Does Brisbane make the most of its river?

Does Brisbane make the most of its river? Photo: Glenn Hunt

The Brisbane River carves up this city. It is beautiful, powerful and destructive. But the potential of this snaking stretch of water has not been realised, according to those who use it more than most. Will a new planning model from City Hall change all that?

Announced in September by the lord mayor, Graham Quirk, the River's Edge Strategy aims to make the river more accessible. In a sense, it will undo years of urban planning that avoided or ignored interaction with the waterway, resulting in infrastructure like the Riverside Expressway and a lack of public moorings.

And the changes couldn't come soon enough, according to some of the river's heaviest users. RiverLife's John Sharpe says there is vast, untapped potential locked up in the system, and council's planning committee chairman, Amanda Cooper, wants to attract more tourists. Cr Cooper also wants locals taking to the water as they would the roads.

“I'd like to see people pulling up to the banks for a coffee,” she said, speaking about the new strategy at a Brisbane Development Association lunch. “I think South Bank very much sets the tone of what our city should be. It should have a really good relationship with the river - the river shouldn't be a blockade, it should be facilitating that connection.

“The opportunity to use a boat to actually move around the CBD at the moment does not exist and we want to try and make sure that could happen.”

That would make RiverLife's John Sharpe very happy. Since late 2004, Mr Sharpe has operated the river activity centre at Kangaroo Point. He says people's attitudes to the waterway have changed significantly in that time. People are now taking to kayaks and canoes, their eyes opening to the river's potential.

“Once you're on the river, you realise it's a beautiful, gentle way to get around the city,” he says. “A strategy that aims to encourage greater use would be wonderful – we're very supportive of it."

One of the city's top water cops is also eager to see change.

The state Water Police co-ordinator, Acting Inspector Paul Appleyard, has been patrolling Brisbane's best “underused natural resource” for nearly 15 years and has observed the growth in people using the river with interest.

“There's a changing culture in the city more than anything. Years ago it was mainly used for waterskiing, fishing, crabbing and cruising, but these days there's such a huge range of activities available.

“But it's still not that busy – the Brisbane River only takes up a small amount of our resources – its popularity ebbs and flows, like the tides. Outside major events, it's not that busy – there's room for more traffic.”

Mr Sharpe says work needs to be done to make greater, safer river use a reality. Outside dedicated areas, it was difficult to launch a boat close to town or to find a launch site for kayaks or canoes, he said.

“There are not many public pontoons to pull up to,” he said. "A marina berth and more infrastructure around the water's edge is needed.”

Safety will also need to be managed. A serious collision this year between a rowing scull and a CityCat landed a teenage boy in hospital with serious injuries. Police are investigating the matter. The Rowing Queensland chief executive, Ross Symonds, said the number of close shaves on the water was increasing as the popularity of water activities grew.

“Parts of the river are already very busy with CityCats and rowing boats and not to mention kayakers between the hours of 5am and 7.30am and 3.30pm to 5.30pm weekdays and Saturdays,” Mr Symonds said.

“The masters rowing community is steadily growing each year with learn to row programs. The school rowing is progressing very well with excellent numbers. All of this and the increased number of CityCats make the river busier."

He said there had been a number of near misses "not just between CityCats and rowers, but between rowers. More river traffic will likely mean increased incidents."

Acting Inspector Appleyard described the river as “very safe” in general.

“I wouldn't expect that heavier use would create more problems,” he said. “There are no real easy answers in regards to marine safety – it's a multi-agency approach. But currently the river is very safe, and proper management would likely see that continue to be the case.”

Cr Cooper said City Hall would work with Maritime Safety Queensland to address any safety issues. As the authority responsible for managing the river, MSQ will be among the key stakeholders taking part in planning consultations.

But the key focus of the River's Edge Strategy was to improve public recreation and tourism access to and along the Brisbane River, Cr Cooper says. Future development of the city – including the area around William Street recently released to market – would need to account for such uses.

"The aim of the strategy is to be highly functional,” she said. “[The strategy will] act as a planning document to identify ways to improve river access, which could include boat mooring facilities and possible locations for riverside cafes and restaurants.

“It's great to see the state government working with Brisbane City Council to talk about how they may plan that particular [William Street] precinct, and how we might capture that in the master plan – we'll be able to say, very much, you should have that strong relationship with not just the river, but also the historic precinct down William Street. It's one area where we have a huge potential to transform.”

The River's Edge Strategy will feed into the Brisbane City Master Plan, which the council is reviewing. Residents have until October 31 to share their experiences of the river and their views on what types of activities they would like to see on the it and the river banks by completing a survey at http://bne.cc/bneriver.