Fair way? Covid turned a Melbourne golf course into a public park and now no one wants to leave

Residents used to be locked out of Northcote golf course unless they paid to play. But lockdown has opened up the fairways

Northcote golf course




The Northcote Golf Course is allowing local residents to use the outdoor space during the Covid-19 restrictions in Metropolitan Melbourne.
Photograph: Chris Hopkins/The Guardian

The signs at the entry of Northcote golf course in Melbourne’s north-east used to read: “This land is for golf”. But when the premier, Daniel Andrews, announced a strict lockdown involving a ban on travelling beyond a 5km radius, people began flocking to whatever parkland they could during the limited time they were allowed outside for exercise. In the first weeks, this was just one hour a day.

Holes began appearing in the fence surrounding the golf course, replaced with new ones as soon as they were patched up by the City of Darebin council. The signs were replaced with ones made by residents that read: “Welcome to the people’s park” and “Please take your rubbish home”.

The course is now regularly packed with families and people having picnics in the allowable groups of five, enjoying the sprawling, nine-hole, 25-hectare course for a mix of uses. It has taken pressure off the surrounding Merri Creek and Darebin Creek trails, where footpaths have become crowded and overrun with people, especially on sunny weekends when people have nowhere else to go that’s allowed under restrictions.

The Northcote Golf Course is allowing local residents to use the outdoor space during the Covid-19 restrictions in Metropolitan Melbourne. Photograph by Christopher hopkins for THe Guardian


The Northcote Golf Course is allowing local residents to use the outdoor space during the Covid-19 restrictions in Metropolitan Melbourne. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Dr Elliot Fishman
(@ElliotFishman)

I’m not usually a single issue voter, but I’m likely to support any @CityofDarebin candidate that commits to converting northcote golf club into a park for general use. It’s open to everyone at the moment due to COVID-19 and it’s pumping. @kimlecerf pic.twitter.com/fkaP2i8e72

September 13, 2020

Darebin councillor Trent McCarthy approached the council and Leisure Management Solutions [LMS], which is contracted by council to manage the course, and they agreed in July to open the course to the public during Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

“I said to them, let’s just make the entrance safe and open, and give people permission to use the park,” McCarthy says. A footbridge connecting Brunswick to the course was also opened. Pre-Covid times, the fenced course was only available to golfers, who pay a fee, and technically closed to the public outside hours.

“It has now become a magical space,” McCarthy says.

“I have met people who have been enjoying it during Covid who lived just a couple of streets away and who have never been inside until word started to spread about it during Covid, and a campaign gained momentum to repurpose the space.”

With Andrews flagging that some of the more onerous social restrictions will be eased on Sunday, and residents of Brunswick, Northcote, Preston and Thornbury now used to having access to the course which includes leafy trees and areas full of wildlife, McCarthy says it is unlikely people will readily relinquish the space to golfers.

“Council is negotiating with LMS at the moment for a way to keep it open for both golfers and the public to use when restrictions ease, with a mix of golf hours and park hours.”

Council elections are under way, and McCarthy says if he was reelected he would put forward a motion at the first meeting of the new council in December calling for the start of “a respectful and inclusive process to talk about how we can use this land to meet more community needs,” he says. He believes golfers should still be able to use the space.

Sarah Hartree
(@sarahartree)

Northcote Public Golf Course is AMAZING.

Completely devestating that it’ll be handed back for the exclusive use of a small group of golfers 😞 pic.twitter.com/CIZXT8jCw6

October 12, 2020

“But golf has been on the decline here over the past decade,” he says. “In the heyday of this course, people played up to 50,000 rounds a year. Now its 18,000 rounds a year so the council subsidies every round of golf. It’s quite unusual to have a space like this, subsidised by council, locked up for just one activity.”

A community group on Facebook, “Reclaim Northcote Golf Course for Public Open Space”, however, reveals a range of views. Some people do not believe golfers should get the space back, and that it should be used exclusively for parklands. Many believe at least part of the space should be rewilded, with local plant species reintroduced and wildlife encouraged back and protected. Indigenous elders could help manage the land once the LMS contract expires in 2022, others propose.

An analysis of green space conducted by Griffith and LaTrobe Universities found of the 42,199 residential mesh blocks [typically containing between 30 and 60 homes] under stage four restrictions, 3,500 had between zero and 4.5 square kilometres of parkland within 5km. “This equates to about 135,000 homes or 340,000 people with little or no access to parks within their permitted area for exercising,” the researchers found.

Billie Giles-Corti
(@billiegc)

Simple things in life are so enjoyable during this extended lockdown – a picnic with a friend on Northcote Golf Course…great to see so many people out yet all wearing masks – a sign of the times pic.twitter.com/yoGAuessUI

October 11, 2020

Other golf courses have been used heavily by the public during lockdown, including Royal Park golf course located 3km from the city. But a lecturer in landscape architectural design at the University of Melbourne, Dr Wendy Walls, says that course was not fenced off before Covid, and the public and golfers had always shared the space respectfully. Generally, there are also fewer alternative green spaces such as parks and nature reserves to use, and of lesser quality, the further you live from the city within metropolitan Melbourne, she says.

“Northcote has always been fenced and you’re not supposed to go on it and so it sets up a different precedent and pressure [compared with] other golf courses,” Walls says. “But it is possible to have respectful and collaborative conversations about what the space is for and how we might negotiate different terms of use.”

The same conversation is happening with skating, she says.

“People get really upset about skating in public space, and it’s because spaces are pressured and precious. But there is a better way forward. There is a project in Europe where they created a new town square and it was a beautiful, flowing urban design attractive to skaters.

“In the end, the designers went in and had a conversation with local skaters and came up with guidelines together around rules and expectations about where it was OK to skate, and the designers also explained what would get ruined by skating and which sections were more enduring.”

Golfers have argued the course is essential for those who cannot afford to be a member of private clubs. They have formed a group called #WePlayGolf@Northcote. A letter written by a Preston local, and member of the group, was dropped into letterboxes and described how some residents were “making demands that are very unfair”.

Keeping the space as a golf course was “the simplest way to keep that land a green space,” the letter says. “By default, golf courses protect the environment. Once it becomes a park, it immediately becomes vulnerable to developers.” The letter says that once restrictions ease, people will return to bars and cafes, with “fewer people wanting to have a picnic”. The group has urged people to vote for anyone in the council election “who hasn’t said anything about modifying the course”.

It is a debate occurring all over Australia as cities become more dense. In September in New South Wales, a proposal to convert Marrickville golf course in Sydney’s inner-west into a mix of park space and golf space was defeated. Elsternwick Park golf course, in Melbourne’s south-east, is being partially transformed into a nature reserve.

But McCarthy believes for Northcote, there is no going back to the way things were.

“This has progressed to the point where too many people feel connected to the space now,” he says.