Was Melton a bad idea?

I’ve referred to satellite cities in passing in recent weeks, both those around London and our own Melton and Sunbury. They’re a once-fashionable but very peculiar idea that might get another run if recent population projections are taken seriously. So it’s worth looking at the idea more closely, particularly how it’s been handled in Melbourne.

The issue I have with satellites is they’re O.K. if they have plenty of local jobs or if workers commute by public transport to the nucleus or host city, but they’re a very bad idea if neither of these conditions apply.

Melton was made a satellite city in 1974. According to historian David Moloney, satellite cities were a response to “urban quality of life issues: large cities and unrelieved urban sprawl were seen as too congested, uncongenial and economically inefficient”. They were, he says, a product of the rise of the town planning profession in the 1960s.

The Shire of Melton is in two parts. The main part with a population of around 40,000 is Caroline Springs – it is contiguous with the metropolitan area. Melton township is a further 9 km to the west and separated from Caroline Springs by green wedge.

Melton and Caroline Springs. The area shaded brown is the Investigation Area for possible future urban development. It would make sense to "fill-in" the gap. (click to enlarge)

Melton township has a population of around 40,000 (see here) but it does not have a commensurate level of economic activity. Approximately 60% of the workforce is employed outside the township (see here). Some work outside the Melbourne Statistical Division but most commute across the green wedge to ‘mainland’ Melbourne. As only 8% of Melton Shire’s workers commute to the city centre (City of Melbourne), the vast bulk of trips made by township residents, whether for work or otherwise, are made by car.

The median journey-to-work distance of Shire workers is 33 km – considerably longer than the 20 km combined median for six other outer suburban LGAs (Wyndham, Frankston, Mornington Peninsula, Hume, Casey and Cardinia).

This pattern is true for all trips indicating that it is a general characteristic of the Shire. For example, the median weekday distance travelled by Shire residents (all modes, all purposes) is 42 km, whereas that for residents of the other six outer suburban LGAs is 27 km.

Further, only 44% of weekday trips originating in Melton Shire (all purposes, all modes) also terminate within the LGA – the comparable figures for Cardinia, Wyndham and Casey are 68%, 63% and 58% respectively. This is unusual because outer suburban LGAs are usually relatively self-contained.

I don’t have data specifically for the residents of Melton township, but I expect their travel distances would be even longer than those for the Shire as a whole. So why do the the citizens of Melton township travel such long distances? There could be a number of factors at play here, each of which is related at least in part to the township’s satellite geography.

First, the township has a serious deficiency in jobs. When the decentralisation programs of the 70s were designed, manufacturing was thought to be the ideal industry for regional centres and satellites towns because it was less dependent on proximity to the city centre than other industries. Manufacturing employment has of course fallen precipitously since the 70s. In later years back office functions like call centres were also prospective candidates but there were many prospective locations for these jobs, both within Australia and overseas.

Even so, it is difficult to explain why a town of 40,000 people has such a poor workforce/jobs ratio. It might be that Melton township is too close to the metropolitan area to offer all the advantages of a regional location (e.g. low labour turnover) yet too far to offer all the advantages of agglomeration (e.g. access to a large labour market). At the very least this hypothesis warrants further examination.

The second explanation for such long travel distances is that the residents of Melton township have to travel across the green wedge just to be on the same footing as ‘mainland’ residents. That is a minimum extra distance of around 9 km from the eastern edge of Melton to the western edge of Caroline Springs.

Third, Melton township’s isolation from the main fabric of the city and its high standard freeway access mean that traffic congestion is lower and speeds are higher. Residents drive further because they can. In suburbs that grow incrementally at the edge of the main metropolitan area, subsequent waves of growth add to traffic on roads and discourage residents from journeying long distances.

A view of the Green Wedge separating Melton from 'mainland Melbourne'. (click to enlarge)

In Melton township’s case it might even be difficult for local service businesses to get a foothold if residents can easily drive to established suppliers in ‘mainland’ Melbourne. Those suppliers can in turn offer the benefits of economies of scale that make it hard for any start-up in Melton to compete.

I’ve little doubt that in due course the township will achieve a much more balanced ratio of local jobs to workers. But a lot of time has already passed and there might still be a long wait. A positive sign is that the Investigation Area for possible future urban development shown in Melbourne @ 5 Million envisages the possibility that Melton might be connected via development with Melbourne ‘proper’.

