Melbourne is a profoundly paradoxical city. It has a strikingly diverse multicultural population of around four million people, but is founded on an Anglo-European heritage that, until the late 1960s, fiercely attacked multiculturalism as anathema to its cultural-political harmony. It is a densely urbanized and vibrant city of high-rise buildings, restaurants, parks, and blue-stone footpaths. But its metropolitan footprint radiates outwards into a region of ever-stretching car-dependent suburbs, mixed-use peri-urban zones, and a hinterland of temperate dry-land farming where most of the trees have been cut down. It is a trading city with a global port, though its manufacturing base for export has steadily declined since the 1970s. It is the administrative and service centre for the south-east corner of Australia, and yet 90 per cent of traded imports stay in the metropolitan area. It is a global city with a well-educated population who have a growing and sophisticated public consciousness about climate change, recycling and water-consumption issues. However, Melbourne is becoming less sustainable, even as it maintains good liveability in certain dimensions of social life.
In summary, in the metropolis of Melbourne issues of liveability and sustainability cut across each other in complex ways. For example, for all the public sensitivity to ecological sustainability issues in the city, resource-use and carbon emissions continue to grow, including land and energy consumption on a per capita basis. As mentioned earlier, one of the few clear successes in this area has been a widely supported political campaign to place legal restrictions on water-use.
The Melbourne 2030 plan of 2002 designated twelve ‘Green Wedges’ for protection from inappropriate development. However, this was much less impressive than it sounded. The Green Wedges of the 1970s had set aside green spaces that cut into the expansion of the greater urban boundary; now they merely designate non-urban areas beyond the existing built-up metropolitan zone. Seven years on, this became both rhetorically more elaborate and substantively even less impressive. In 2009, rethinking Melbourne 2030, the Brumby Labor government announced in a new document, Melbourne@5Million, that it would establish a 15,000 hectare grassland reservation to protect some of the world’s largest concentrations of volcanic plains grasslands, as well as a range of other habitat types including wetlands, riparian habitats and open grassy woodlands. While this sounded good on the face of it, the announcement was made in the context of a decision to significantly extend the urban-growth boundary previously reset in the first Melbourne 2030 plan. The urban expansion of Melbourne would now encompass the open areas that had earlier been designated part of the rural hinterland. It is estimated that less than one-third of native vegetation remains within the current boundaries of the metropolis, with approximately one-third of the balance situated on private property. There are over eighty introduced plant-species that cause significant damage to waterways.
In response to these ecological challenges the State of Victoria has developed and implemented a range of programs to help Victorian communities, yet the substantive effects of these programs continue to be unproven. Even more problematic is the fact that there are larger structural issues linked to the strength of the economy that cut across whatever these programs do achieve. The electricity utilities in Melbourne, which were privatized in the mid-1990s, are reliant for energy generation upon critically unsustainable brown coal-fired power plants in the nearby La Trobe Valley. These plants primarily serve Melbourne, and form major contributions to Australia’s status as one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters in the world.
The controversial Port Phillip Bay Channel Deepening Project, recently completed to enable entry of larger shipping vessels to Australia’s largest working port, has further challenged the environmental sustainability of the city. As have two other major and equally-controversial water-infrastructure projects: the Wonthaggi desalination plant and the Sugarloaf Pipeline, a seventy-kilometre pipeline linking the Goulburn River near Yea to the Sugarloaf Reservoir in Melbourne’s north-east at a cost of $750 million. As with other Australian cities and towns, a key environmental constraint upon the development of the city is the availability of fresh water. The experience of a long-term drought affecting south-eastern Australia over the last decade had prompted stringent water restrictions upon commercial and residential water-use, but this was not seen as sufficient for dealing with the long term problem. The pipeline will transfer water from the Goulburn River to Melbourne Water’s Sugarloaf Reservoir, thereby reducing natural flows to watercourses, while the desalination plant is intended to supply potable water to the city. These initiatives will generate an exorbitant cost in terms of the greenhouse emissions generated by the plant’s demands upon the electricity grid.
Major development projects with degrading environmental consequences, from the desalination plant to a new tollway tunnel for cars, paradoxically, are defended by the government in terms of environmental and, of course, economic sustainability. At the same time as allowing these projects to go ahead with a minimal if heated critical response, Melbournians have become increasingly concerned to nurture life-style amenities, urban aesthetics, place-making activities, tourist-oriented events, and cafés. While such aspects of liveability are important, this complex mix of civic concern and complacency is symbolized by the way in which the city’s politicians and media respond to being consistently listed as one of the world’s most liveable cities.
The city thrives on its reputation and, indeed, reality of being extraordinarily liveable and prosperous. Meanwhile, the ‘liveability’ standing of the city is being slowly but noticeably eroded. The social wealth of the city is being increasingly privatized or ‘developed’ through public-private partnerships that are wrapped in commercial-in-confidence contracts, while the unevenness of income distribution and access to amenities is overlooked and allowed to increase.