 14 Recreation and Open Space stated:

Guidelines for developing and managing open space and recreation facilities and for selectively funding and establishing a range of metropolitan facilities are needed. Initiatives of the Department of Youth, Sport and Recreation are helping to create and fund more diverse recreation opportunities. Making better use of opportunities such as undeveloped open land, or supporting public and private sector co-operation in developing the recreation and open space system, would benefit the community and enhance our quality of life. The Board will further develop its metropolitan parks; programme as part of a recreation and open space network; monitor recreation trends to help meet changing community needs; continue to assist councils in the purchase of open space for local needs; encourage better use of recreation resources and encourage co-operation and co-ordination between all levels of government and the private sector, particularly in siting commercial recreation facilities.”


Also in 1981 the MMBW prepared Concept Plans for the Lower Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers which set out riparian planning guidelines, water-based uses and riparian open space management and development. Subsequently in 1985 it merged the Metropolitan Parks Branch, an entity of the planning arm of the Board with the operational Waterways group to form a Waterways & Parks Division. This group was established to oversee, not only the proposals for those two rivers and the existing network of metropolitan parks, but over subsequent years to progressively develop concept plans for other metropolitan waterways – Gardiners, Merri,….  The initial stages of transforming these from rubbish- and weed-infested undesirable places to accessible, well-vegetated riparian habitats and attractive routes for recreational pedestrians and cyclists was initially funded through the National and State Bicentennial Program as well as the Metropolitan Improvement Rate.

The purpose of the 1988 Metropolitan Open Space Plan was ‘to ensure the good management, imaginative planning and careful protection of Melbourne’s parklands’. The plan developed general policies set out in the State Conservation Strategy Protecting the Environment, and the Metropolitan Policy Shaping Melbourne’s Future. The plan set policy directions to help the variety of responsible agencies and groups to work together to supply a wide range of opportunities for recreation by expanding and linking open space. This latter initiative was the recognition of the value of the several waterway based trail systems developed under the Bicentennial Projects by expanding that approach further upstream and adding new linkages along Moonee Ponds, Darebin and Kororoit Creeks and Plenty River. In addition routes along the former Outer Circle and Lilydale-Warburton railway lines were included as part of establishing an overall Metropolitan Trail network linking open spaces as well as providing an off-road recreation (and part commuter route) for pedestrians and cyclists.

As part of the progressive disaggregation of MMBW, responsibilities for open space were first transferred to the Melbourne Water Corporation (in 1992) and subsequently to Melbourne Parks & Waterways (MPW) – established as an independent statutory body on 1 July 1994 with its rate-based funding (now termed ‘Parks Charge’) being the relevant proportion of the previous MMBW’s Metropolitan Improvement Rate.

In 1995 the Victorian Government’s Department of Planning and Development produced ‘Living Suburbs’ which, among other approaches, reinforced the policy of ‘developing an open space network of parks, trails, bicycle paths, waterways and habitat corridors throughout the metropolitan region’. It stated:

The Government is committed to providing a world-class open space system. Existing facilities will also continue to be enhanced. Open spaces will be linked by a series of off-road trails and paths, mostly in natural settings.

The Government will also make Melbourne’s open space more accessible and diversify recreational opportunities by:

  • developing new parks like Plenty Gorge, Cardinia Creek, Mt Eliza Regional Park and Merri Park in urban growth areas and Karkarook Park as part of the Sandbelt in the inner south-east and upgrading venues such as the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne, Gardens of the Dandenongs and Melton Reservoir
  • developing the Capital City Trail and other trails to connect otherwise isolated parkland
  • establishing the Yarra Ranges National Park, which will include day visitor facilities at locations such as Mt Donna Buang and Dom Dom Saddle
  • upgrading visitor facilities at the popular Dandenong Ranges National Park, Mornington Peninsula National Park and You Yangs Regional Park
  • establishing an environmentally friendly facility at the Nobbles on Phillip Island enabling visitors to view Australian fur seals and complementing the facilities at the Philip Island Penguin Reserve
  • redeveloping facilities at the Mt Dandenong Observatory
  • developing parks and gardens as venues for community and special interest arts and cultural activities.

