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Suburbs and Suburbanisation

From its origins in the 1830s down to the present day, Melbourne has been among the most self-consciously suburban of Australian cities. At the end of the 19th century it was already one of the most extensive areas of low-density urban settlement in the world; its residents were more likely to own their own detached homes than residents of most other contemporary cities, and the suburban idea, along with its assumptions of domestic privacy and bourgeois conformity, was already deeply etched in the city's consciousness. Asking 'What suburb do you come from?' has long been a standard way for Melburnians to place each other, reflecting the well-established assumptions that the city consists of nothing but suburbs, and that knowing where a person lives is a sure guide to where they belong socially. Only perhaps in the past two decades, as suburban expansion has slowed and ideals of urban consolidation have gained ground, has the long dominance of the suburban ideal been challenged, if not dethroned.

Melbourne was founded precisely at the moment when romantic ideals of suburban retreat were in the ascendant in Great Britain. In 1836, a year after John Batman had landed on the Yarra River to found a 'village', the Scottish-born landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon published a book, The suburban gardener and villa companion, which became the bible for the thousands of eager would-be suburbanites seeking refuge from the stench, squalor and disease of Great Britain's industrial cities. The suburban ideal was shaped by four great contemporary ideologies: evangelicalism, which exalted the idea of Home as a nursery of piety and virtue; romanticism, which idealised the spiritual beauty of nature and the countryside; sanitary science, which preached the evils of smoke and filth, and the healing properties of country air; and class distinction, which encouraged the bourgeoisie to keep a distance, geographical as well as social, from the working classes. Suburb was a word only gradually shaking off its original, pejorative, meaning as a place 'below', and hence inferior to, the city. Maps of British cities even in the 1830s often show the suburbs as wastelands, populated only by military camps, hospitals, lunatic asylums, gaols, gibbets and other disreputable or unsavoury functions unwelcome within the city walls. Sometimes, it is true, the word suburb was employed in a more neutral way simply to describe land beyond the formal bounds of the town or city. Under Colonial Office regulations of the early 1830s, land alienated from the Crown and offered for sale was divided into three categories: 'town', 'suburban' and 'country' allotments. Suburban allotments, or 'suburbans' as they were commonly known, lay just outside the town and were usually about 25 acres (10 ha) each, designed probably for market gardens or other small-scale agriculture, but always - such was the rapidity of urbanisation and the rage for land speculation - with the probability of their profitable conversion into urban real estate.

Melbourne in fact was scarcely a village, and something less than a real town, when land speculators first began to invoke the ideal of the romantic suburb as a place of semi-rural retreat from the rigours of town life. In 1839 an advertisement for land in Fitzroy appeared under the heading:


As a place for the Gardener to commence operations, no piece of ground such as the present could be more eligible ... As a site for a 'Cottage Ornee' for the Aristocracy of Melbourne and Port Phillip no place could be better adapted; as a retirement for the fatigued merchant [no] place could surpass this; in short, to the traveller, the graziers and agriculturists, this simple spot would indeed be an acquisition to their steadily rising fortune.

Soon wealthy merchants, squatters and professional men were forming suburban estates within a comfortable carriage ride of the city along Port Phillip Bay, at Brighton and St Kilda, and on the upper Yarra at Hawthorn and Heidelberg. These were aristocratic suburbs, their houses often in the steep-pitched Gothic style favoured by Loudon and other English architects, and set on large allotments with ornamental as well as cottage gardens, long winding drives and pleasant views of the surrounding countryside.

The suburb was an ideal shaped by forces of both attraction and avoidance. In the early 1850s the suburbs beckoned as oases of domestic safety. Romantic ideas of domestic life offered an antidote to the threatened chaos of a grossly materialistic society. Land in the most popular middle-class suburbs, such as seaside St Kilda, favourite of the city's mercantile elite, increased more than tenfold in value in the early 1850s. Two architectural styles - Gothic and Italianate - predominated. With its steep gables, decorated barge boards, asymmetrical plan and picturesque dormer windows in the English vicarage style, the Gothic villa had been the most popular style of suburban house in England. In Melbourne, however, it gradually lost favour to the Italianate villa with its verandah and more Mediterranean, and perhaps more secular, associations. The most popular style of suburban house, a vernacular adaptation of the Italianate villa - double-fronted, single-storied, freestanding and symmetrical - was probably determined less by aesthetics or cultural symbolism than by the exigencies of subdivision, climate, ease of construction and potential for adaptation. This, with appropriate variations in size and ornamentation, and with stylistic renovations as, successively, Federation cottage, California bungalow and 'double-fronted brick veneer', has been the dominant style of Melbourne suburban house for more than a century.

