Melbourne's growth has not been a matter of a big city corporation annexing the surrounding areas in which voters want access to city services and information. Compared to that of cities in North America, which have sought to expand their size and tax base by vigorous annexation, city government in Melbourne has been weak and fragmented. When new areas such as Fitzroy and Richmond were being established they seceded from the City of Melbourne to escape its building codes and rates. The pioneers of these areas were more concerned about cutting building costs than they were about the standard of municipal services. By the time aspirations had risen it was the colonial government that had assumed most of the responsibility for water supply, transport, schools, and police and policing. As surrounding areas were converted from rural to suburban land use their residents were automatically entitled to use the infrastructure and services which the colonial government had provided. To the new suburbs, the services offered by the City of Melbourne were irrelevant, and so was the question of annexation to it.
As a result, as David Dunstan writes in Governing the metropolis (1984, p. 2), Melbourne developed a system of political authority that 'as a whole, remains a confused, and confusing, tangle of municipal and State departments, and a jumble of other special-purpose, or ad hoc, authorities'. The idea that greater efficiency in the provision of infrastructure could be obtained by the creation of a Greater Melbourne Council has been a recurring theme of Victorian politics.
The decision on what constitutes part of metropolitan Melbourne involves a judgment about the areas that have strong economic and social links to the other parts of the urban area. Such judgments may be arbitrary and misleading. In terms of demography, official 19th-century estimates of Melbourne's metropolitan population were based on the number of people living within a 10-mile (16 km) radius of Central Melbourne. Such a method tended to overstate Melbourne's population slightly, as it included places which were still predominantly rural in function. In 1853, an American merchant, George Train, observed that 'where the town first started I suppose will be its centre. But like dropping a pebble in the water, the place will continue to widen till it has swallowed up Collingwood, Richmond, St Kilda, Sandridge and all the adjoining towns' (quoted by Dunstan, p. 65). Each phase of population growth did lead to a shift of the suburban frontier, but this frontier did not spread evenly, in concentric circles, over Melbourne's geography. New, peripheral suburbs would be developed before existing ones were full of houses and people; as Dunstan notes, when Train wrote, 'the city resembled a cluster of "suburban villages" with Melbourne merely the largest and most central of the group'. These nodes of settlement were separated by natural barriers, watercourses, and low-lying and vacant land.
During the land boom of the 1880s, new suburbs were created along public transport routes, chiefly railway lines. The suburbs that tended to grow most rapidly were those that middle-class suburbanites preferred for health and aesthetic reasons, such as Hawthorn, Camberwell and Malvern in the gentle hills east and south-east of the city, and Brighton along Port Phillip Bay. The northern suburbs, such as Brunswick, and those in the west, such as Footscray, were flatter and more favoured for industry and worker housing. In the 1920s the preferences of home-seekers for the east, south-east and bayside continued to shape the direction of the city's expansion. The suburban frontier was pushed out to places such as Box Hill, Heidelberg, Sandringham and Mordialloc, which were linked to the city by public transport routes. As these new suburbs developed there remained large areas of unoccupied land closer to the city which were beyond walking distance of train stations and tram stops.
After World War II, the motor car exerted a much stronger influence on Melbourne's growth. New suburbs blossomed along long-established suburban rail lines, such as bayside Chelsea, and Nunawading in the east. But trucks and cars were starting to free industries and commuters of the need to locate close to railways, and the areas between public transport routes began to be filled in with houses and workplaces. New centres of industry, with worker housing built by the Housing Commission of Victoria close by, were created around Dandenong and Broadmeadows.
Modern estimates of Melbourne's metropolitan area and population are problematic. The frontier between suburbs and countryside is not easily defined: in the east there are still orchards in Wantirna South, between Glen Waverley and Knox City; from Dandenong it is a long drive, across open countryside, to Hastings, from which large numbers of people commute to jobs in Frankston and elsewhere in the metropolitan area; Eltham and Warrandyte lie in a bush setting which is prized by residents. At the start of the 21st century, Melbourne's most rapid suburban growth was taking place in corridors, notably the City of Casey in the east, and Melton in the west.
