Melbourne urban biosphere

Posted on March, 01 2012

Urban biosphere reserve under pressure 

Urban biosphere reserve under pressure

The Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Reserve near Melbourne, Australia, provides key learnings about the opportunities and difficulties of applying the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) biosphere reserve concept in an urban setting. High biodiversity and other conservation values are counteracted by strong pressure on land and marine-area development. A wide range of stakeholders appear to be working for conflicting goals.

Keywords: biosphere reserve, UNESCO Man and the Biosphere, conservation, sustainable development

The Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Reserve is located in the peri-urban south of Melbourne. The area combines high biodiversity with the region’s most productive agricultural land, as well as two port areas for fishing, aquaculture, and recreation. Two natural areas stand out - French Island, with high biodiversity and an undisturbed and continuous range of habitats, and Western Port, highly used and yet with high biodiversity and wide habitat range. These areas also feature about 65% of the region’s bird species, and a wide variety of marine invertebrates. In addition, the Mornington Peninsula features outstanding landscapes and high-value residential land.

Some 50 km from Melbourne’s central business district, Mornington was designated a biosphere reserve in 2002. The first phase of the development of the reserve involves an area of 2,100 sq km, with a permanent human population of circa 300,000 (seasonally increasing by approx. 60,000). An envisioned second phase would expand the reserve to 3,400 sq km to the region’s complete ecosystem boundary.

Man and the Biosphere
The three primary aims of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere programme are conservation, development, and scientific research. Pursuing the programme entails setting a key area for conservation of biodiversity and landscape/habitat, where human activity is limited to mainly research and monitoring. In surrounding buffer and transition areas special emphasis is placed on sustainable development, i.e. economic activity compatible with the biosphere reserve.

UNESCO launched the MAB programme following the 1968 Biosphere Conference, which recommended establishing a global coordinated network of protected areas representing the main ecosystems – thereby protecting genetic resources and enabling monitoring, research, and training. Within 40 years the World Network of Biosphere Reserves has expanded to more than 500 sites in some 100 countries.

Yet very few reserves are close to major urban areas. Along with Mornington Peninsula/Melbourne there is Cerrado/Brasilia, Mata Atlantica/Sao Paolo-Rio de Janeiro, Cordillera Volcanica Central/San José (Costa Rica), Pays de Fontainebleau/Paris, Argan/Agadir, Cape West Coast/Cape Town, Golden Gate/San Francisco, Can Gio Mangrove/Ho Chi Minh City.

Key conflicts at Mornington
Unlike the first generation of UNESCO MAB biosphere reserves in Australia from the 1970s, the Mornington Peninsula-Western Port reserve is not the result primarily of initiative by the state but of grassroots activism. This can lead to strongly contradictory directions among stakeholders. In the view of some researchers, the root cause of the pressure on the reserve is the competition by the regional government for external investment, which it sees as depending on the ready availability of land to develop, and high capacity of ports and shipping channels. The land and marine areas in and around the biosphere reserve have for a long time been under pressure for development, not least from a relatively uncontrolled urban sprawl around Melbourne.

Further pressure comes from pollution. The biosphere reserve is where the Melbourne metropolitan area discharges almost 50% of its partially treated sewage, Australia’s largest ocean outfall, with a discharge daily of some 420 million litres.

Decline in conservation work
Research notes that at the regional level, Victoria, there is a lack of enthusiastic support for the Mornington Peninsula-Western Port biosphere reserve. This is consistent with the decline in the Australian government’s work with the reserves programme, after it shifted coordination with UNESCO from its educational department to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This action was followed by reduced funding and reduced support for reserve activities. A recent report describes a strong gap between the vulnerable conditions of many of Australia’s internationally listed conservation areas, and the impression given through their international listings that necessary stakeholders are solidly in support of their conservation.

However, the principle suggested by the Victoria government for the Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Reserve is that responsible stewardship by local communities can conserve nature and sustain biodiversity in an urban setting (see also Stockholm and San Francisco). The area is home to one of the first community-based conservation groups in Victoria.

Peter Dogsé, 2004, “Toward Urban Biosphere Reserves”, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1023: 10-48.

David Mercer, Glen Hyman, 2009, “Unfulfilled Promise: the case of the Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Reserve, Australia”, Australian Geographer, 40:4,409-427

Kate A. Matysek, Elaine Stratford, Lorne K. Kriwoken, “The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Program in Australia: constraints and opportunities for localized sustainable development”, The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien, 50, no 1 (2006) 85–100

Key data are retrieved from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision,

Text by: Aaron Thomas

Mornington Peninsula Tourism
© Mornington Peninsula Tourism
Map Melbourne
Cityscape, Melbourne, Australia
© WWF/Jones