Before the fill

A DIGITAL model of Perth’s wetlands-laden terrain prior to colonisation has been crafted after researchers pored over old maps, explorers’ journals, early paintings, town plans, and Aboriginal stories.

Edith Cowan University’s Nandi Chinna says the genesis for the Reimagining Perth’s lost wetlands exhibition was a book that showed New York’s Manhattan before colonisation.

“The pictures were amazing and we wanted to do something like that for Perth,” Dr Chinna says. “There’s a lot of archival maps, looking at explorer’s journals—particularly the work of Charles Fraser, the botanist that came with James Stirling, looking at his descriptions of vegetation… it’s a bit of a jigsaw.”

Any major project in Perth—most recently the new arena and police complex—reminds builders of the area’s history as a wetland.

“When they excavated the carpark it filled up with water, and that was mid-February,” Dr Chinna says.

“It wasn’t raining. The water is still able to come up and it’s probably a bit of a nightmare for tunnel building.”

She says the mentality of filling in wetlands is an import from swampy England.

“The British fens had been drained for hundreds of years before 1829,” Dr Chinna says.

“There was already that engineering mentality: We can change this, we’ve got the drainage capabilities.”

Today only about 10 per cent of Perth’s original wetlands remain.

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• Nandi Chinna with the digital model of Perth’s lost wetlands. Photo by Matthew Dwyer

A joint project between the uni, Landgate and the Perth city council, Dr Chinna hopes the exhibition reminds people of the importance of wetlands.

“We have some of these places left but they’re under threat,” she says, noting the extension of Roe Highway through Bibra and North Lakes in Perth’s southern suburbs. The Barnett government considers the project vital to reduce traffic congestion and improve freight efficiency. “They’re important on many levels,” Dr Chinna says. “They’re important because they act as filters to clean the water. They’re important because they’re a habitat for biodiversity. They’re important for mitigating climate change.

“Just being in a place like North Lake… which has a lot of its natural vegetation still intact, you have that encounter with the wild which has that significant impact on people as far as their mental health and wellbeing.

“They’re actually very useful to humans. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realise.”

Reimagining Perth’s lost wetlands is on at the Perth Town Hall on Barrack Street until October 9.

by DAVID BELL

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