What cannot be doubted is that Melbourne remains a low-density city by world standards, with a high proportion of the population living in single-family, detached dwellings, in sprawling, far-flung suburbs. As such, it shares many of the problems of car-dependence and high infrastructure costs with similar cities in North America. Every city's ability to cope with these problems is shaped by the way in which people coped with urban problems in the past. In Melbourne's case, the pattern of city growth has been shaped by two factors, which have exerted a lasting influence on the city's physical character and quality of life.
First, Melbourne's location at a freshwater site some 10 km from the Yarra River mouth decentralised employment from the start. Like Los Angeles, which also had separate ports away from the town centre, Melbourne never had the need to develop the kind of compact physical form which prevailed in most contemporary cities, where wharves and docks, commercial and housing areas were close together and people could walk conveniently from any part of town to another. The separation of port and city made early rail links between the two a virtual necessity, and the layout of the city provided ample space for terminuses between the street grid and the Yarra River. By the end of the 1850s three terminuses, for railways to Williamstown, Port Melbourne and St Kilda, and Hawthorn and Brighton, were in place. Hoddle's grid of wide streets would provide space for trams.
This was the foundation of the suburban rail network that was expanded boldly during the 1880s, by a colonial parliament in which a substantial number of land speculators sat. At the height of Melbourne's land boom it appeared that railways could create their own demand by providing the vital ingredient needed to turn vacant land into profitable subdivisions. Close to stations, especially those near tramway routes, well-defined shopping strips were built. When the land boom collapsed it was obvious that the public transport system had been overbuilt, but by the 1920s the railways and tramways (which by then had been municipalised) had been electrified to provide the fast, efficient service which a new wave of suburban customers demanded. Suburbs and their shopping and entertainment facilities had been built in a way in which people could get around them easily on foot, or on public transport. Melbourne's public transport system, which was one of the world's best, was still the crucial factor which influenced the pace and location of suburbanisation. The towns along the routes were separated by open countryside, and at the end of World War II Melbourne still had large areas of potential suburban land which were within walking distance of electric trains.
Second, the boom in motor car ownership after World War II did not result in the abandonment of public transport and the clearing of a very large part of the old housing stock to make way for new roads, as was the case in most American cities. When Melburnians in large numbers began to buy cars and use them for commuting, new roads created new suburbs, between and beyond public transport routes. Many of these new suburbs became important places of employment in their own right. Cars and trucks became the dominant means of moving people and goods, and much valuable land was gobbled up by new roads and parking spaces. But plans for large-scale freeway building, which would have encircled Central Melbourne and obliterated many old inner-city neighbourhoods, never went ahead. In the 1950s, when there was widespread community support for freeway building, finance was lacking. A 1969 plan to build 491 km of new freeways was brought down by public protests, supported by sympathetic trade unions. While cities all over the world were removing trams from their streets to make more room for cars, the chairman of Melbourne's Tramways Board, Sir Robert Risson, had the tracks set in cement to make it difficult to tear them up. Risson's efforts were successful, and by the late 1960s Melbourne was the only major Australian city to have kept its tramway system.
In many ways, Melbourne has grown like any other major city in Australia or North America. Car-dependent suburbs sprawl outward and most new jobs are located in decentralised factories, shops and offices. Much of the built environment of cities is a 20th-century creation, most of it dating from only the latter two or three decades. Like their counterparts in other cities, most Melburnians live and work in areas which, in an urban sense, have virtually no history at all.
Nevertheless, there is a distinctiveness about Melbourne which stems from its ability to retain the desirable features of the urban landscape that was laid out before the automobile. Melbourne's older neighbourhoods and shopping areas, which were built to accommodate pedestrians and public transport, still have large resident populations. Downtown, still served by excellent public transport, is vibrant and safe. It is worth noting that Los Angeles, which dismantled its large public transport system and became the freeway metropolis par excellence, is now rebuilding its rail transportation network, revitalising its downtown area, and refurbishing old neighbourhoods, such as Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and Pasadena Old Town, as places that people can explore on foot and that can provide medium-density housing nearby. Melbourne's citizens, politicians, planners and developers should be aware of the fact that other cities are working hard to capture the characteristics which Melbourne has never lost.