Friends of Westgate Park story

Founder, 19 year-old Naomie Sunner, a VCA photography student, discovered the Park in 1999 on her transformative trek along the length of the Yarra River. She thought this neglected, abandoned park – the closest she could get to the river mouth – was nonetheless beautiful and had such potential!

Her initial thought was to volunteer but there was no friends group so, with a little help from mentors, she established and incorporated the Friends of Westgate Park and set to work.

“The sheer size was daunting but this land had been so disturbed that nothing I could do would make it worse. There were some areas with remnant salt marsh but wasn’t the same as walking into a real remnant site. There were maybe 10 planted species, a few of them indigenous but lots of invasives like Juncus acutus.”

She took baby steps, roped in friends and some others but it was largely her own efforts.

“We started planting indigenous species around the Park entrance, some of the salt marsh areas and the hill overlooking the lake. I knew very little about revegetation at the time but volunteered at SKINC (local indigenous nursery), read an awful lot and identified plants by drawing. I call myself nag-taught – taught by nagging other people for info.”

She organised events and planting days with ‘varying success’, took on school groups, learned to make grant applications and started working part time, running a work for the dole program. While her enthusiasm and energy were essential to the group, it wasn’t until a new member turned up sharing her enthusiasm and commitment, that the group really started to make progress in their goal of creating a rich, biodiverse park.

Enter George Fotheringham, a retired landscape contractor with a passion for indigenous plants and birds and a natural landscape designer. He saw a call for volunteers and turned up, impressed that these young people happily worked all day in pouring rain. Ever since, George has worked well more than full time, leading the on-ground effort, mentoring, teaching; the expert.

The next year Tony Flude joined the team, also full time; a skilled organiser who has built a stable of corporations keen for their staff to put in a day’s work; shifting mulch, planting, cutting out woody weeds, knowing it will be well organised and worthwhile. Service clubs, work programs added to the effort.

Rob Youl OAM, a Landcare movement pioneer, established the Friends’ strong partnership with Landcare. Neil Blake, OAM from Port Phillip EcoCentre gave guidance. Lecki Ord, architect/planner and former Lord Mayor of Melbourne led the advocacy effort, assisted with planning, nursery and on-ground work. The very diverse committee of management included Janet Bolitho, Malcolm & Ruth Cook, Lyn Allison, Jackie Kerr and Michael Cole.

Supporting corporations are too numerous to list but neighbour, Holden, provided generous cash support over time and a very useful park vehicle. Much-valued partners, the St Kilda Indigenous Nursery Co-op gave technical assistance and produced over half the seedlings used. The Friends worked closely with Parks Victoria; Westgate Park managers, and Port of Melbourne Corporation, taking care of vegetation on the Port’s river section.

(Extract from 30th anniversary of Westgate Park, Nov 2015)

The Friends of Westgate Park was made up of enthusiastic people, passionate about Westgate Park and the natural environment.  With skills in horticulture, natural resources management, plant, bird and animal identification and plant propagation, and the energy to get out and do it, that’s what they did!

Their vision was to:

Transform the Park into a bushland setting for locally indigenous plants and animals – a place where visitors can appreciate richly diverse, natural ecosystems in a beautiful landscape.

Through direct experience their aim was to share their knowledge about the value and importance of the species that thrived in inner Melbourne before European settlement and to encourage their protection and adoption in gardens and parks elsewhere.

So far, they have planted more than 300,000 plants in nine distinct vegetation areas or EVCs, have successfully cultivated rare and endangered species, propagated much of what is planted and improved and shared seed stocks with other groups.

In 2010 the Friends of Westgate Park won the prestigious Urban Landcare Award for their work.

Over the last 19 years they have also used their advocacy skills and good relations with governments and government agencies to have 7.8ha of adjacent land added to the Park and undertaken major landscaping projects such as the Southern Wetlands, Port land on the Yarra River bank, the Todd Road Embankment and much more.

They have partnered with business to improve lake and wetland water quality, engaged with employment agencies and schools to teach young people about horticulture and worked with corporations to provide staff with the happy experience of working in the Park.

Their aim was to engage people of all ages and backgrounds in volunteering their time and effort to achieve the vision and to enjoy this remarkable park.