While the rich and well-to-do sought freedom from disorder, workingmen often sought escape from irksome regulation. In Collingwood, Richmond and Emerald Hill, immigrants created a different kind of suburb, defined by their desire to evade the Melbourne Building Act 1849. Independent, self-respecting, democratic in spirit, the inner suburbs cared less for the romantic and sanitary ideals of the middle classes, more for the independence implied by freehold ownership. To outsiders they often appeared untidy, more shantytowns than suburbs, but they were an accurate reflection of the aspirations of their largely immigrant residents. Each immigrant group imprinted the suburb with something of its own distinctive culture and aspirations: the English sought more space, inside and out, than they had enjoyed at home; Scots, fleeing the congestion of Glasgow and Edinburgh's tenements, relished a front door of their own; the Irish, bearing dark memories of eviction, sought, above all, a house, however humble, that was their own.

The gold rush coincided with the arrival of new transport technologies, such as the railway and the horse omnibus. In Australia, by contrast with Great Britain, the railways were often built in advance of suburban settlement, sometimes so far in advance that it took half a century before the commuters arrived at their farthest stations. Melbourne's first railway, the privately owned Melbourne & Hobson's Bay Railway, had joined the city to its main overseas port at Sandridge (Port Melbourne) in 1854, but new suburban lines quickly followed, linking the city to the beach at St Kilda in 1857 and to the rolling hills on the eastern side of the Yarra at Hawthorn in 1861. But it was not until the early 1880s, after the Victorian government had taken over the old Hobson's Bay lines, that the city embarked upon its boldest experiment in railway-led suburban growth. Under the ebullient chief commissioner Richard Speight, who believed that 'any lines within 9 miles [14.5 km] of Melbourne would pay', the network was more than doubled in length. Middle-class commuters travelling to new suburbs in the south and east were the chief beneficiaries, although the adoption of concessional 'workmen's fares' and the construction of an Inner Circle line through Collingwood and Fitzroy did something to offset the class divide.

Public transport played a smaller role in the expansion of the inner suburbs. Many of their residents worked in local workshops and factories. Others walked to the city: the wide pavements of the inner city are the legacy of a time when hundreds of workingmen, carrying their tools and lunch, flooded the thoroughfares leading in and out of the city at morning and nightfall. The horse omnibus, an American invention, arrived in the early 1850s, but its low capacity (about 12 passengers), bumpy ride and high fares limited its patronage. Only with the introduction of cable trams in the mid-1880s were the inner suburbs at last furnished with an efficient and affordable public transport system. By 1890 the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. had extended its routes far beyond its natural catchments in the inner city and was carrying about 45 million passengers a year, similar to the suburban railways.

As the children of the gold-rush generation rose to their twenties, married and formed new households of their own, they often migrated radially along the new transport routes to create new suburbs. The building boom drew an increased flow of overseas immigrants, whose housing needs raised the level of activity even further. A new group of entrepreneurs, the land boomers, sought to translate the popular desire for 'Home Sweet Home' into a more tangible commitment to land, bricks and mortar. Many of them were gold-rush immigrants who had risen through the web of temperance leagues, savings banks and working-class self-improvement societies; but by the 1880s they controlled a shaky pyramid of land banks, mortgage companies and building societies. Protestants still led the suburban exodus, especially into the eastern suburbs, where in Hawthorn and Camberwell a 'Bible Belt' of Sunday suburbs began to emerge, but the ideals that motivated the new settlers were now more material than spiritual, and the search was for social status and security rather than holiness.

