WaterCityChanger Matt Stewart: Reviving River Recreation

CityChanger Matt Stewart: Reviving River Recreation

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

Matt Stewart enjoys nothing more than taking a plunge. A native Aussie, he’s the outdoors type and in 2015 began a campaign to make Melbourne’s Yarra River swimmable again. We caught up with this former Young Leader, who told us that appealing to the humans behind complex city structures can solve the challenges and that it’s okay to move on from a project when we’ve done our bit.

Following a stint in Berlin, Matt Stewart now works for a global engineering and design firm based in New York City. His work spans the United States and involves some pretty cutting-edge methods: aerial point mapping, 3D design, digital twins. All that tech seems a stark contrast to where his CityChanger journey began, reclaiming the Yarra River for bathers in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Although he studied engineering, the science didn’t get this former Young Leader hooked in the same way that tackling complex urban problems with strategic design did.

Care in the Community

Matt loves to swim. So, maybe it’s no surprise that he set out to revitalise a section of the “under loved” Yarra River, aiming to make it a place of recreation and socialisation.

This isn’t a new idea. In the 1930s, the inner-city Yarra was the location of the world’s largest open water swimming race. “One hundred thousand people would line the banks to watch a bunch of people jump in a brown river and swim three miles,” Matt tells us. He interviewed participants from the 1950s who claim numbers had dwindled considerably by then. There seems to have been a shift in perception, of people seeing the colour and just accepting that it’s dirty and unsuitable for a dip.

“It’s not quite as dirty as people think. The brown looking water is thanks to silt because of land clearing upstream but the sediment itself, which is responsible for the colour, doesn’t make it unsafe to swim in.”

Matt goes on to say that “the dangerous pathogens and e-coli are often invisible. With that said, a mostly unknown quirk about Melbourne’s Yarra River is that this brown surface water actually sits on top of crystal clear ‘saltwater wedge’, a separated layer of sea water which flows in underneath from the Southern Ocean”. This led to it being colloquially called the upside down river. It’s actually a tidal estuary.

Knowledge of this helped Matt when he set up a non-profit and kicked off a campaign to put a pool in the river. He named it the Yarra Pools project.

Pool is Cool – Benefits of Open-Air Swimming

Why was it important to get people back into the river?

The specific site Matt picked out is several kilometres from the nearest pool in an “incredibly dense urban space” in the heart of the city. Aside from exercise bathing offers citizens relief from the intense summer heat. Although Australia is directly beneath the hole in the Ozone layer, this apparently doesn’t influence the temperature. The problem is the urban heat island effect – where city surfaces ‘trap’ heat. “In cities, people are particularly vulnerable and need spaces to cool down,” Matt explains.

He goes on to say it creates “opportunities for recreation and new business” including the tourist dollar. But also, returning custodianship of the natural environment to the people adds a sense of civic pride.

“I think as we move to being extremely urbanised people, we need to be able to bring back clean, natural environments as much as possible.”

Lifeblood of a City

Rivers, our CityChanger points out, are often a central focus for cities. Traditionally, urban areas grew up around their trade and power capabilities. Today they supply properties with water. We walk along their banks and sail on them. The state of the water tells us a lot about the health of a city.

“If there’s a lot of plastic bottles or syringes in a certain part, they’ve come from somewhere on the streets in a neighbourhood. Everything flows in.” Matt stipulates that the filth we see mostly isn’t remnants of pollution from 30 years ago, but the litter we discard today. That means it’s relatively easy to change but without the promise of profit, Melbourne City administration has been uncooperative.

Matt identified a specific patch of the Yarra that was problematic for decades. Enterprize Park has seen its share of social issues, including homelessness, stabbings, and drugs. It could be improved for everyone, he reasoned. But it may never happen if left to the City: “Every few years they talk about funding it to do something about this, but usually all it results in is a new patch of grass.”

The Science Bit

Matt references Copenhagen as a city that has made waves in cleaning up an urban river. Their “systems of combined sewer overflows that stopped raw sewage pouring into the rivers when it rains a lot” was an inspiration. But, he adds, the challenge is “much more a question of will”. People need to believe. The city administration must be on board.

