Were those the good old days?

Here’s a fascinating look back to what planners (the MMBW) were thinking about Melbourne’s future nearly 60 years ago. In some ways not much has changed – like many contemporary planning proposals, this is propaganda but in those days they didn’t bother with thin disguise. I like the ending: “will it achieve your support?”.

It seems that even as long ago as 1954, workers were spending two hours a day commuting and not only were roads congested but so were trams and trains!

The founders of the city could not visualise that one day workers who could walk to their jobs would spend more than one hour each day getting to and from their place of work, that trams would be unable to handle the peak hour crowds, that trains would become hopelessly inadequate for the handling of the enormous flow of commuters into and away from the city, and that with the coming of the motor car the original wide streets would become incapable of handling the ever increasing traffic flows”.

I’m surprised the introduction shows old buildings like Parliament House rather than new ones. After all, this was the new world of modernism and Robin Boyd’s famous attack on Austericanism – the “imitation of the froth on the top of the American soda-fountain drink” – was a mere three years away.

I’m also somewhat surprised that even as late as 1954 the CBD was seen as sucking the life out of inner city retail strips – presumably places like Smith Street – and the inner suburbs were in turn being invaded by industry:

As the city centre has grown in importance, many old shopping centres have declined and the living conditions in many of the surrounding suburbs have deteriorated. Industry had expanded into them and people have moved farther out to live. This has often resulted in an undesirable mixture of shops, houses and factories and the growth of slum conditions

My understanding from the work of people like M. Logan was that industry had already started marching out to the suburbs in the 1950s, at least in Sydney. Some other interesting insights from the video: “60% of factory jobs are located within 3 miles of the GPO”; “Two thirds of hospital beds are within 3 miles of the GPO”; and “More people play tennis than any other field sport”. No wonder Australians dominated world tennis in that era! And suburban sprawl was defined at the time as lack of essential services like sewerage and sealed roads. One thing that really has changed for the better – film makers don’t tend to put cacophonous music on their soundtracks anymore.

Update: I wondered if this was one of the first uses of the term “suburban sprawl”. This paper says that the term was first used at a conference in 1937 by Earle Draper of the Tennessee Valley Authority, but was first published by William Whyte in a Fortune magazine article in 1958. If so, that would make this film an even earlier published use of the term!


6 Comments on “Were those the good old days?”

  1. Mahyar says:

    White Australia Policy in full effect!

  2. John says:

    Interesting historical/etymological fact. The Edwin Borrie seen poring over maps is actually familiar to many Victorians, though they may not know it.

    Alan: did you grow up in Victoria? Are you familiar with the regional slang word “borrie”?

    • Alan Davies says:

      No, I’ve lived here three times (the current stint since 2000) but I grew up in Brisbane. Is that the same Borrie of population projections fame? Never heard the term,what does it mean?

      • John says:

        I believe it is the same Borrie of populations projections fame. It is also the same Borrie of Lake Borrie fame. Lake Borrie is a lake of processed sewage next to the Werribee treatment plant.

        “Borrie” is regional Victoria slang for “shit”. I learnt it growing up in Kilmore, friends learnt it independently growing up in Geelong and Ballarat, but I’ve only met one person who grew up in the city that knew it (I quiz a lot of people about it).

        A friend who works for Melbourne Water posited the theory that the word came from Lake Borrie. Given the geographical distribution of the knowledge of the word, I’m inclined to think that’s the most plausible explanation.

  3. Alexander says:

    I thought the music was great, especially the woah-dangerous music just after talking about traffic congestion and its resulting delays and dangers. If I had propaganda to spew I would remake that video for modern times (parallelling the words and using modern shots, but keeping the same music) and post in Youtube—but you will all be spared that.

  4. heritagepoliceman says:

    Alan, if you are surprised by some of the comments in the video, that may be because my understanding is that 1954 was a VERY particular time, not to be confused with ‘the 50s’ in general; war-time restrictions and shortages were only just being lifted, so the city was more or less as it was in 1940, but with loads more people (the first new city buildings since 1940 were only just being built in 1954), and the first suburban factories were in planning or under construction. Cars were still an expense not everyone could afford, and the majority of the population still lived in what we now call the inner and middle ring suburbs, so trams and trains were still the main form of transportation – look at all those ladies in matching coats crowding themselves and their shopping onto the West Coburg tram ! – public transport use (% wise? total numbers ?) was I believe at its peak.

    Car-based suburbia was just getting going, in places like Beaumaris, Box Hill North, Pascoe Vale north, filling in the spaces between rail and tram lines, or just beyond. It would soon expand exponentially, as did office construction in the CBD, housing commission estates and suburban factories and car ownership.

    The industry in the inner areas had been there since the late 19th century (workers living next to the factories), and been added to fairly randomly in the interwar years, workshops large and small, often in the middle of a street of houses, or patches of houses surrounded by factories (the Macrobertson McPherson chocolate factories in Fitzroy being a great example) now mostly of course warehouse apartments. The ” undesirable mixture of shops, houses and factories and the growth of slum conditions” is something that reformers had been complaining about since the late 1930s, so really they are repeating old mantras.

    I am a bit surprised they blame the decline of old shopping strips on the growth of the central city, which may have had something to do with the smaller department stores of Smith and Chapel Street not being able to compete with Myer and city stores, or the market just not being able to support so many in a period of austerity. Certainly I know that the shops of Brunswick Street, once an important everyday shopping strip, were by the 1950s almost entirely occupied by garment industry uses (pleating, buttons, ironing) entirely run by Greeks or Italians, who were living in the ‘slums’ and doing them up.

    I love that video – it shows a Melbourne that had barely changed physically since 1940, just at the moment huge change was about to occur – a real historical document !


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