Is Melbourne better today than it was in the sixties?

Little Collins St traffic 1960 (by FailingMemory)

I’ve previously discussed the argument advanced by the CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger.

Mr Mcleod has another interesting contention – he argues that Melbourne is unambiguously better and more liveable today than it was in 1960. Back then Melbourne had a population of around two million but now it has four million.

I have my doubts about the political wisdom of running that line but that’s neither here nor there – my primary interest is whether or not Mr Mcleod’s proposition makes sense.

I’ve no doubt the response of many people would be that housing in Melbourne is now less affordable than it was forty years ago and the roads and public transport are more congested. Some people also think it’s less safe, less equal and has a much larger per capita ecological footprint. For others, the footy lost something really important when the AFL was created.

On the other hand, many would argue that Melbourne is now more tolerant, more diverse and more exciting than it ever was. It’s now a city with a global profile, a better educated population and a vastly more sophisticated lifestyle. You can drive from the west to the south east fringe today entirely on freeway in under an hour in the off peak and you can take a train around the CBD.

Determining which Melbourne is better is probably impossible because it’s hard to compare one era with another. It’s a bit like those pub arguments about who was GOAT (Greatest of all Time) – in men’s tennis, for example, was it Laver, Sampras or Federer?

And it’s complicated by multiple “Melbournes”. Today’s city might be better, say, for well heeled professionals than it was in the 60s but worse for conservative old codgers, or vice versa. Everyone has their own Melbourne and their own demographic.

But we can agree, I think, that many of the good things about living in Melbourne today are really improvements in the broader Australian society. Our more tolerant outlook, for example, is common to other Australian cities, suggesting that it has little to do with this city per se. Our higher levels of education, our penchant for electrically powered home appliances, women’s higher workforce participation, the decline in road fatalities and our greater ethnic diversity are just some examples of attributes that are pretty much as characteristic of Sydneysiders as they are of Melburnites.

Perhaps a better comparison, given that the debate is about whether we want a bigger city or not, isn’t Melbourne in 1960, but rather a city like Brisbane that has a population in 2010 similar to Melbourne’s in the 1960s i.e. around two million.

Having lived for extended periods in both cities I can tell you there are big differences in weather and topography, but day-to-day life seems much the same in both places (this most definitely wasn’t the case when I grew up in a smaller, more provincial Brisbane). Now it seems that a population of two million is big enough to deliver plenty of cultural, social and recreational opportunities for almost everyone.

But a key difference I think is that bigger cities have more scope for specialisation and arcane interests. For example, fewer international musicians visit Brisbane, but I expect it gets 90% of them, which is more than enough for the vast bulk of residents. However that last 10% is illustrative of what a much bigger city gets you – specialisation.

A final but interesting point is that prices of established houses are pretty much the same in Melbourne and Brisbane. This suggests that there are more forces at play than just population size. It reminds us that bigger city are likely to be – but don’t necessarily have to be – significantly less affordable or significantly more congested.

You can see more superb images by FailingMemory here.


3 Comments on “Is Melbourne better today than it was in the sixties?”

  1. A great overview and set of comparative considerations Alan! A genuine level head at work – you should be a planner! Maybe help restore some genuine respect at the same time. Not a hint of postmodernism either …

    As you imply, the answer to such a question concerning perceived (and real) life improvements over time in our cities is so much easier in the case of Brisbane … easily Australia’s most improved (and at the same time under-rated) city. Particularly given where it once was in the Sixties and where it is now.

    Personally I feel Brisbane should now automatically warrant inclusion in any ‘Melbourne vs Sydney’ type argument, but doesn’t purely because its remarkable new livability still gets largely overlooked!

    Melbourne was, and still is, way in front of Sydney in terms of community-based outlook, manner and attitude. It may not have the instant glamour and visual appeal of Sydney’s harbour and beaches, but the livability has been heightened by a multitude of personal touches and styles of its own … so many surviving traditional community, sporting and social rituals; a great width and depth of vibrant cultural/arts based pleasures; and a city not quite as ‘fashion’ prone and over eager or blind concerning instant or unquestioned adoption of the new over the old.

    In terms of more personal pleasures, the food is not only better than it was – and on the way to greatness (true of the best in Sydney too), but is still strangely affordable in many instances. Even the dying art of intellectual stimulation & exchange, often in relaxed and pleasant surroundings, somehow lives on … without being stifled by an obsession with nothing but ‘bust the bank’ hedonism and totally mindless celebrations of celebrity (happens in Melbourne too but not quite as obnoxiously and knowingly as in Sydney).

    The downsides of Sydney’s ever faster, fast lane (such as the ‘stressed out’ rudeness and inconsideration evident in the CBD) as well as the city’s now increasingly transparent false sense of smugness and self satisfaction is nowhere near as evident in Melbourne. Sydney’s wider sense of friendliness has diminished too over the decades, while Melbourne’s has somehow clung on (crime stories aside).

    Finally, I woe the day Melbourne starts to believe in over-inflated propaganda about its ‘special status’ too. Particularly if it were to also lead to a cessation of serious ongoing investments in its own future city infrastructure & allied community development needs.

    Melbourne was lucky to stage an Olympics in a less ego and status driven, hyper expensive time period where it was even ‘acceptable’ to sensibly make use of existing facilities wherever possible.

    By contrast, the true cost of Sydney’s flashier but nonetheless wonderful contemporary Games has only recently started to really be exposed.

    Maybe Australia’s cities will one day realise that they don’t need to take such high cost (in every respect) measures to announce their arrival or presence on the world stage. And instead they will let their already very special and enviable existing and evolving lifestyles and many other great qualities just speak for themselves.

    The word about such clear and admirable livability standards and strengths will inevitably spread virally around the world these days. And at minimum cost by comparison! Anecdotally I have already been encountering many overseas examples of the greater awareness and heat surrounding the reputation of (once lesser known and understood) Melbourne in particular.

  2. […] in the past, especially as it relates to Sydney/Melbourne rivalry (e.g. here, here and here), so naturally I had a look at the […]


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