Pre-European Melbourne was a place of diverse natural environments and great variety in natural resources. The vegetation of the area included 1260 flowering plants (grasses, sedges, orchids, wattles, bush peas, eucalypts and daisy bushes), 73 ferns and club mosses, 95 species of liverworts and hornworts, 180 mosses, and at least 560 fungi. As an early observer wrote 'Almost every kind of natural scenery is to be met with at Port Phillip'. All of these environments provided habitats for a wide range of plant and animal life and a broad spectrum of resources for the Aboriginal population.
Melbourne today, like other modern cities, is a conurbation of several million people breathing, drinking, using, changing and feeling the natural environment. The city's growth has spread over the plains, swamps and hills of the original Port Phillip District, and its environmental impact extends both within and far beyond the current boundaries of the Greater Melbourne Metropolitan area. The natural environment has determined and in turn been shaped by such developments. Melbourne's character has been influenced by decisions made early in its settlement; by the ways in which the city has been sustained over time with water, energy and food; by its demography and the development of its transport infrastructure; and by its government and administration. Community responses to physical and economic growth and social evolution have also impacted on the biological environment.
Melbourne at the start of the 21st century is a large city embedded in a modern economy. It boasts a well-educated population in which significant numbers of people are technically competent, a wide range of scientific institutions, and a comprehensive range of scientific support services. However, this position has been achieved only recently. Earlier on, science was generally—though with a steadily increasing number of exceptions—much more marginal to daily life.