Environmental News, Features

Community dreaming leads to new life for Warrnambool quarry

The Warrnambool Community Garden is a treasure of the local community, yet up until 2015, it was an eyesore. Quarry explores the transformation of the space over the years. 

The Council Quarry in Albert Park quarry had been many things to the Warrnambool community, but perhaps most commonly it was seen as an “eyesore”.

After its days as a productive sandstone quarry, it was never officially a rubbish dump, yet plenty of waste material and junk from road works could be found in it.

Blackberries and numerous other weeds had infested the site, and the uneven nature of the quarry made it unsafe to walk down.

The quarry has since become an amphitheatre filled with bird songs and Australian native plants and produce.

Quarry spoke to the Warrnambool Community Garden (WCG) team about the challenges and success of transforming the quarry into an award-winning garden space.

“Our 2016 consultations about repurposing the quarry sparked memories from the community about working there or playing there as kids,” WCG convenor Rob Porter said.

“It showed that this area meant a lot to the local community.”

EARLY DAYS

The initial discussions for a community garden adjacent to the quarry occurred in 2005 before a meeting established the Warrnambool Community Garden Inc. (WCG) the following year.

The meeting showed an appetite for the site to be transformed as 65 people attended the meeting, which established the WCG group, which still takes care of the space almost two decades later.

The WCG agreed with the Warrnambool City Council, who managed the land, to have only the bottom third. This is now the most developed space, with individual garden plots, several community vegetable, herb and fruit tree areas, a children’s garden, hothouse, chook yard, community centre, garden shelter and more.

But perhaps it was their conviction in the ambitious transformation that by the second lease agreement, they had leased the entire site, including the quarry.

Warrnambool locals and tourists flocked to the new quarry amphitheatre. Image: Warrnambool Community Garden Inc

A key consideration at the time, which helped shape the quarry transformation, was the neighbouring water treatment plant. If a large discharge from the plant was required, it would be safer if there was no permanent infrastructure on the quarry floor.

The question of what to do with the quarry space was taken to the community as the WCG and council tried to establish the best use for the former sandstone site, which had seen better days.

Warrnambool has a proud quarrying  history.

At one time, it was estimated that 12 quarries operated there. It is understood that the council operated the Albert Park quarry from the 1900s to the 1960s when it ceased production.

The quarry became a favourite site of Edmund Gill, a renowned Australian geologist.

Warrnambool resident and academic Dr John Sherwood told researcher and writer Kirsty Hawkes that Gill enjoyed the site “because it contained the most cemented and therefore oldest calcarenite in town,” which proved fruitful for his research.

More than two decades after Gill’s passing in 1986, the quarry was a ruin to a previous era in the Warrnambool.

“Some of the suggestions were fairly dramatic; one suggestion was just to fill the quarry in,” WCG committee member Geoff Rollinson said.

“Other suggestions were to do something like the Eden Project in the UK that placed a glass dome over a disused quarry, which we costed at $10 million so too expensive.

“But the idea that it could be an amphitheatre seemed to resonate with people, so we set about putting the plans in place after a fairly exhaustive consultation process.”

The road ahead for the quarry was about as easy to navigate as its blackberry-infested surfaces.

Landscape architects were called in, geotechnical work was carried out, and a concept plan was drawn.

Contractor workers and community planting days coincided with turbocharging the quarry to its new use.

“Even as a concept plan, I was pretty impressed with the degree of technical work that had gone into developing it,” Porter said.

“It was a pretty amazing thing to witness.”

The Warrnambool Community Garden was helped by the support of local institutions, including council grant programs, Beyond Bank and Wannon Water, the region’s water authority.

The Victorian government’s “Pick My Project” grant program in 2018, which delivered $194,000 and Warrnambool City Council’s Small Infrastructure Fund in 2022, which contributed $150,000, paid for most of the groundwork.

Other small grants and philanthropic donations helped deliver the concept plans and other initial planning like geo technical work which helped leverage larger grants.

Their combined financial and other support helped pave the way for the quarry and the broader transformation of the gardens.

“They’ve always been supportive of the garden and its philosophy and what it is trying to do in the community,” Porter said.

The ampitheatre holds music and community events. Image: Warrnambool Community Garden Inc

The amphitheatre held its first event in late 2023, eight years after rehabilitation work began, with a rousing reception from the Warrnambool community.

Live in the Quarry, held on the lands of the Peek Whurrong and Maar Nations, saw live music and food stalls fill the grassed area of the quarry for its first event in years.

WCG deputy convenor and Warrnambool’s young citizen of the year 2024, Courtney Mathew, said the community event capped the quarry’s transformation.

“There was a real smorgasbord of people, from two-week-old babies to 90-year-olds, coming to enjoy the serenity of the gardens and the amphitheatre,” she said.

“We hope it becomes this space for a range of events and can activate the arts, music dance and education for the town.

“And hopefully, it contributes to making Warrnambool a nicer place to live.”

REWARDING RECOGNITION

The site’s transformation into a garden and amphitheatre took a lot of work from a group of committed volunteers.

But their work was noted as the WCG scooped the Premier’s Sustainability Awards 2022 as the sustainable places and destinations category community winner. They were also finalists in the 2023 Banksia Awards and the 2023 Volunteering Victoria Awards.

“The award recognition probably coincides with the development of the quarry, not that the quarry is responsible for all of it, but it has helped,” Porter said.

“When you’ve become used to something, you stop being impressed by it, but to be the winner in that category of the Premier’s Awards was pretty exciting.”

The site continues to evolve, with the WCG planning to open a gully area at the top of the site furnished with boardwalks and paths.

It will tell the story about water, conservation, and the environment in an educational way for the community.

When asked to reflect on the journey of the WCG and old Warrnambool Quarry, Porter said sometimes he needed to remember just how far they had come.

“Those of us that have been coming through the gates a long time probably need to remind ourselves of this place’s impact,” he said.

To read more about the garden, see wcg3280.org.au

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