By Rhonda Dredge
In a quiet little corner of the city, against a backdrop of laneway culture, a storm has been brewing over what is the best surface to have underfoot.
Locals are buying into the debate and children are attracted.
“We like it so much,” says Lucie Mulet, manager of a nearby French creperie.
The contentious surface is astroturf, a brilliant green synthetic grass which is causing controversy in Scott Alley.
Some critics see the material as a quick fix for infrastructure problems, used by public authorities and developers to create an artificial hope for public space.
Astroturf was laid in Elizabeth St to create an instant counselling hub after the terrifying drive-through incident along Flinders St before Christmas. At about the same time, Scott Alley off Flinders Lane was also greened up to compensate for demolition of the buildings to the south for the Metro Tunnel.
The material is becoming so popular that it has attracted cultural comment. The authors of a new study, James Hull and Bede Brennan, claim the material was invented by NASA to lay on the moon.
Australians love to have a dig at public pretensions and the researchers, both country boys from leafy Bellingen, were so shocked by “the plant-based surrealism” they saw in Melbourne they took photographs and loaded them up on Instragram with suitable captions.
One photograph shows a billboard in a suburban yard covered in astroturf with the caption ‘’your ad here” beneath it. A US publisher saw the pictures, recognised the talent and the result is a book Shit Gardens, just released.
CBD designer Dan Smith, who passes Scott Alley on his way to lunch, has bought unknowingly into the controversy. The fact that the air-conditioning unit in his flat has been covered in the stuff and used as the centre-piece for an herbaceous arrangement may have influenced him.
“Astroturf is often used to fill in a void,” Smith says. “Blank spaces make people feel uncomfortable. We better fill it up with something.”
In the blank space that was Scott Alley, Metro Tunnel came up with the idea of laying astroturf. Several businesses were struggling to deal with the noise of the demolition and the soft surface helped.
“It’s very attractive,” says Ms Mulet, a great fan of the new-look alley. “Lots of homeless people come here to sleep and backpackers.”
Business has boomed for Roule Galette and the café has expanded across the alley to cope with the constant stream of customers, children and tourists during the day and party animals in the evening, possibly seduced by astroturf’s popularity in run-down Bohemian bars.
Nothing lasts for long in Melbourne before there are complaints. Guitarists and revelers have created so much joy and noise that residents of Bible House, a groovy apartment building above Roule Galette, protested.
A month ago Metro Tunnel, ever sensitive to community wishes, did a survey. According to Ms Mulet, 90 per cent were in favour of keeping the astroturf yet the complainants have won.
On Friday 22 June they came to remove it.
Fans should not worry. The material will soon pop up elsewhere. Local have noticed a square of it in Woolies in Elizabeth St. Nothing is sacred for astroturf, the study concludes.