Regen Melbourne is imagining a regenerative future for our urban centres

Meet the organisation striving for a swimmable Yarra River (among other things).

Taryn Stenvei
September 28, 2022
5 min read
A wide river lined with trees under a blue sky and a city in the background.

Imagine a city where each and every citizen has their essential needs met, and the boundaries of the planet’s resources were respected. That’s the ultimate goal of Regen Melbourne: a broad alliance of organisations working together to move the city towards a more sustainable and regenerative future.

It’s a compelling idea: swimming in the Yarra River. 

Melbourne’s main water artery has suffered in line with the city’s continued urbanisation and population growth. It’s a sad turn of affairs when you consider that prior to European invasion, Birrarung (now known as the Yarra River) sustained the local Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung Indigenous people for time immemorial.

Nowadays, the brown, murky waters – home to pollution, disease-causing bacteria, contamination from sewage, urban and agricultural runoff, and scores of oBikes – aren’t especially friendly for would-be bathers. In fact, south of Abbotsford, where the river turns into a designated boating channel, swimming is illegal.

But some Melbourne citizens want to change that. They hope that rehabilitating the river and improving its water quality will turn swimming – and other recreational community water-based activities – from a no-way-in-hell to a no-brainer. 

“If we are to navigate the climate emergency, we need to solve the challenge of how we live well in urban centres.”

“Why do people say that the swimmable Birrarung is a crazy idea?” asks Kaj Lofgren, Strategy and Policy Lead at Regen Melbourne. “It's because it requires imagination to conceptualise how you can build a broad alliance of actors – businesses, nonprofits, political actors, media, social organisations and common citizens – working together towards an ambitious goal.”

Regen Melbourne's Kaj Lofgren.

This idea – collaborative action for progressive goals – is what Regen Melbourne is all about. It comprises an alliance of about 142 organisations (including City of Melbourne, RMIT University, Patagonia, WWF, Sustainability Victoria and Rising Festival among others) acting together to help move Victoria’s capital towards a more sustainable and regenerative urban model.  “If we are to navigate the climate emergency, we need to solve the challenge of how we live well in urban centres,” Kaj says.

Regen Melbourne was formed in 2020 from the depths of Melbourne’s prolonged COVID lockdown. This came right on the tail of the Black Summer bushfires, when climate change – in the form of bushfire smoke – descended on people’s doorsteps. “Both of these events exposed something that we already knew, and acted as a catalyst for trying to rethink what our goals should be as a city,” Kaj says. “And more fundamentally, trying to create a platform through which people could take action.”

Regen Melbourne’s vision is based on the Doughnut Economics framework, which acts as a compass for safe and just human flourishing in the modern world. It means abandoning our current competitive and isolated market environment in favour of a more collaborative and conscious way of interacting with the land and systems we inhabit. The model has a social foundation, where each citizen has their essential needs met, and an ecological ceiling where the boundaries of the planet’s resources are respected. The movement recognises that solving our climate emergency will require more than just moving away from fossil fuels. It’ll involve completely rethinking the ways we build, live in and engage with our urban environments, too. 

“Much of what we're talking about and now acting on is very intuitive,” says Kaj. “It's not radical that we want to see a city that acts within the planetary boundaries and creates a strong social foundation for each other.”

The organisation’s work can be divided into three categories. The first is a research lab that pulls together existing knowledge systems in the city, including those among First Nations communities, think tanks, universities and consulting firms. The second is a convening function that organises alliance members in new ways to work towards the big thematic areas they’re collectively passionate about. And the third is a backbone organisation to scaffold some of these pathways towards regeneration, which involves convening strategies, funding architecture work and communications between members.

“We all have a role to play. We all need to be engaged. The fundamental premise of Regen Melbourne is: what can we do together that we simply can't do apart?”

So what are some of the challenges Regen Melbourne’s alliance members are actually trying to solve? Oh, just ending homelessness, creating a 100% cycling city, setting up sustainable and regenerative local food systems and – of course – a swimmable Birrarung.

Kaj recognises no-one can claim sole responsibility when it comes to solving this stuff, whether it’s the government, citizens, or the private sector. “Single actors don't solve systems problems,” he says. But we all have the power to influence which possible future – out of the innumerable possible futures – we’d like to head towards. “We all have a role to play. We all need to be engaged. The fundamental premise of Regen Melbourne is: what can we do together that we simply can't do apart?”

As the regeneration movement gains global momentum, local chapters have also sprung up in Sydney and Brisbane. Many cities around the world – including Copenhagen, Berlin and Amsterdam – are currently exploring Doughnut Economics in one form or another. “There are these international ripples that are rolling out from initiatives like Regen Melbourne,” Kaj says. “My suspicion is that those ripples can really quickly become big waves as we start to find and measure the impact we can make together.”

If you – or your workplace – have ideas, knowledge or areas of expertise you’d like to contribute to Regen Melbourne, get in touch at their website.

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