Where does Melbourne end (and sprawl begin)?Posted: June 12, 2011
Drive out towards Warburton and it seems easy to see where Melbourne ends and rural life begins. One minute you’re driving through houses, shops and businesses, when all of a sudden you’ve arrived in country. Except you’re actually still in Melbourne because the official boundary of the metropolitan area lies on the other (eastern) side of Warburton!
People seem to like a hard edge – a clear and unambiguous boundary – between city and country. But it only works if the non-developed land is “pure” bush or bucolic farming land, without service stations, hobby farms or other urban detritus. Head out of Melbourne in most other directions and development – almost all of it tacky and ugly – tracks you like a mangy dog.
The continuous built-up area of Melbourne (the pink bit in the middle of the map) occupies less than 2,000 km2. This is much less than is commonly assumed by the media and is just a little more than a quarter of the area covered by the official or administrative boundary, which is 7,672 km2. There are a number of “islands” of development within the boundary (also shown in pink), like the townships of Melton and Sunbury, that are officially part of the metropolitan area but separated from “mainland Melbourne” by green wedges. It makes sense to count a place like Melton township as part of Melbourne because 65% of workers living there travel across 9 km of green wedge to work in mainland Melbourne.
These islands make discussions about sprawl particularly fraught. Is it just the central core of continuous urbanised development that sprawls or should all the islands within the boundary also be included? If they are, then that not only includes towns such as Melton, Sunbury and Pakenham, but also towns like Warburton, Healesville and Gembrook that appear to the first-time visitor to be country towns. And given that island townships like Garfield and Bunyip in the outer south-east corridor are officially part of Melbourne, it’s reasonable to wonder why towns that lie just outside the boundary, like Drouin and Warragul, aren’t also seen as part of Melbourne’s sprawl.
This story from a 2003 issue of The Age shows how closely linked many country towns located outside the boundary are to Melbourne:
Census 2001 figures cited by a Monash University Centre for Population and Urban Research report for the Southern Catchments Forum show that, remarkably, more than half of the working residents of the Macedon Ranges area are employed in Melbourne. Similarly, about 40 per cent of the working residents of the Moorabool region (which includes Bacchus Marsh) and the Melbourne side of the Greater Geelong area commute to Melbourne for work. It’s clear, the report says, that these areas are “largely dormitory towns servicing the metropolis.
According to another report in The Age published in November last year, “Melbourne has sprawled 50 per cent further than its official urban growth boundary and is overrunning small country towns ……… Developers are building large suburban-style estates as close as three kilometres to the boundary, marketing to metropolitan commuters while avoiding the infrastructure levy”. The “50 per cent further” claim is a ludicrous exaggeration but the general picture isn’t. The paper quotes the secretary of the Macedon Ranges Residents Association, Christine Pruneau, who says such estates make a mockery of the urban growth boundary:
Every small town near the boundary is really being hammered ……… These are little towns getting development that looks like it belongs in Essendon and it’s changing the character of the places into suburbs of Melbourne”.
This sort of development could be interpreted favourably as “decentralisation” rather than negatively as “over-spill”. Perhaps this is why cities like London, where development has jumped beyond the greenbelt and into tightly defined satellites cities, are often assumed to be less sprawled than Melbourne despite having much larger populations. I think a lot of the widespread dislike of sprawl comes down to the absence of a hard edge. If Melbourne had reserved a real greenbelt in the 70s or 80s and prevented tacky roadside development, it’s not that fanciful to think today’s outer suburbs might be seen as satellite cities – as decentralisation rather than sprawl. But in terms of the downsides of fringe development, I’m not sure we’d be any better off. We might in fact be worse off because of all that extra travelling over the greenbelt.
I’ve previously argued that a sensible way of defining where a city “ends” is the extent of contiguous urbanisation combined with that area’s labour catchment. The latter metric reflects the fact cities exist because of agglomeration economies, especially in labour. Satellite cities that are closely tied to the continuously urbanised area by commuting should be considered part of Melbourne. Work travel isn’t the only possible measure – there could be analogous social linkages – but the significance of commuting, I would argue, is the amount of time spent physically within Melbourne. Commuting typically involves spending in the order of eight hours within Melbourne’s boundary on around 270 days per year. The really hard bit is figuring out just what proportion of workers would have to commute to urbanised Melbourne to qualify the township as part of Melbourne. It’s probably far-fetched to think that this kind of thinking would lead to the official boundary being extended to include places like Bacchus March, but it would provide a more sophisticated way of assessing where sprawl begins.