JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Turf wars bark up wrong tree

Date

Robert Nelson

Our desire for grass in city spaces is old-fashioned and just a little misguided.

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.

24 comments

  • Every year Robert Nelson gets his attacks on Melbourne’s gardens published:
    “Deceptive green of suburban gardens” (20/9/2009)
    “Spreading ourselves too thin” (15/11/2010)
    “Welcome to the world’s most liveable delusion” (3/9/2011)
    “The price we all pay when celebrities stymie progress” (13/10/2012).
    This year he has had two!

    In the first article, he asked give us “the right” to use twice as much fuel as Londoners which is as silly as our asking him what gives university academics “the right” to read twice as many books. We have the right to spend the product of our labour, our income, as we wish – on petrol, books, gardens or overpriced city flats.

    There is no “great Australian emptiness” in the suburbs. Gardens make Melbourne an aesthetically more pleasant place to live. The concrete edifices that Robert Nelson wants in their place would be as ugly as most modern art.

    In the second article, he attacked suburban gardens as part of the push for denser cities. The argument for high urban density is unmitigated nonsense. Australia has a population density of around 2.8 people per square kilometre. If we gave every resident a 1,000-square metre block, we would use only 22,000 square kilometres of land. Even allowing for the urban footprint needed to connect these blocks and for the uninhabitable desert, we have plenty of space.

    Nor are European cities devoid of grass. Think of Hyde Park in London, the Tiergarten in Berlin and the English Garden in Munich.

    We need out green spaces – the green wedges that provide Melbourne’s lungs, the parklands in the urban area and our private gardens.

    Commenter
    Chris Curtis
    Date and time
    December 27, 2012, 10:24AM
    • NIce work keeping him honest!

      Remember our number plate slogan years back. The Garden State.
      What's wrong with a bit of grass.

      Commenter
      Timothy
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 27, 2012, 11:57AM
  • What a hideously flowery article. You're trying to mesmerize us into thinking we don't need a green space.

    The fact is, we do. Desperately. It's great to take your shoes off and lie in the grass, and office workers need it more than anyone.

    Commenter
    sarajane
    Location
    melbourne
    Date and time
    December 27, 2012, 10:24AM
    • Lets agree with the author and gravelise everything with crushed quartz the trend in the new burbs. I love the reflected heat don't you? Walking past these monstrosities that replace grass, you could fry an egg on you forehead. Just think of the air con these people must need. Entice grass don't kill it. Leave the gravel in the Simpson and Gibson desert where it belongs.

      Commenter
      Pickled Herring
      Location
      Frankston
      Date and time
      December 27, 2012, 10:46AM
  • 'Alas, most gardens are spaces in quarantine. Apart from parks, they seldom serve people for more than four hours a year...'
    Sorry, have to disagree. As a trained Horticulturalist gardens serve people for many more hours. Lawns (and gardens) can lower the temperature of a house by about 4 deg. in summer, (hence the rise in green walls), creative space for children to play in. A garden can provide food and horticultural therapy and keep you in touch with the seasons.

    Commenter
    Anne
    Location
    eastern suburbs
    Date and time
    December 27, 2012, 10:33AM
    • #firstworldproblems

      Commenter
      Klaus
      Location
      Brighton
      Date and time
      December 27, 2012, 10:42AM
      • Please read "Wild Law" by Cormac Cullinan. It will help you lose that anthropocentric notion that everything on earth is for and about we humans and only for and about us. Grass protects soil, provides a habitat for insects , worms , food for birds, protects tree roots, is non-reflective of summers heat back into the atmosphere, sucks up a bit of CO2........ and on and on. Whether or not it was planted by humans or was a "natural ' phenomenon, the rest of the non-human entities on earth have a right to continue to use and flourish with the presence of grass.

        Commenter
        connie
        Location
        central coast
        Date and time
        December 27, 2012, 10:55AM
        • I don't get it, why would someone be so anti grass and garden for no actual reason? It's as if the writer thought of the witty 'lawn unto itself' line and then just made the rest of the article up as an excuse to use it and have it published.

          Commenter
          angela
          Date and time
          December 27, 2012, 11:08AM
          • I'm surprised he doesn't want to concrete our beaches also. After all sand is so messy, and he can use it in his concrete mix. This would have to be the most contemptuous attitude to nature I've read in a long time, if ever.
            When we first moved to my home, an old schoolhouse, It was surrounded by asphalt. A huge job digging it up and replanting with lawn, but was worth every back breaking wheel barrow load.
            i'd guess it could be upto 5 degrees cooler when experiencing a heat wave. We don't even have an air con let alone need one. Last summer the pedestal fan was on maybe 3 or 4 times.
            This joker has absolutely no idea, less of this attitude please Fairfax.
            No doubt he thinks he's being controversial, I'd prefer to say stupid.

            Commenter
            A country gal
            Date and time
            December 27, 2012, 11:57AM
        • I'm old enough to remember the original City Square, Collins and Swanston. It was a beautiful, simple space, people flocked there. It was destroyed by the current development zeal, as has been much of the beauty of this city.

          Fed Square, while bigger and in some ways more practical, just does not have the same appeal.

          I'd like to see a couple of the high rise carparks knocked down, and simple grassed areas with a water tap and a little seating, maybe a tree or two in their place.

          Commenter
          Riddley Walker
          Location
          Inland
          Date and time
          December 27, 2012, 11:13AM

          More comments

          Comments are now closed
          Featured advertisers