By 1890, the climax of the land boom, Melbourne had become one of the most suburbanised cities in the world. Contemporaries observed that it displayed a sense of 'metropolitan vastness' equalled only by London, a city more than ten times as populous. 'The two features that will strike every stranger are spaciousness and variety', wrote schoolmaster Edward Morris. Over 40% of Melbourne's population were housed at densities that equated with single-family detached dwellings, and almost all the rest at densities similar to terraces, duplexes or single-family attached dwellings. Tenements and apartments were almost unknown. Adelaide was the only other Australian city to approach this level of suburbanisation, and only one or two cities in the American Midwest, notably Minneapolis, came close. Unlike the suburbs of London, however, Melbourne's suburbs were socially and architecturally mixed. 'A poor house stands side by side with a good house, a cottage, one might almost say a hovel, in close proximity to a palace', Morris noted. The coming of the railway and tramway, and the aggressive marketing that was such a marked feature of the boom were beginning to create a more self-conscious pecking order among Melbourne suburbs, with Toorak, St Kilda and Brighton at the top, Hawthorn and Camberwell in the middle and Footscray, Northcote and Coburg towards the bottom. But, as yet, this process of status differentiation had not proceeded very far; the distinctions that mattered were still often between good and bad streets rather than between good and bad suburbs.

In the early 1890s the fragile edifice of speculative land banks and building societies tottered and fell. Just as the suburban dream had flourished during the boom, so did the ensuing depression dent it. Many of those who had purchased suburban allotments in the expectation of making large speculative gains burned their fingers. More unfortunate still were those who had borrowed heavily to finance their move to the suburbs and found themselves stuck in houses worth less than they had borrowed to buy them. By 1891 about 43% of Melbourne householders owned or were buying their own homes, and ownership was quite evenly distributed across the occupational ladder, but in the ensuing depression ownership fell to approximately 35%, though in the outer suburbs, where recent purchasers were concentrated, the falls were greater. Some purchasers simply abandoned their homes, rather than persevere with their dream of home-ownership, and retreated, disillusioned, to rented cottages in the inner city.

The 1890s depression dealt a heavy blow to Melbourne's ardent belief in the suburban dream. In its aftermath the first strains were heard of a new anti-suburban sentiment. Socialists and anarchists railed against the sins of the land boomers, deriding the false hopes of those who had succumbed to their blandishments. They not only denounced those who had betrayed the suburban ideal, but also questioned the ideal itself. Following the lead of British intellectuals such as H.G. Wells and C.F.G. Masterman, they applied a sceptical, ironical gaze to the bourgeois values that had supported it. The suburb, they suggested, was not just a retreat from the city, but also a retreat from life itself. In 1910 the socialist playwright Louis Esson declared:

The suburban home must be destroyed. It stands for all that is dull, and cowardly and depressing in modern life. It endeavours to eliminate the element of danger in human affairs. But without danger there can be no joy, no ecstasy, no spiritual adventures. The suburban home is a blasphemy. It denies life.

He was responding not just to the disillusionment that followed the crash, but also to a shift in the moral climate of the city, as the old evangelical morality hardened into a soul-destroying wowserism. The fears of dirt and overcrowding that had inspired the sanitarians were now reinforced by the fears of eugenicists that the slums could produce a new generation of physically and mentally impaired youth. New city planning and building regulations, specifying minimum allotment sizes or permitting 'brick only' areas and restrictive covenants, were reinforced by new laws excluding hotels from suburbs - mainly in the city's eastern Bible Belt - where residents voted in 'local option' polls to do so. The Yarra was becoming the hard divide between middle-class and working-class Melbourne.

For almost a generation the suburbs grew slowly. Only after the end of the Great War, when returning troops often sought the peace and quiet of the suburbs after the horrors of the Western Front, and state authorities, including the State Bank, offered generous finance to enable them to acquire 'homes fit for heroes', did they again experience more buoyant growth. While the web of train and tram services expanded only slowly, the introduction of electrified services produced a striking improvement in their speed, efficiency, frequency and economy. Between 1918, when electrification began, and 1924, the number of passengers on the metropolitan rail system grew from 97 million to 159 million. In 1922 the tramways, which had also undergone electrification, unveiled an ambitious general plan to double the size of its network. State-owned public transport authorities were becoming alarmed by the prospect that private bus-owners could quickly undermine their monopoly. After a short period of free-for-all competition ('the bus wars'), the government established a Transport Regulation Board to license bus services, most of which were required to act as feeders, rather than competitors, to the fixed rail public transport services. Small though they seemed compared with the extravagant projects of the 1880s, these developments nevertheless produced a significant increase in public transport usage. The area within a 30-40-minute radius of the Central Business District doubled, and between 1918 and 1928 the number of tram passengers increased by approximately 25% and train passengers by 50%. The suburbs that grew fastest, such as Essendon, Coburg, Glen Iris and Malvern, also had the highest per capita rates of public transport use.