The lesson to draw from the Melton experience is that the natural advantage of proximity to the established metropolitan areas should never be discarded lightly. The underlying drivers of Melton’s successes and failures warrant detailed study – there are bound to be some powerful lessons for how growth should be handled.

10 Comments on “Was Melton a bad idea?”

  1. Moss says:

    Alan, any serious study of the drivers of Melton’s failures has to take into account the lack of well-designed public space, victim of the car-centred broad-acre “town planning” in the 60s and 70s.
    You might wish to use a decline in manufacturing and overseas outsourcing of back office functions as the reason for a lack of jobs in Melton, but it might also be prudent to examine what drives “critical mass” for businesses.

    I know I harped on about this in the high rise article, but I think maybe you need look more closely at some of the research on public space. The number one factor that makes people like their neighbourhood, (and I would hazard a guess, also makes them willing to set up a small business) is aesthetics. From my visits to Melton (admittedly limited), it doesn’t seem like there is much of a focus on this.
    On can only speculate on how things might have been different if Melton’s centre had been designed around a central European-type square and series of small friendly parks, closed off to cars but made for walking. This would have created a sense of place for the city, and retail, entertainment and offices would have sprung up to create the critical mass needed for further growth and job-creation. Instead, the planners elected to build what is essentially a dormitory town.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Hi Moss. That’s a very big call! I was going to publish a piece this morning on why Fed Square is a success and to what extent design was a contributor. Your comments about the importance of design were one of the reasons I prepared it. I actually have a longstanding interest in how the physical environment affects behaviour although I’ll admit to being out of touch with recent research.

      I’ve had some technical difficulties trying to publish it this morning so I’ve had to hold it over until next week

      • Moss says:

        Looking forwards to it!
        There has been some great research done recently (in the US actually) in the areas of “New Urbanism”, and there seems to be a groundswell of support for many of it’s key ideas – partly as a response to the housing crisis which seems to have pressed a bit of a “reset” button on town planning in the US. We could do well to learn from some of this in Australia.
        Excellent starting points are http://www.cnu.org/
        and http://www.pps.org/. One just has to surf these sites a bit to see why the docklands largely fails as a successful public space, and why fed square succeeds.
        I’m a layperson, by the way, no town planner at all. But I know when I feel at home in a space, and when I feel like I could crack out my notepad or just sit and soak up the atmosphere. In my opinion this is one of the things missing from recent design of public spaces in Melbourne ie there is no-one who sits down and says “would I actually like to spend time in this space after it is built?”. We should be focussing on the experience that people have in spaces, not “iconic architecture” or anything else.

  2. Bruce Dickson says:

    An interesting piece Alan. In terms of the relative proximity to the larger city playing a role, this is certainly true of a small outlying city called Forest Grove in Oregon. This city sits adjacent to the larger cities of Hillsboro and Beaverton and Portland. The larger shopping options and outlets in these nearby cities because of their close proximity take a lot of business away from the smaller Forest Grove outlets.

    And Forest Grove residents (possibly foolishly) voted to not have the light rail line from Portland extend to their location, instead seeing it stop just short. This too seems to have generated possibly adverse local economic impacts – since travelling by car out of FG is easy and yet potential visitors travel all the way to FG is not possible by the ease of rail.

    On the issue of design affecting enjoyment, was interested to hear a story concerning the current woes of Baltimore’s Philarmonic Orchestra. One previous fan finds their new minimalist designed contemporary architectural home far less conducive and enjoyable than their previous older facility.

  3. […] argued before that this sort of “decentralisation” is poor policy (e.g. here and here). But I also think The Age has tended to ‘catastrophise’ the scale of the […]