A major challenge for park and open space management is to enhance recreation opportunities and enjoyment of the natural environment while at the same time protecting that environment and maintaining flora and fauna diversity.

Development of the open space system will require coordinated action by State Government agencies, local councils and community groups. The protection and enhancement of existing assets will be facilitated by measures such as improved management of public and private land and environmental education to raise community awareness. More specifically, the Government will:

  • coordinate community programs including Land for Wildlife, Rail Trails, Coast Action and Volunteers in Conservation
  • develop a program for landscaping and planting trees and vegetation in strategic locations, including non-urban areas, major roads and metropolitan gateways.

Melbourne’s highly regarded tourism and conservation areas – including the Mornington Peninsula, Western Port, the Dandenong Ranges, the Yarra Valley and Macedon Ranges – will continue to be protected.”

Following a critical review in 1995 by the Victorian Auditor-General into the National Parks Service ( the State Government determined to merge that department with MPW thus establishing Parks Victoria in December 1996 as a statutory authority, reporting to the Victorian Minister for Environment and Climate Change. The Parks Victoria Act 1998 made Parks Victoria responsible for managing national parks, reserves and other land under the control of the state, including historic sites and indigenous cultural heritage sites.[2] For many years, the National Parks Service, subject to funding from the Consolidated Revenue, envied the access to the Metropolitan Improvement Rate enjoyed by the metropolitan parks.

However at this time the responsibility for levying the Parks Charge was transferred from Parks Victoria to the overseeing Department, operating a new trust fund for the purpose. This moved funding allocations to the Department rather than the parks authority.

Today Parks Victoria’s parks and waterway network covers approximately 4 million hectares, including both protected areas as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other parks and reserves, together with 30 metropolitan parks or ‘regional’ scale. Local government bodies within the metropolitan area, like their non-metropolitan councils, mange a wide range of open space parks and reserves of more district and local scale.

Over the past twenty years a number of metropolitan open space strategies have been progressively produced essentially ensuing a connectedness and continuity of provision across Parks Victoria and local government responsibilities.

The vision included for ‘Linking People and Spaces – 2001 was  ‘The values of parks are reflected in the social benefits of health and well-being, in the environmental benefits of protecting conservation and biodiversity values, and in economic returns arising either directly or indirectly from tourism, education, health, transport and leisure industries. Continuing to protect, improve and extend the network is therefore essential to the healthy functioning of our urban environment and lifestyle.’ 

The Great Yarra Parklands:

The most recent metropolitan open space initiative is ‘The Yarra River Action Plan’ produced in 2017 which aims to “recognise the network of parklands along the Yarra as part of the one integrated living whole natural asset; improve community access to, movement along and on the river; increase opportunities to enjoy the river parklands for people of all ages and abilities; and create more destinations and improve visitor experiences – a blueprint designed to keep the Yarra alive.”

Other sources of reference include:

  • Concept Plan: Lower Yarra River (Spencer Street to Punt Road) 1981
  • Upper Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges Regional Strategy Plan 1982
  • Upper Yarra River Management Strategy 1985
  • Concept Plan: Lower Yarra River (Punt Road to Dights Falls) 1986
  • Upper Yarra River: Revegetation and Land Management Guidelines 1987
  • Melbourne’s Open Space 1988
  • Lower Yarra River – Landscape Guidelines 1988
  • Lower Yarra River – Punt Road to Dights Falls: Vegetation Management Guidelines 1989
  • Middle Yarra Concept Plan – Dights Falls to Burke Road 1990
  • Yarra River: Use and Development Guidelines (Docklands to Punt Road) 1991
  • Middle Yarra Concept Plan – Burke Road to Watsons Creek 1991 and 1993
  • Melbourne’s Strategic Off-Road Recreational Trail Network 1996
  • Open Space 2000
  • Lower Yarra River Future Directions Plan & Recreation Guidelines – April 2001 (for water based uses between the Bay and Dights Falls)
  • Linking People and Spaces – 2002 and (updated) 2010