Teaming up with academics, this fluvial fanatic explored filtration processes. Plus Pool in New York gave Matt an idea: “What if we had a floating pool that could filter water going through?” This buoyant unit sieves water through a membrane, providing a swim-quality pool directly from the river. The cleaned water changes perceptions:

“If you convince people that they should swim in a pool in the river, then they’ll start to question, well, why shouldn’t we be swimming in the river itself?”

In collaboration with London based architects Studio Octopi, the minds behind the Thames Baths, Yarra Pools installed a prototype pool that was propped up by the sunken saltwater.

This massive rainwater tank proved the idea was feasible. The reception was positive, including from the global media. Then the real challenges began.

Yarra Pools - CityChangers.org
Image credit: Matt Stewart


Despite all the bureaucracy Matt has faced, he does a good job of not rolling his eyes at the thought of it. This, he says, “is where you start to realise that cities are massively complex systems in themselves”. This included an eye-watering number of meetings, followed by long silences.

“We had a lot of pushback, saying ‘sorry, pools are important, but they cost money, and so where’s the business case’?”

As a community project, the focus wasn’t on profit, but on improving the quality of life and the built environment. Restoring a relationship with the water. A design that integrates with the city. Rather than generating money for the City, Matt pushed for the City to help fund it. “We don’t want to have a Coca Cola sponsored pool on the Yarra as a solution.”

Great Leaders… Don’t Always Lead?

The campaign is ongoing. After moving to Europe, Matt passed on the baton for the pool project and the company behind it, Yarra Swim Co.

“That’s a great learning and also just such an inspiring thing that’s able to happen,” Matt beams. He continues by saying how some initiatives can take decades to materialise and it may require a succession of die-hard enthusiasts to keep the pressure on and excitement alive. Each one nudges the idea closer to its goal.

Pool Your Resources – Advice from a CityChanger

For Matt, it’s his “inquisitive nature of exploring problems with a human lens” that he deems his more powerful CityChanger trait. His cynical side knows there’s no currency that matters more to a City than money and influence. Advocates from within the organisation that can act as a proxy to converse with the clerk, department head, or decision-maker can unstick stubborn blockages; make them realise the benefits of the project and approve it.

Putting on his positive hat, Matt has come to know that “understanding what the administration of the city is after at the time and fitting into that narrative” can move mountains.

“There are people that make decisions and in order to navigate the world and power structures in general, you need to understand that”.

Sage words. Whether constantly hitting brick walls or proposing a new initiative, it’s worth appealing to the person behind the desk. Make your idea align with the pet projects and goals of the person you know has the influencing power. And be flexible: admit your way may not be the best way, Matt says, because it may solve the problem you’ve identified but this isn’t necessarily the whole picture.

Via practice, our expert has discovered that the abilities to bring people together around a vision and coordinate them are skills fundamental to success: “Especially when you’re working on projects that are limited in funding, you need to be able to motivate people to continue or to work on things.” Their interest or capabilities or time commitment may be limited. That’s fine, he emphasises. They all help progress the cause a bit further.

Matt Stewart - CityChangers.org
Image credit: Jason Sammon

Oslo 2019

Matt was a Young Leader at Urban Future’s 2019 conference in Oslo. He tells us about that experience.

Looking back now, after the worst of COVID is over, he appreciates even more the chance he had to network in person.

“Having people from all around, mainly Europe, come together on all the interesting challenges that they’re working on, it’s a fantastic experience.”

Matt recalls the “powerful value” of the fireside chat with Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, Managing Director and co-founder of Snøhetta: “I think about six of us and him just having this almost one on one conversation about the future of design and how decentralised organisations will be the future.” These opportunities to engage such experienced and renowned international CityChangers are rare. So, would Matt recommend it to potential Young Leaders?

“Yeah! It was a great opportunity!”

Reviving River Recreation in a Nutshell

Reintegrating a healthy waterway in Melbourne is an uphill struggle. Yarra Pools is more than a decade in the making, but Matt Stewart shows us that we don’t have to see a project to completion to recognise the victories. With the right team members providing the right skills at the right time, we can nudge closer to our goals; goals that benefit the city, its people, and the local environment. Knowing the right people ‘on the inside’ can be a great help. What better way to find them than at Urban Future?

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