SINCE the growth of towns in the Renaissance, poets have talked about grass. From Petrarch in the 14th century, the open turf represented everything that busy Florence lacked: the luxuriant carpet for a soft tread in the undulating rhythms of nature.
Today, we worship Italian cities for their beautiful paved streets and piazzas, flanked with monumental architecture. But for many centuries, poets delighted in the escapism of a pastoral fantasy, a bucolic retreat away from the hubbub of the commercial centres, with their dense population and shade only afforded by multi-storey buildings. Only the very rich could afford a grassy garden.
In the industrial period, grass was introduced into cities through the great democratic horticulture of the park. Melbourne has grand examples, such as the majestic Carlton Gardens and Fitzroy Gardens. Then, as space was protracted by motor transport, the suburbs could bring a grassy garden to the common citizen. A new expectation arose: to see grass everywhere, to the point that we now see uninterrupted pavement as a scandal. In a passionate opinion article on Saturday, The Age's Shane Green called for more grass in the city, complaining that our city is ''devoid of the spaces where grass could grow, to allow the town and its people to breathe''. He speaks for most of Melbourne in lamenting the City Square being denuded of its grass, because we all crave the restorative image of nature.
Alas, for practical and symbolic reasons, grass is the wrong stuff for a city. The Italians were right: grass is dysfunctional in an urban context. If many people walk on the grass, pathways are rapidly cut; the turf is traumatised and the dirt shows through. To preserve it, you need to erect a fence or a sign that says, ''Keep off the lawn''.
Grass and shoes don't mix when the patch is small and the pairs of feet are greater than four. Our problem is that we have 4 million. To handle the volumes in any public concourse, we need pavement, as they do throughout the world. But the Australian hope is that everyone will go home, leaving only four people, who can bask upon the grass in perfect tranquillity.
In Australia, we hold onto a fantasy that we should be alone as individuals, as if there is no society around us. That's why we want to see garden wherever we look and we become anxious when there's no grass beneath our feet. Admittedly, sometimes grass is a boon in the urban environment. For example, a patch of turf works well on an incline, because it can be interpreted as a kind of couch. That's why the lawns outside the State Library - just as Green suggests - are well understood as a place not for feet but bottoms.
Green is right about the popularity of such places; no one will suggest that we have too many. But if we lack something truly vital, it's the broad concourse which exist in most European towns aplenty, spectated by lofty architecture.
We don't really suffer from nature deficit disorder (as Green quotes Richard Louv) but urban denial syndrome. Our impulse is to look at a city and erase its urban character. By reflex, we want to negate the experience and return to nature. That's why we insist on building tiny little gardens around blocks of flats, apologetic margins that serve nobody and which weaken the address of the architecture to the street.
In a popular sense, it's natural that we hanker after gardens in the spaces that can accommodate them least. But in an architectural sense, the tragedy is that we cannot find symbols of community in the built environment other than grass.
Sure, we all love the soft and humid sward, just like Renaissance poets, but the history of grass has moved into a radically different model.
It has gone from bucolic fantasy to efficient urban enclosures in the industrial period and has ended up in the grassy delusion of the suburbs that we long to import back into town.
Alas, most gardens are spaces in quarantine. Apart from parks, they seldom serve people for more than four hours a year and they have a corrosive effect on the urbanism that is still weak by comparison to the festive cities of Europe.
Gardens are protected by numerous laws in Australia and are among the most sacred of Aussie themes. Their virtue is dubious but cannot easily be reviewed so long as urban design continues to be a lawn unto itself.
Robert Nelson lectures at Monash University and is an Age art critic.