By the 1920s support was growing for a more planned approach to suburban development. Some Melbourne architects and municipal officials were attracted to the Garden City ideas of the English planner Ebenezer Howard, who sought a more harmonious blend of town and country, work and home, man-made and natural environments. Instead of the gridiron uniformity of the 19th-century suburban subdivision, they sometimes experimented with more imaginative landscape designs, reflected, for example, in Walter Burley Griffin's subdivisions at Eaglemont and Milleara, the cottages and gardens of Edna Walling and the new industrial village created by harvester manufacturer H.V. McKay at Sunshine. In 1929 a Metropolitan Town Planning Commission - chaired by Melbourne City councillor Frank Stapley, an advocate of American 'City Beautiful' ideals - attacked the 'haphazard' process of suburban subdivision. 'The community cannot afford for these wasteful methods to continue', it warned. Anticipating the rapid growth of motor traffic, it recommended the development of a comprehensive metropolitan highway system including 'parkways', proposed a system of functional zoning and urged the creation of a metropolitan planning authority. Like other bold plans of the 1920s, however, it succumbed to the territorial jealousy of competing local and statutory authorities and the inertia of the 1930s depression.

A decade and a half would pass, and Melbourne would suffer the combined ravages of depression, war and postwar austerity, before suburban development resumed in earnest. In the meantime, many Melburnians, either from choice or necessity, had begun to challenge the hitherto dominant pattern of detached suburban housing. Between 1911 and 1947 the number of flats and tenements in Melbourne had grown from 1362, or barely 1% of metropolitan dwellings, to 32 568, or over 10%. For the busy businessman or woman, the flat provided convenient, compact accommodation close to the centre of town. To suburban moralists, however, it represented a negation of all that they held dear. 'A flat of any kind must be very well-equipped indeed if it is to be regarded as a home at all', a sceptic wrote in 1923. Yet in South Yarra, Prahran and St Kilda, the suburbs where flats were concentrated most heavily, Melburnians caught a first glimpse of a different style of urban living - more urbane, cosmopolitan and self-consciously 'modern' than their little oases of bourgeois domesticity.

By the end of World War II the city was in the midst of a serious housing crisis. Servicemen returning with hopes of matrimonial bliss were obliged to live in shared accommodation until the supply of building materials, still subject to wartime controls, began to increase. During the war, servicemen had debated plans for a new kind of city shaped by modern techniques of town planning and mass production. 'Everyone said that everything would be different after the war, not knowing how different', Walt Wicking recalled. 'They all stoked up their dreams, and that included marriage, a family, ... a home'. Walt was one of thousands who could not wait for the planners to provide their new homes, but scrounged the materials to build it himself in the new suburb of Blackburn. By the late 1950s large building companies, such as A.V. Jennings, had begun to supplant the owner-builders and self-employed tradesmen who had previously dominated the suburban building trade. 'The older pattern of home-buying is disappearing', the Australian Home Beautiful observed in 1957. 'The new way means a young couple can see exactly what they are going to buy, inspect it on the site they want, sign on the dotted line, and move into the fully finished home completely equipped with every service.'

The dreams of the postwar idealists faded quickly in the face of the popular desire for a return to normalcy. It was Liberal leader Robert Menzies who most clearly read the aspirations of the postwar generation for lives of domestic privacy and tranquillity. 'One of the best instincts in us', Menzies affirmed, 'is that which induces us to have one little piece of earth with a house and garden which is ours, to which we can withdraw, in which we can be amongst our friends, into which no stranger can come against our will.' At the end of the war barely one Melbourne family in two owned or was buying its own house, but by the late 1960s almost three-quarters were. Yet the new suburbs were never the unaided creation of their inhabitants: both State and federal governments provided massive subsidies to suburbanisation through the provision of housing finance, absence of capital gains tax, and transport infrastructure. During the 1950s and 1960s the 'mortgage belt' of outer suburbs was drawn firmly into the Liberal fold, an electoral compact broken only in the late 1960s when the Australian Labor Party's Gough Whitlam crafted policies designed to woo them away.

