On my hallway wall, I have a framed canvas map of Melbourne in 1956, the year we hosted the Olympics, and the year before my mother arrived in Australia.
It’s a fascinating map. It is colour coded by municipality, according to the cities and shires which existed prior to the Kennett government’s council amalgamations of the mid 1990s, giving the viewer an idea of the ancient council areas of Greater Melbourne which are now long gone.
A close look at Footscray shows that the tram network in my home town was slightly more extensive back then, with offshoots down Barkly Street all the way to the West Footscray village and down Ballarat Road til Rosamond Road, and the main line zigzaging from its present day terminus in Leeds Street through Seddon until Williamstown Road.
My high school, from which I matriculated (yes, I like using a quaint term more accurate than ‘graduated’ in the context of high school education) over 33 years ago, is not on the map. There is a quarry marked on most of the land that was, the following year, to become that school.
The street where I currently live, in Avondale Heights, is not on this map. The subdivision did not occur until 1963, and most of Avondale Heights was still market gardens then (I remember there still being a market garden off Canning Street near the bridge in the late 1980s). Avondale Heights then was part of what was still known as the Shire of Keilor (it was not proclaimed as a City til 1961), so technically I suppose you could argue that where I am now sitting was still out in the countryside then, just past the outskirts of Melbourne.
Parishes and Counties, which have no meaning in modern Australia, but which were created in the original colonial division of the land in the 1840s, are also marked on the map. I already knew that most of Melbourne is situated in the County of Bourke (I think it is mentioned on my land title), but I had only a vague idea that my parish is Doutta Galla, and that Sunshine is in the parish of Derrimut. And there you were, thinking only that Derrimut was that bogan pub near Sunshine Railway station and that Doutta Galla was that other pub on Racecourse Road in Flemington….
The population of Melbourne in 1956 was a shade over 1,500,000 people, quite a lot under the 2,300,000 or so who lived here in the 70s and 80s, and far less than the 5,100,000 estimated to live here now, in early 2020.
The skyline of Melbourne has drastically changed in recent years. When I walk down Canning Street, I can see two tall apartment towers in West Maribyrnong, two kilometres away, as well as an abundance of skyscrapers further away, both in the Hoddle Grid which is the CBD and just outside it in Docklands. I do not know the names of most of those new buildings, which have sprouted like mushrooms in recent years. When it was completed in 1976, Nauru House was the tallest building in Melbourne (now it ranks 24th). Now, without fanfare, there is a slightly taller building nearing completion right next to it, where I doubted there was enough room for any further construction.
The Hoddle Grid and its surrounds have changed a lot. Approximately 200,000 people work there, and approximately 40,000 currently live there, mostly in recently constructed apartments. This is a far cry from 1984, when only 500 people lived in the CBD, mostly in loft apartments in older commercial buildings in the smaller streets and laneways.
Whilst predicting the future is an awfully difficult task (as my attempts to win the lottery ruefully attest), it is likely that Melbourne will overtake Sydney as Australia’s largest city in coming years – possibly as early as 2026.
What does all this mean? I am old enough now to realise that bigger is not always better. The median house in Melbourne costs something like nine or ten times the median salary, and more and more people are living in apartments and units, rather than in houses. People are increasingly becoming slaves to the mortgage beast for longer and longer.
Suburban backyards are disappearing, as housing blocks get demolished and subdivided into two or three townhouses, depending on the size of the block. This is not a great social development in terms of raising families – kids need space to play.
Nor it is great environmentally. Having land with trees around one’s house is good for keeping a suburb cool in the summer heat, and provides habitat for possums, fruit bats, reptiles, birds, and other creatures. A megacity with high population density housed in apartment towers is going to be more artificial and less healthy than a city where most denizens reside as I do, in a house with a front yard and a back yard. I enjoy complaining about possums and getting the creeps when fruit bats haunt my fig tree in late summer. Take out the suburban backyard and you lose a lot of the trees which absorb pollution and which make city life more bearable.
Melbourne has been considered, until very recently, the most liveable city in the world. Now, with the population and population density starting to rise rapidly, housing affordability continuing to diminish, and our transport and road infrastructure struggling to keep up, there is a lot to worry about.
And if that is not enough, remember that the last time Melbourne added a water reservoir was the Hume in 1982, when the population was less than half what it is now. True, it was a massive reservoir, as big as all the others put together, but more thought needs to be given to what happens when our population outpaces the water capacity we currently have.
I would much rather live in Melbourne than elsewhere, and I am particularly grateful for living in an intermediate suburb surrounded on three sides by the Maribyrnong River, especially as there are development limitations in my area which prevent high-rise from eventuating here (yet).
But if our town planners are not careful (and I am not optimistic about either planning ministers or local councillors making the best decisions) we are going to see a downward spiral in the quality of our lives in Melbourne. It could happen very quickly, given the rapidity of our population growth, the constant construction of taller apartment blocks in the suburbs, and the smaller size of housing blocks in housing developments in the new outer suburbs.