Time to come clean: Brand Brisbane 30 years on

Hard to believe, it’s been 30 years since the ‘Year of the River’ was declared in Brisbane. A lot of water has flowed under Brisbane River bridges since then.

So what do the next 30 years hold for this mighty watercourse, fondly adopted by the ‘River City’ as brand Brisbane?

Plenty has been achieved in the three decades since then Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Sallyanne Atkinson, proclaimed 1987 as the Year of the River, refocusing Brisbane’s attention on probably its greatest asset.

Expo ’88, the Cultural Precinct and South Bank Parklands, landmark river-oriented projects like the Riverside Centre and Eagle Street Pier, The Leo Hielscher (Gateway) Bridges, Eleanor Schonell, Goodwill and Kurilpa pedestrian spans, and The Go Between Bridge: these all mark significant milestones on our river’s journey.

Subsequent state and local governments have built on Sallyanne’s legacy. CityCats have been ferrying passengers along the inner reaches since 1996, dredging was stopped in 1997 and, since 1998, Riverfestival has celebrated our river’s importance with a world-class arts festival. Credit where credit’s due.

But – and it’s a huge BUT – our river simply isn’t clean. Surely this is the most fundamental measure of ‘brand Brisbane’.

A series of articles now running in the Brisbane Times is exploring the river. Current investments include Council’s River Access Network (recently the city’s first river hub opened at West End), and the Brisbane International Cruise Terminal at Luggage Point, due to be operating by mid-2020.


“We let a river shower its banks with a spirit that invades the people living there, and we protect that river, knowing that without its blessings the people have no source of soul.” 

Thomas Moore

Our river is so incredibly important on so many levels – economically (said to generate almost $70 billion a year in trade, tourism and investment), socially and environmentally. So why is it not the number one priority?

The Brisbane Times articles have highlighted some incredibly disappointing facts, not least of them this: our emblematic waterway is “nearing an ecological tipping point.”

“Two of Queensland’s leading river ecologists, Australian Rivers Institute director Stuart Bunn and Healthy Land and Water principal scientist Paul Maxwell, agree hard policy decisions need to be made,” senior reporter Tony Moore revealed.

As we’ve said time and time again, the biggest problem is that too many authorities are tasked with looking after our river, and none of them actually takes ultimate responsibility.

No “hard decisions” have really been made by any government in the past 30 years. Plenty of feel-good projects. But no fundamentally vital river management policy decisions.

Moore’s report revealed visibility in the Brisbane River meets the minimum standard (1.2m) only 50% of the time towards the mouth, and the minimum 1.0m level around the city and western suburbs just 20%of the time.

For heaven’s sake, meeting a minimum standard all the time, let alone only occasionally, is just not good enough for a ‘new world city’. Look what cities like Singapore and Paris have been able to achieve in cleaning up their waterways, from a much more highly polluted starting point.

So, not for the first time, we are calling for the urgent appointment of a powerful Brisbane River ‘envoy’ to drive the clean-up of our river.

Is there a single politician or bureaucrat with the guts and the authority to deal with this amidst the mish-mash of state and council bodies tasked with river management? Someone has to step up.

It will take someone at mayoral or ministerial level to wield the necessary power. And, despite his excellent administrative talents, we doubt that Mayor Quirk has the aesthetic or environmental credentials or know-how.

Afterall, it has been under his watch that we’ve seen Council’s rezoning of open spaces, advertising signs allowed to blight our city, and the replacement of our floating river walk, probably Brisbane’s most popular attraction, with a concrete freeway.

To be clear (no pun intended), when we say ‘clean’, we don’t mean ‘blue’. The Brisbane River was never blue. We simply mean clear, with good visibility, like other SEQ waterways, the Nerang, Mooloolah and Maroochy rivers.

Make the Brisbane River an urgent priority. Fund its clean-up and protection ahead of dream projects like zip lines, the Olympics, even cross-river rail. Not that we don’t necessarily support some of these, just that the river must come first.

Massive river-focused infrastructure investment is coming, headlined by the Queen’s Wharf and Howard Smith Wharves precincts. Are they still going to be looking at a dirty river?

This is a subject we won’t let rest. We’ve been advocating for the river for years. You’ll find any number of ideas in our regular blog, including our call to set a clean river goal so we can host the world’s richest river swim, and to fund community organisations to improve existing infrastructure and assets (rowing sheds, sailing clubs, etc) instead of building expensive new structures.

So we urge you to climb on board too. Please use your own channels to share this view and demand action on cleaning up the Brisbane River.

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Time to come clean: Brand Brisbane 30 years on