Melbourne has a love/hate relationship with its beaches. As a recent exile from the northside back to the southside of Melbourne, I’m tired of hearing people putting down St Kilda beach as too polluted, too cold, or perhaps the most common refrain – “well, it ain’t Bondi”. Of course it isn’t. But Melbourne’s beaches have their own charm that has more to do with reading good books on the sand, walking the rickety piers or gathering friends together with an Esky of coldies in the knowledge that you’re not likely to be crowded out by bronzed surfers with an overblown sense of entitlement.
Instead of disparaging our city’s beachside areas as Melburnians are so prone to do, it’s time for city planners to bring people back. Recently there has been talk of establishing a new contemporary art gallery as a branch of the National Gallery of Victoria in the abandoned St Kilda triangle area adjacent to Luna Park and the Palais Theatre. What a great idea. Melbourne has always had a better cultural scene than Sydney so why not combine art and beaches in a uniquely Melbourne synergy? These are the types of initiatives that should be advanced to add cultural appeal to an area that has been largely neglected in recent decades by city planners.
I’m no iceberg swimmer, but I certainly enjoy the feeling of cooling off in Melbourne’s cityside beaches once the Mercury reaches over 30 degrees. If I’m feeling particularly game, I’ll swim out to the buoys at St Kilda beach, or just float there and taking in the city views from the cool waters of Port Phillip Bay. It’s a uniquely Melbourne experience.
Melburnians should remind themselves that many cities around the world would love to have beaches like ours. In San Francisco, people regularly line up their towels on rocky seafront around the base of the Golden Gate Bridge such as Marshall’s Beach which offers, at best, a rugged beach line for bird watching and a decent view of the iconic bridge. And let’s be honest, the famous beach at the end of Las Ramblas in Barcelona is a packed out and polluted dump compared to the beaches that stretch from Port Melbourne all the way down to Mornington Peninsula.
A friend who recently stayed with me from Berlin commented that if they want to go to the beach they need to travel over 100km to the cold, unattractive Baltic Sea. St Kilda beach seemed like heaven to him – he couldn’t believe we had this just a half hour tram ride from the CBD.
And he was right. But snobbery toward Melbourne’s beaches is deeply ingrained.
Historically, our city was planned seemingly snubbing the sea – with the city centre planned more around the Yarra River with its back defiantly arched against city beaches. This has finally started to change in recent years as planners have started turning our minds back to the bay and developing areas like Docklands. New suburbs have also sprung up in former industrial zones like Beacon Cove to the west of Port Melbourne.
Now it’s time to take further steps to bring both locals and visitors back to the charms of Melbourne’s beaches. New people-friendly developments such as the freshly minted open-plan St Kilda Life Saving Club on the seafront are welcome. But we could take it further by making our beaches cultural as well as just seaside precincts again.
As summer (finally) approaches, it is well and truly time to embrace Melbourne’s beaches. While not as postcard beautiful as Sydney’s northern beaches, they are a unique part of Melbourne’s cityscape that remain the envy of many cities in the world.