Oscar Meyer, chair of the West Gate Bridge Authority, is credited with the inspiration for the establishment of Westgate Park. He wanted to create ‘a beautiful park straddling the Yarra River to complement his sculptural bridge’. He developed this vision soon after the completion of the bridge in the late 1970s. The Federal Government funded the development of Westgate Park to mark Victoria’s sesquicentenary in 1984-85.
The area under the bridge had seen a variety of uses, including sand extraction, an aerodrome and car-racing. Much earlier, the area was part of the lower Yarra wetlands, with extensive saltmarsh, swamps, vegetation and bird life. During the construction of the bridge, the area was the base for building works and was the site of a large works depot. In 1979, the Age described the land seen from the newly opened bridge as ‘scrofulous scenery indeed ... dead water, swamp, sick factories, dead wood, haze, gasping barges, wretched refineries, wheezing chimneys, dead grass, institutional putrefaction’.
The site of Westgate Park before planting, c. early 1980s (source: Friends of Westgate Park)
Following the completion of the bridge, the future Westgate Park site was cleaned up and a former sand mine was converted to a salt water lake.
Consultants Loder & Bayly, and landscape architect Bruce Mackenzie, won a competition with an ambitious design relying on a constructed landscape of hills and access tracks which framed and created views of the West Gate Bridge as the central sculptural feature, and with fresh and saltwater lakes as focal points. Planned features included an island visitors’ centre, as well as ‘the planting of Australian flora, improvement of bird habitat and the incorporation of a narrow-gauge railway, a sound shell and sculptures’.
The then Victorian Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands carried out the initial work in forming the park, creating mounds between two lakes using building waste, with help from participants in a government works program for the unemployed. A modest realisation of the original design, with several features deferred or removed, was opened and dedicated to the people of Victoria on 7 November 1985.
The following year, Westgate Park became the responsibility of the MMBW Parks Division, but was largely neglected over the following decade. During this period, sculptural work (Earth Series, 1990) by Lyn Moore was added to the park. In 1996 Melbourne Parks and Waterways announced an extension of the park to meet the river. The intention was to transform it from a ‘derelict wasteland’. A new design plan was developed but was not fully realised.
The Friends of Westgate Park was formed in 1999 and this volunteer group became pivotal to the management, development, and expansion of the site. The Friends undertook the installation of infrastructure and extensive planting, with the objective of gradually converting the flora to what was typical of pre-settlement Melbourne.
Through the efforts of the Friends, extra land was acquired from 2003-2016. Parks Victoria is now responsible for Westgate Park. The Friends group continues to improve the park and acts as an advocate for its development. A large number of bird species now inhabit the park, including cormorants, black swans and pelicans. The area is again becoming a wetland haven.