Residents of a riverside apartment complex in Abbotsford have taken the state of the precinct's Yarra frontage into their own hands, setting up a working group to rewild the area, and in the process forging valuable community connections.
Former Richmond AFL player and life member Merv Keane kicked off the Acacia Place initiative last year when he sent an invite to apartment dwellers to join what he termed a "garden taskforce".
Keane wanted to clean up the development's 300m of public river frontage, and decided to tackle a small area at the bottom of a walkway to the Yarra Trail which was full of dead plants, broken branches, old bricks, bottles and non-native grass.
"It's a beautiful elbow bend in the Yarra and it was a source of annoyance how bad it looked. It was run-down, broken, beaten up," he said. "I thought we could do better with it, and also help the environment."
The former footballer and club recruiter rallied a small crew and applied for a $20,000 grant from Melbourne Water, one of the managers of the Yarra River frontage.
When that was unsuccessful, Keane, who was awarded Richmond's 'Most Determined' trophy in 1982, collared some Parks Victoria staff for assistance, which resulted in a $2000 grant, as well as tools and seedlings.
Meanwhile the volunteers had made contact with community-based organisation Yarra Riverkeepers Association and enlisted the input of regeneration officer Lachy Peace, who provided expert advice and practical help.
Using crowbars to clear rubble from some sections of the once industrial site, the group weeded, watered and planted kangaroo grasses, acacias and other indigenous species along the walkway and in the formerly rubbish-filled area now dubbed 'Merv's triangle'.
Since starting the regeneration work close to a year ago they have observed increased bird life, identified a habitat tree with a resident possum and started to see gum trees self-seeding in the area.
While it is not possible to return the land to a self-sustaining state, Peace is enthusiastic about the progress that has been made. "New eucalypts are popping up in really large numbers, which is great to see, given natural regeneration doesn't occur that frequently anymore in highly urbanised environments," he said.
"They've managed to push the weed cover back in that area, and just opening up the space to light and water makes a massive difference for seed recruitment."
The Acacia Place Yarra Riverbankers are now listed on the friends group webpage of Parks Victoria and are covered by them for public liability insurance.
The volunteers have also been kicking goals in social terms.
In addition to developing friendships with each other, their gardening activity - which accelerated when permitted during COVID lockdowns - has been sparking interest and interaction between other residents at Acacia Place.
"People see the change and comment," Keane said. "And when you've got the hose or the rake down there near the trail, even people who aren't members of the group will always stop and chat."
Keen gardener Lynnette Griffiths said that particularly since the volunteer work started, residents were never alone at Acacia Place. "Even when people had COVID, there was always someone who could shop or drop off food.
As well as contributing to the group effort, Griffiths has planted eucalypts and other native species in an area outside her lower ground floor garden which are now home to possums, kookaburras, lorikeets and a water dragon.
"We really do live in a little magical wonderland here," she said.
"And what was once a unit block is fast becoming a village, which is our goal - to create a community who support each other and enjoy this beautiful environment we all call home."