During Melbourne’s second lockdown, Northcote’s sprawling public golf course – about 20 minutes’ drive north of the CBD – has become a popular meeting spot for locals.

On sunny days, the 24-hectare site is now a sea of socially distanced picnickers enjoying the wide open tracts of grass and their proximity to Merri Creek wetlands. Ceres Community Environment Park is also just a short stroll over the recently opened footbridge that links the area to Brunswick.

“This has been the most difficult year for most of us,” says Nick Verginis, who started the Community to Unlock Northcote Golf Course Facebook group, which now has more than 2300 members.

“We have felt like prisoners in our own homes. You cannot exaggerate the transformative power of going from a confined space to see so much green … People have literally said that this park has saved them.”

The golf course and adjoining Mayer Park, which are on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, make up the largest council-owned open space in the City of Darebin, but the privately managed tree-lined fairways are usually reserved for golfers.

When the golf club closed in July, members of the public starting cutting through the wire-fence perimeter to access the greens, so the council decided to open the gates.

“The idea of locking up one space for one group of people doesn’t make sense,” says Darebin Greens councillor Trent McCarthy, who was pushing to repurpose and rewild the land even before the pandemic.

“I’m not trying to shut it down as a golf course; I’m just trying to open it up for more people to get involved. It doesn’t have to be a winners and losers situation.”

McCarthy confirmed that use of the course by golfers has dropped significantly in recent years, but the club is still subsidised by ratepayers. He wants it to stay as a multi-use shared space even when golfers return.

The Greens’ plan, which is laid out on Facebook here, involves consulting closely, first with Wurundjeri elders then locals, on how to best preserve the parklands and plant indigenous wildflowers, grasses and trees as habitats for wildlife.

The clubhouse, he says, could become a community centre that celebrates First Nations cultural heritage and acts as a hub for school groups or scouts, while open spaces could continue to be used for golf and other low-impact recreational activities such as frisbee, soccer or even an outdoor cinema.

“When we bring nature back into the suburbs, it creates a whole lot of benefits for everyone – not just the critters but the people too,” McCarthy says.

The current management contract for the golf course expires in 2022 and Verginis, who has lived in Brunswick for nearly 20 years, says he’s been pleased with the campaign’s momentum so far and the cross-party support it’s received.

“We are fortunate that the green space has been preserved by the golfing community, but the time has come for a new conversation about what the community needs,” he says.