  4. Karl Sass says:

    Hi Alan, as a life long resident of Melton myself who has a strong interest in urban planning, I would like to object to the notion that Melton (or in particular satellite city planning) has failed.
    I say this for a number or reasons. As stated above, the Melton township has a local employment rate of 39%(that’s within the township, not LGA therefore usually meaning most trips to work are less then 3 kilometres). I challenge you to think of any other outer suburb in Melbourne where 40% or residents work within 3 kilometres of their house.
    It’s important to distinguish between the Melton township and LGA which consists of Caroline springs, which may be closer to the city, but is just an ocean of houses with a fifth of the employment per person, minimal shops and no train station. It’s about 60% of the Shire of Melton. This all skews Melton shires LGA data.
    This 39% may be much lower than eg. Mildura which has a similar population, but your correct that the easy access to the city is a major contributor, which leads me to my next point.
    For those who do need to travel out of Melton, as a satellite city the green wedge allows for direct 160km/h train travel to the city (only takes 30min). Compare this travel time to eg Ferntree gully which is about the same distance, but uses much slower suburban trains (because of the development between it and the CBD.) The same trip takes over an hour.
    Travelling 30 km’s from Melton is not the same as 30 km’s from Ferntree Gully.
    This is where my problem lies; no urban planner wants to even consider the benefits of Sat. city planning as they see a slightly higher average travel distance and totally discount it (without seriously looking at the travel times, instead of distance). Urban planners need to change their attitude to can we design outer suburbs where distance to the city is irrelevant?
    If your ever in the area, the original 1974 plans are in the Melton library, its interesting reading. Despite Meltons other challenges/factors such as being a safe labour seat which struggles to get even basic government investment, and that the current population falls well short of the 70-150,000 residents by the year 2000 outlined in the 74′ plans, the fundamentals of its vision are sound. Therefore, I would suggest that the “infill development” isn’t such a good idea.
    Melton has some issues with open space etc. like anywhere else designed in the 70’s. This is what makes Toolern (a large self contained extension to Melton approximately in line with the 1974 plan) so interesting. I hope I can offer a slightly different view point on the issue.
    I know I’ve raised a few ideas here, but I look forward to your response.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Karl, I haven’t been able to lay my hands on any data on the length of the journey to work that distinguishes Caroline Springs workers from those living in Melton township. But I have now looked at 2006 Census data on where workers resident in the two areas travelled to work (at SLA level).

      The proportion of workers living in the township who also work in the township is 25%. The rest travel outside the township to get to work. 35% work elsewhere in the west of Melbourne (2% in Caroline Springs), 17% in the inner city, 10% in Melbourne’s north and 3% south of the Yarra. A further 10% work outside the Melbourne Statistical Division, mainly in Bacchus Marsh, Geelong and Macedon Ranges. 90% of these journeys are made by car, 8% by public transport and 2% by walking/cycling.

      Note: excludes those who didn’t go to work on Census day; who worked at home; who went to work outside Victoria; and who didn’t say where they worked.

      • Karl says:

        Hi Alan, apologies for the late relpy.

        One of the main points I was trying to highlight, is that travel to work should be measured in time, not distance.

        While a high percentage of locals do drive to work, those who work and live locally only drive a few kilometres. The % that go by train could easily be increased by improving the train service, which is both currently at capacity and infrequent.
        The other factor re. mode of travel to work could be the “blue collar” demographic (you can catch a train to the CBD, but you usually need to drive to an industrial area).
        Also as I mentioned earlier, getting to the CBD only takes 30 minutes by train, which is much less than most comparable outer-suburban areas.
        However, if Melton is connected to Caroline Springs by “infill development” the extra stations en route will significantly increase the travel time into the city.
        If you consider all this, the satellite city model is not the failure is may initially seem.
        I’d be curious as to what the average percentage of Melbourne’s outer suburban residents who work locally (to their place of residence) and how this compares to Melton?

        • Liz says:


          I agree with your assessment of the public transport system. It desperately needs work. Have you tried to get to and from Melton by public transport at an irregular hour, say Sunday before 9am, or weeknights after 10pm? I bring this up because it simply cannot be done. As a student of Melbourne University who has to travel from Melton every day, and work at Watergardens (suburban shopping centre on the other side of the green wedge), I think the public transport system to Melton is an absolute joke.
          Work for students, especially those trying to work their way through tertiary education, is pretty much non-existent in Melton, as there just aren’t enough businesses to support this growing number of people. So then we are forced to look elsewhere for employment. Watergardens is the next available option, but getting there by public transport requires at the very least, two trains. This usually takes at least an hour. It should not take at least an hour to travel 19km. The other option is the city, but given the fact that public transport doesn’t exist at non-peak times, the likelihood of this happening shrinks dramatically.

  5. peter says:

    Melton was not and is not a bad idea its the lazy politicians we have that have caused Melton to become another place for the unemployed to hide in rather than look at our fantastic racing heritage. Come on pollies it’s not always about how much money you can suck out of the residents get off your fat arses and turn this wonderful place into something we can all be proud of not just another dumping ground for people you don’t want in the areas you live in.. remember pollies what go’s around comes around. be carful it doesn’t bite you on your fat arses one day..

    concerned resident..

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