The most powerful single factor transforming the character of Melbourne's suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s was the private motor vehicle. In 1945 the map of the metropolis looked like a giant hand, with residential development clustered along the fingers of train and tram routes. Almost half the city's workers travelled by train or tram, and only 15% by car. Over the next 25 years, however, the wedges between the fingers were rapidly filled in and the suburban frontier advanced far into the countryside. By the 1960s it extended as far as Doncaster and Templestowe in the east, Frankston in the south, Eltham in the north and Sunshine in the west. By 1974 more than 60% of Melburnians were driving or riding in a car to work. The motor car also changed the shape of the suburbs, as residents sought shelter from traffic in courts and cul-de-sacs, and the rectilinear grid gave way to meandering drives, without dividing fences or footpaths. The garage, once a fugitive structure at the rear, gradually drew alongside and merged with the house itself, later sometimes even taking pride of place in front. A new form of architecture, the drive-in, appeared in the form of motels, cinemas, banks and the ubiquitous regional shopping centre or mall, of which Myer's Chadstone (1960) was the prototype.

In the 1960s Melbourne came closer to realising the suburban dream than at any other moment in its history. The suburban way of life was something more than a defensive reaction to the ills of industrialism or the terrors of war; it was the material expression of an expansive, property-owning, family-centred, pleasure-loving democracy. Yet already forces were gathering that would gradually change its character and weaken its appeal. Contemporary critics, including the architect Robin Boyd and the satirist Barry Humphries, echoed their Edwardian predecessors in decrying the visual monotony and spiritual narrowness of the suburbs. Boyd invented a word - featurism - to describe the suburbanites' besetting aesthetic sin and, in innovative experiments at Doncaster and Beaumaris, pioneered ways of blending suburban housing with the Australian bush. Humphries created a stage character, Edna Everage, a caricature of the alleged 'average' Melbourne housewife, whose indomitable philistinism lifted her to international celebrity. By the time she achieved stardom, Edna was actually far from average: increasingly the Melbourne housewife worked as well as keeping house, and was as likely to be Italian or Greek as Anglo-Saxon, and to live in Bundoora or Broadmeadows as in Camberwell or Moonee Ponds.

The suburban idea, when it emerged in the 1830s, was the expression of distinctively Anglo-Saxon values, and even in the 1950s, when the churches and Sunday schools enjoyed a short boom, English-speaking Protestants led the suburban advance. Yet the suburb was a physical form that was easily adapted to the aspirations of many other cultures. When they first arrived, many European immigrants settled first in the inner city, in the timber cottages and terraces vacated by the old Australian-born working class, close to neighbourhood networks of kin and employment. But coming from peasant villages via the crowded cities of the Old World, they often savoured the space of the quarter-acre (0.1 ha) block. As the immigrants of the 1860s had moulded their suburban houses to fulfil dreams born in London, Glasgow or Dublin, so did those of the 1960s pave their patios, remodel their kitchens and plant their gardens in ways that reflected aspirations formed in Calabria, Salonika and Serbia.

As the immigrants moved out into the suburbs, the children of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle class, disenchanted with the long commute and the spiritual emptiness of the suburbs, often began to move back in, relishing the delights of density and the amenity of the terrace suburbs. Lower birthrates, later marriage, dual careers and the hedonistic attractions of the inner city have reinforced the trend. It was the beginning of a slow revolution that has now almost reversed the old status map of the city. House prices in the inner ring now rival those in the old elite suburbs.

Meanwhile, out on the edge, at Melton and Pakenham, Craigieburn and Whittlesea, the suburbs still beckon. Policies of urban consolidation and the rising cost of services have reduced the average size of suburban allotments, even while rising living standards have increased the size of the average home: so the mock-Edwardian villas and Tuscan townhouses of the outer suburbs cluster almost as closely as the terraces of the inner suburbs. Their primary appeal is still the traditional one, to a more natural, family-centred and tranquil way of life. But advertisements for the new estates also strain to reassure prospective residents that in embracing the benefits of the suburban 'lifestyle' they are not forsaking the 'vibrant' life of the city. Houses are grouped into villages linked by bicycle paths and linear parks to lakeside caf├ęs and community centres. 'Latte by the Lake' promises Caroline Springs, a planned suburban estate on the city's western fringe. Like the lycra-clad inhabitants of television's 'Fountain Lakes', Kath and Kim, the new suburbs seek to blend the pursuit of a materialistic, hedonistic 'lifestyle' with a cut-down version of the rural idyll. They represent the latest, but perhaps not the last, stage in Melbourne's long pursuit of the suburban ideal.

Graeme Davison