In Melbourne, the term 'nature strip' is understood to mean a strip of lawn that runs between the roadway and the footpath. In other parts of Australia this area is known as a 'verge'; in Sydney, 'nature strip' is more likely to refer to the median strip of grass in the middle of a divided road. As well as lawn, nature strips sometimes contain shrubs or street trees.
Early photographs of Melbourne's residential streets show either grass or a combination of grass and footpath at the side of the road. An 1862 photograph in the Port Phillip City collection shows a nature strip in Carlisle Street, Balaclava. Stock grazing their way to city markets along arterial roads could partly explain the origins of such grassy areas, as might the rationale that grass plots and street trees provided a trap for dust kicked up from the roadway.
Nineteenth-century examples pre-date city planning and garden city ideas which developed after the turn of the 20th century. Melbourne's earliest planned nature strips were probably at Port Melbourne's Garden City housing development in the 1920s. Real Property Annual, the predecessor of Australian Home Builder and Australian Home Beautiful, was strong in its promotion of garden city planning ideas and also nature strips. Robin Boyd (Australia's home, 1968) identified the nature strip as 'the mark of the garden suburb' - and derided it as 'this mockery of a communal garden'. The nature strip does help to reduce stormwater volumes, and provides a buffer between pedestrians and traffic, but its primary function has always been visual. It provides a plane of soft, rich green that contrasts with the surrounding harder and chromatically duller surfaces.
From the 1950s the total area under nature strips began to increase exponentially. They came to be taken for granted in new suburbs and were cultivated in many old suburbs. The speed of their proliferation should not, however, be exaggerated. In some of the older and poorer suburbs - such as Yarraville - nature strips were still being planted late in the 20th century. Although they might be found in streets close to the city centre (such as in Macarthur Street, East Melbourne, and in St Kilda Road), they are rarely found in shopping precincts.
The 1950s also saw the establishment of the convention that householders, rather than municipal government, take responsibility for mowing the nature strip immediately in front of their properties. In 1954 many South Yarra ratepayers protested their local council's decision to mow no more. The story was considered of sufficient public interest to make the front page of the Herald newspaper. The council view prevailed, making the point that very few other councils maintained local nature strips.
Although owned and regulated by local councils, they are frequently the subject of dispute between council and ratepayer, renter and landlord, and neighbour versus neighbour. Nature strips endure as a symbol for the space and health of suburbia. It is individuals who have maintained and even spectacularly manicured them, as a source of civic pride and personal status. Nature strips are iconic of Australian suburbia, an essential part of what Geoffrey Bolton has called the 'monotonous fidelity' of the street grid. Their future form may, however, need to adapt to the restrictions of water supply and the vagaries of climate.