Why do most Melburnians want to live in the suburbs? | The Age

David Nichols

November 8, 2010


    FORTY years ago Nigel Buesst made a splendid short film, The Destruction of St Patrick’s College. It was a documentary and a protest film in one: the demolition of a superb building in East Melbourne that the Catholic Church had deemed surplus to requirements, to a hideous proto-grunge soundtrack of slowed-down pop music and found narration from a visiting professor, Hartley Grattan, critiquing Australian culture.

    Soon after Buesst made his film, Rupert Hamer, a big and a small-l Liberal, became premier, promoting a ”quality of life” program. Hamer bemoaned the loss of St Patrick’s: he would have saved it.

    Now another Liberal is making a pitch on the heritage ticket. ”Coalition to save Victoria’s heritage from Madden’s wrecking ball,” bellows a state Liberal press release promising that the ”unique character [only one?] of Melbourne’s suburbs” and the ”character [again – only one?] of communities” will be preserved under Ted Baillieu in a way they wouldn’t under that wicked uber-developer John Brumby.

    Baillieu has a big plan for Melbourne: to get rid of planning, with Melbourne 2030 slain with a mighty sword of ”liveability”, ”accountability” and ”reassurance” that public space and heritage buildings will be unsullied by secretive deals.

    Thus, imposition (so to speak) of high-rise housing on transport routes and alienation of space that might if-you-squint-a-bit be deemed public (such as, for instance, land on the old Kew Cottages site) will be no more, or rather, will not happen again.

    Certainly, the calls for higher density within the extant city – with the resulting pressure on services, particularly in inner areas – have often missed the point. Why do most Melburnians want to live in the suburbs? Not, in case you were wondering, because they’re too stupid to know the joy of living two minutes away from good coffee (to paraphrase a current 4WD advertisement) or because the walls of a decent, honest little Collingwood terrace are too small for the plasma TV screen. It’s because for many people the suburbs offer a sense of place – actually, more than that, an actual place – that can be defined by housing style, aesthetics, topography, recreation opportunities and networks of friends, relatives and neighbours. Suburbs have particular qualities, be they the low-rise ’60s and ’70s family homes of Glen Waverley, or the solid, pragmatic yet warm bungalows of Carnegie, or the jaunty, angular prefab concrete cottages of 1950s Broadmeadows and 1960s Dallas.

    The suburbs also allow residents to enjoy some simple things – walking dogs in parks or by waterways, and birds in trees, and not being subject to the constant hum and smell of traffic – that only select slivers of the inner city can offer. Howard Arkley’s airbrushed suburban wonders are iconic for a good reason: they’re inviting, natural and sentimental, as much as they are wry. Life in high-rise flats named ”The Arkley” can’t really replicate that.

    So there is a certain charm to some of Baillieu’s (and his shadow planning minister Matthew Guy’s) promises, and it’s pleasant to see conservatives returning to something they should actually have as a core principal – conservation.

    The metropolis is receiving surgery that, in parts, looks a bit like butchery. Higher density developments are springing up on every crossroads in inner suburbs, many of them giving every impression of a parking garage with some units neatly if precariously packed on top.

    While some of us might have felt a little schadenfreude at the protests against redevelopment at Camberwell station, others might have felt that impositions of umpteen moderne terraced units into Doncaster, each with a pebbled front yard, were just an attack on middle Australia, as though Brumby, Madden et al were carrying out the ultimate barbecue stopper.

    Melbourne’s suburbia is too vibrant to be sacrosanct and its vibrancy means it is not a problem to be fixed, ”sprawling” and ”empty”, ready to be reined in and reworked. Rather, it’s a text that’s always being added to and taken away from incrementally, and that has to be seen as part of its appeal. Hamer’s ”quality of life” slogan recognised this; Baillieu and cronies are, perhaps, just beginning to.

    David Nichols is lecturer in urban planning at the University of Melbourne and co-editor with Hannah Lewi of the forthcoming Community: Building Modern Australia (UNSW Press).


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