22 October 2020
Melbourne residents have utilised the green space in their neighbourhoods so much during the COVID-19 lockdown that rangers and conservationists warn we are loving our parks to death.
Shopping strips and pubs are empty and most are still banned from visiting loved ones at home. Instead, parks and trails are brimming with cyclists, picnics and dog walkers.
It has resulted in mountain bikers digging up new bike jumps, and walkers trampling habitats to form new paths. Despite the added pressure, rangers and conservationists say it’s great to see Melburnians engage with their local green space more than ever – it only proves we need more.
For Darebin Parklands head ranger, Peter Wiltshire, one indicator of overuse is the amount of dog poo he’s picking up.
“Usually, we do 90 kilos of dog poo every three days or so. Now we’re doing that every two days if not more,” Mr Wiltshire said.
“We’re doing everything twice as much, sort of thing, and we’re running out of resources.”
He said bike jumps and newly formed walking paths were diminishing habitat normally spared for wildlife, but he said the green open space was there to be used and loved.
“It’s a lovely piece of land isn’t it, so it entices people into it.”
Ann McGregor, president of the Merri Creek Management Committee, says she has seen fewer birds around since the rush of visitors began.
“Nest boxes may be less attractive shelters if there’s lots of human activity nearby, and dogs off-lead cause disturbance to wildlife,” Ms McGregor said.
“[The popularity is] great. It just highlights the needs for more areas, for people and for nature.”
There has been an increase in conflicts between dogs, cyclists and walkers, including the dog attack of a wallaby that had to be euthanised.
But there has also been new interest in supporting the trail: helpful strangers pulling weeds and hundreds of people signing up for a webinar about Merri Creek birds.
Friends of the Merri Creek president Nick Williams, an associate professor of urban ecology at the University of Melbourne, hopes the new value we’ve placed into open space will encourage governments to invest in them.
He says there should be specific parks to meet everyone’s needs.
Ben Golding, of the Friends of Andrews Reserve, has noticed damage to conservation areas of ironbark forest and wildflowers as mountain bikers explore new nooks of the Yarra Bend Park in Kew.
Brendan Sullivan, area chief ranger for Parks Victoria, said the agency values mountain bikers engaging with parks but that it has a responsibility to protect the environment.
“During the past few months there has been a significant increase in off-road mountain biking and the creation of illegal tracks in parks, particularly in the Melbourne region,” Mr Sullivan said.
Bike jumps even appeared on grass above the Burnley Tunnel during stage four restrictions, and was fenced off by owners Transurban.
“We’re looking into whether we can repurpose the land in a safer way in consultation with the community and stakeholders,” a Transurban spokeswoman said.
Some communities are so much more dependent on their local parks that they want their councils to deliver more, with Darebin residents eyeing off the Northcote Golf Course after months of use while golf was banned.
Walkers were also strolling through Albert Park, Royal Park, Malvern Valley and Cheltenham courses before Premier Daniel Andrews lifted the ban on golf this week.
Stonnington Council said it would explore opportunities to allow the wider community to keep using the Malvern Valley course for passive recreation where safe.
David Wilde and Bridget Cramphorn have been agitating for Glen Eira council to move a depot out of Caulfield Park to make way for more green space.
Ms Cramphorn said living near Caulfield Park has made COVID-19 restrictions bearable.
“It’s very important to see other people, see other people enjoying themselves. Being able to sit on a park bench, buy a cup of coffee and walk into the park,” Ms Cramphorn said.
“It helps you deal with the difficulties of lockdown, to be able to have that access.”
Mr Wilde lives across the road and says he feels a sense of community with strangers in the park.
“I have a large dog called Tennyson and I walk him in the park just about every morning. There’s of course lots of sniffing facilities for the dog … but also I meet a lot of other people with dogs,” he said.
Ross Armstrong has been part of a Yarra bike group for “oldies” for about seven years, and has had to stop riding in their normal group of up to 35 riders due to the lockdown restrictions.
Even individually, he says they’ve mostly stopped using the Merri Creek trail because of how crowded it’s gotten during lockdown.
“It might be that some of these highly-used trails need to be widened and modified and able to accommodate greater numbers, not only more people but you’ve got walkers and you’ve got fast walkers, old walkers and slow walkers, and walkers with children, and a lot of people out on bikes with their children,” Mr Armstrong said.
Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said it was great to see Melburnians take advantage of green space, and that the Victorian government has committed $154 million to create another 6500 hectares of parks.
with Sean Tarek Goodwin